Is No BlackBerry: Building Brands Using Sound
By Sharon Begley
Wall Street Journal
August 26, 2002
As soon as the naming gurus at Lexicon Branding Inc. saw the hand-held wireless prototype that Research In Motion Ltd. had produced, they were struck by the little keyboard buttons, which resembled nothing so much as seeds.
"Strawberry!" suggested one.
No, "straw-" is a slowwwww syllable, said Stanford University linguist Will Leben, who also is director of linguistics at Lexicon, based in Palo Alto, Calif. That's just the opposite of the zippy connotation Research In Motion wanted. But "-berry" was good: Lexicon's research had shown that people associate the b sound with reliability, said David Placek, who founded the Palo Alto, Calif., firm and is its president, while the short e evokes speed. Another syllable with a b and a short vowel would nail it ... and within seconds the Lexicon team had its fruit: BlackBerry.
What's in a name?
Naming consultants have traditionally focused on semantic associations -- that is, names whose parts evoke some desirable association. That approach gave us everything from Qualcomm ("quality" and "communications") and Verizon ("horizon," as in forward-looking) to Intel ("intelligent" and "electronics") and PeopleSoft.
But as winning hybrids of real words become scarcer than a telecom firm with a rising stock price, some naming consultants are advising brand managers to tap different synapses in their customers' brains: those linking the raw sounds of vowels and consonants -- known as phonemes -- to specific meanings and even emotions.
"Most phonemes have a distinct emotional character," says psycholinguist Cynthia Whissell of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Or as Dr. Leben puts it, "sounds have meaning. There is a relationship between speech sounds and emotions."
In the past, companies used sound symbolism inadvertently. Years before sound symbolism became a science, for instance, Chevrolet came up with Corvette and Camaro, whose hard k consonants evoke "daring" and "active."
"They came up with a name for other reasons," says Dr. Leben, "and found that it tested well on the attributes they wanted customers to associate with the product."
The new findings on sound symbolism allow companies to incorporate that from the start of a name search. "We might lead off a name search with what we're trying to achieve with the name," says Chris James, naming director of Cintara. "If we're going for elegance, we might look for a name with a double s, whereas a hard k gives you greater recall." That's especially true for coined names, says Julie Cottineau, managing director for naming at Interbrand, the brand consultants whose creations include Expedia and Prozac. "There, you have to pay particular attention to how the letter combinations sound," she says.
What naming consultants are finding is that sound has power. Semantically, for instance, the name "BlackBerry" suggests accessibility; "berry" also connotes smallness compared with other hand-helds. But phonologically, according to Lexicon's research, respondents rate the b sound as most strongly suggesting relaxation. In other words, the two b's say that using this hand-held won't require a 200-page manual. The short vowels in the first two syllables lend crispness: pushing a few buttons will quickly accomplish your goal. The alliteration conveys light-heartedness, much as Kit Kat does. The final y, says Dr. Whissell, who has no connection to any naming company, "is very pleasant and friendly, which is why you often find it in nicknames."
In studies on sound symbolism, respondents consistently and across several languages associate the same sounds with such emotion-laden qualities as sad and insecure, alive and daring.
Lexicon's analysis suggests, for instance, that the Eli Lilly & Co./Icos Corp. erectile-dysfunction drug called Cialis should offer strong competition to Pfizer's Viagra, whereas Uprima, from Abbott Laboratories' TAP Pharmaceuticals, might flag.
The name "Viagra" rhymes with Niagara, the most famous waterfall in this hemisphere, notes an in-house analysis by Lexicon (which wasn't involved in the name). Water is psychologically linked to both sexuality and life. And Niagara Falls, home of thousands of heart-shaped beds, connotes honeymoons. The initial vi- is a homonym of vie, meaning to fight or compete, and echoes the beginning of "vitality" and "vigor," while "-agra" evokes "aggression." On the basis of semantics alone "Viagra" is a winner.
But the sound symbolism of the name also works. V, says Dr. Leben, "is one of the fastest, biggest and most energetic sounds in language. It sets the tone for the drug to be fast, energetic and, in context, big." Enough said.
Enter Lilly-ICOS's Cialis, which Lexicon also didn't name. The initial and final sibilant sounds flow gently. With only a smooth l in the middle, there are no stop consonants like k or p, with the result that the name is pronounced with a relaxed, open vocal tract.
"Cialis says it is about relationships and sensuality," says Dr. Leben. If "Viagra" says male sexual performance, "Cialis could be expressing a couple's desire to engage romantically and sexually. As a competitive marketing tool, it provides brand contrast."
To test the meaning and emotional connotations of sounds, researchers typically present volunteers with pairs of nonsense names that differ in only a single phoneme, such as "Paressa" and "Taressa", and ask which sounds faster, or more daring, or nicer, depending on the product in need of a name.
Sounds that come to a full stop (p, b, t, d) connote slowness, Lexicon found; f, v, s and z are fast, and z is fastest. That is ideal for Prozac and Amazon, connoting speed of recovery in the first case and speed of gratification (or shipping?) in the second. Voiced sounds in which the vocal cords vibrate -- such as d, g, v and z -- sound both larger and more luxurious than voiceless sounds made with just an explosion of air, such as t, k, f and s, the researchers claim.
Sounds connote not only meanings but also emotions, finds Laurentian's Dr. Whissell. The sounds of l, s and v are associated with pleasant feelings; r, p, t, d and k with unpleasant ones. From studying people whose native tongue is Hungarian, French, Greek, German or English, she concludes that "there are human universals in associating emotion with sounds." As a result, brand managers peddling their wares globally, or even in multilingual communities in the U.S., can make sure their product sounds like what it is in any language.
That universality seems to stem from anatomy. To make the sound of a final y or a long e, for instance, both the lips and the back of the throat are nearly closed. Contrast that to ahhh, made with an open mouth and throat. As a result, finds linguist John Ohala of the University of California, Berkeley, the former connote diminutiveness and the latter bigness -- in any language.
Is No BlackBerry: Building Brands Using Sound
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
In names with no literal meaning, 'sound symbolism' -- the images, qualities and emotions people unconsciously associate with the sounds of vowels and consonants -- becomes important.
Below, Will Leben, director of linguistics at Lexicon Branding, analyzes some examples not devised by his company:
Tyco: People rate the consonants t and k
as among the most 'active' and 'daring.' They are light, crisp, quick. Combined
with the full, long vowels, the name sounds bold. The simple syllable structure
helps the name sound unassuming but businesslike.
* Enron: Because each of the two syllables ends in a consonant, the name is less spare, less bare, than Tyco. The repetition of the final n in each syllable produces a kind of whirring sound, suggesting smooth, spinning motion, enhanced by the absence of such stop consonants as k.
* Prozac: Pro is a rather pedestrian beginning, but the sounds p, z, and k all score highly for the qualities active/daring. These crackling, buzzing sounds may subliminally suggest activity to back up the sequence ac, which suggests the word action.
* Zoloft: Zo means life in Greek and loft elevates the concept. It is unusual and eye-catching for a name to begin with z or to end with ft. The most prominent sound is z, which people rate highest on a scale of active/daring; the sound is also rated as very fast and comfortable.
Copyright 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Begley, Sharon. "StrawBerry Is No BlackBerry: Building Brands Using Sound." Wall Street Journal,August 26, 2002. http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB1030310730179474675.djm,00.html