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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2002

Marketers, consultants make choices letter by letter

WALL STREET JOURNAL

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, of 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, and the short e evokes speed, said David Placek, who founded Lexicon and is its president. Another syllable with a b and a short vowel would nail it ... and within seconds the Lexicon team had its fruit: BlackBerry.

Naming consultants have traditionally focused on names whose parts evoke some desirable association. That approach produced Qualcomm (``quality” and “communications”), Verizon (``horizon,” as in forward-looking), Intel (``intelligent” and “electronics”), and PeopleSoft.

But as winning hybrids of real words become scarce, some consultants are advising brand managers to tap the link of the raw sounds of vowels and consonants - known as phonemes - to specific meanings and even emotions.

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. Chevrolet came up with Corvette and Camaro, whose hard k consonants evoke “daring” and “active.”

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,” said 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, said 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 said.

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.

Lexicon found that sounds that come to a full stop (p, b, t, d) connote slowness; 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 say.

Sounds connote not only meanings but also emotions, said Cynthia Whissell, a psycholinguist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. 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 concluded 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 United States, can make sure their product sounds in any language like what it is.

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, said linguist John Ohala of the University of California, Berkeley, the former connote diminutiveness and the latter bigness - in any language.



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