Developing a brand name is a mix of creative and analytical efforts: the brand name needs to deliver on three critical components (i.e., promise, personality, and performance).
The three most common archetypes on which creative agencies develop brand names are semantics, phonetics, and sound symbolism.
However, all influential brand names combine all three, with sound symbolism the most challenging among these tools.
What is sound symbolism?
According to Nature:
Sound symbolism refers to the non-arbitrary mappings between phonetic properties of speech sounds and their meaning, even though the acoustic features and psychological mechanisms that give rise to sound symbolism are not, as yet, altogether clear.
To understand the symbolism, we need to introduce sound first!
In the study of the human voice, consonants belong to either one of two groups: voiced and voiceless. Voiced consonants require vocal cords to produce the respective sounds, whereas voiceless ones do not. On the other end, both vowels and diphthongs are always voiced, but vowels are clustered as front/bright or back/dark, depending on whether the highest point of the tongue is placed in the front or the back of the tongue.
Sound symbolism: sound and meanings
Relationships between sound and meaning are not arbitrary and can be understood universally across different languages. Patterns of vowels across languages allow adults to categorize words in unknown foreign languages. Children as young as three can match rounded shapes with words with back vowels and jagged shapes with front vowels.
From a branding point of view, the pivotal elements to consider are the following:
1) Voiced sounds in brand names induce and intensify the semantic impressions of potency and activity, dynamism association. So Valium creates a better expectation of solid performance than Talium.
2) Voiced sounds are associated with negative concepts such as dirtiness and ugliness and are perceived as less pleasing. Google is a solution in search of a problem.
3) Voiceless consonants are associated with slowness and heaviness. Philips is an innovative company, but its brand name does not promise rapid responses.
4) Front vowels (e.g., the sound of [i], [e]) are perceived as more miniature, lightweight, brighter, more feminine, and less light-colored. Instagram is an excellent example of that.
5) Back vowels (e.g., the sound of [o], [u]) are perceived as more significant, graver, darker, paler, and more masculine. Uber, Olympus, and Oracle fall in this segment.
How to leverage sound symbolism
Most agencies prioritize semantics and use phonetics and sound symbolism to prevent conflicts, just as a secondary filter.
For example, both Olympus and Oracle brand names have dominant semantical components, with phonetics and sound meaning playing secondary roles. The first is home to the twelve gods of Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. The second is an apparent reference to the priest or priestess in roman and greek mythology, which used to counsel kings and make prophetic predictions.
Both Olympus and Oracle have no cacophonic effect because the sounds of the brand names are not harsh, unpleasant, or chaotic. Moreover, because of their ancient roots, both words travel well and maintain a meaning across different cultures and languages.
Likewise, both Olympus and Oracle, from a sound symbolism standpoint, fit the male-dominated business-sector those companies belong to.
However, sound symbolism can become pivotal in the case of creating brand names from scratch, especially when dealing with new words. This is very common in the tech space and more common in the pharmaceutical sector. At the crossroads of the two industries, it is the emerging wearable sector, and among the many new brands launched, one name stands out for us: Quell. It is a wearable device that treats chronic pain through nerve stimulation. Quell in English means putting an end, suppressing a feeling. So the brand name creates a clear performance expectation. It is also a phonetically enticing name primarily because of the double-l at the end, but it is also potent and fast from a sound symbolism point of view. The short word makes it also easy to recall.
Among the most notable examples is the rebranding of Philip Morris to Altria. The holding chose the name as an inspiration to the Latin word Altus, which means high, representing the high peak performance. However, the transformation of Altus to Altria makes the brand name slightly harsher, more difficult, almost not for everybody, and indeed more dynamic and potent.
When Facebook rebranded its corporate brand to Meta, they wanted an apparent reference, almost too clear, to the Metaverse, which is one of their strategic pillars moving forward. But they also picked a brand name that travels well across borders and is rounder more inclusive (we still do not like their choice!).
Sounds symbolism is a critical weapon of brand naming, with brand names playing a crucial role in setting the cues for brand attributes. Sound symbolism does not function as a stand-alone tool in the naming process but works best with semantics and phonetics.