The slinky, seductive sound of brand names
The name Mazda zips off the tongue, especially if you add that zoom zoom bit. Rolex rolls. Ferrero Rocher melts. Nokia clicks. And L'Oreal somehow makes you feel that you're worth it.
Let's face it: some names just work. And companies are knocking themselves out to get just the right one because big names that people connect with can translate into big bucks.
One company in particular is leading the charge, and it has a secret weapon: Linguistics.
Will Leben is the director of linguistics for Lexicon, a firm that's created billion-dollar brand names such as BlackBerry, Dasani, Pentium and Swiffer.
Leben knows of what he speaks. He studied under the famed Noam Chomsky and taught linguistics at Stanford University for 35 years.
His view is that how a name sounds can determine its success in the marketplace.
"There were signs from past research that certain sounds convey certain meanings," Leben says.
In the linguistic world, that’s called sound symbolism. And to discover which sounds convey which meanings, Lexicon has done two big studies.
The company's Sounder I study in 1995 tested objective qualities such as how fast or luxurious a word sounds.
What it found was that consonants made with the tip of the tongue, like t, tend to make names sound faster. Think of Toyota, Total, Toshiba.
Sounds like p and b, made with more massive articulators — the lips and back of the tongue — are deemed more luxurious.
No surprise then the names Burberry and Porsche practically slink out of your mouth.
That's because "voicing is the vibration of the vocal chords while the sound is being made," Leben explains. "Voicing weighs down a sound. If a sound is voiced, it's more likely to sound heavy. If it sounds heavy, it's more likely to sound luxurious."
He says that when Lexicon named Dasani, they started with "san" for sanitation. Then they added a D, which sounds relaxed because it's voiced. Tasani wouldn't have been the same.
Some sad words
In their follow-up Sounder II study in 2001, Lexicon linguists tested emotional qualities to try to determine whether words sounded alive, daring, sad or insecure.
One of the questions was: Which sounds more alive, Sekka or Zekka? (Which do you think?) Zekka was the winner.
They found that sounds like k, b and z were deemed more alive and daring. And the noisier the better! And that r, l and n sounds were smoother and mellower, even sadder.
So now it makes sense why Mazda zooms, Rolex rolls and L'Oreal makes you want to curl up on a white sofa and eat bonbons all afternoon.
Repetitive sounding names can also pack a punch. A University of Alberta-led study last year found that names such as Kit Kat, Coca-Cola and Lululemon have a positive effect on consumers.
Names that use haplology can work too. That's when a word is contracted by omitting one or more similar sounds or syllables, as in Toys "R" Us or Crunch 'n Munch.
An added punch can be had from names that rhyme, contain alliteration or onomatopoeia.
All this to say that a bit of linguistics knowledge can make for a successful name.
It can also explain why companies bother to switch from one name to another. The folks at Google clearly made the right choice ditching their original name, BackRub (yikes!).
But of course some companies get it wrong, like when Blackwater converted to Xe (did anyone think about the pronunciation factor?); or when Andersen Consulting became Accenture ("accent on future" which just sounds like a fake word created by a bunch of managers); or when Comcast became Xfinity, criticized for sounding like a porn company.
Actors, singers and sports stars have long known the importance of creating a zippy name, but it's more hip than ever now to create your "brand."
For example, the bubbly-sounding Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), the rebellious K-Os (Kheaven Brereton), down-home Shania Twain (Eilleen Regina Edwards), upscale Portia DeRossi (Mandy Rogers) and feisty Tiger (Eldrick) Woods. Hmm, maybe nix the last one.
I've dabbled with a name change myself. My running friends used to call me the rather jaunty-sounding C.Ro because I share J.Lo's birthday. But it never really caught on.
Needless to say, many people feel a brand name itself is much less important than the marketing that surrounds it. Microsoft and IBM have done pretty well despite their blandness.
But tell that to the folks at Lexicon. They have a 77-member geo-linguistics team spread around the world that covers 53 languages. They've been busy researching how English names are perceived in foreign markets.
Now they’re onto the next frontier: researching how foreign brand names are perceived in an English market.
When you hear Chanel, you think French, seductive and ooh-la-la. It adds to the cache of the brand.
But what about the Chinese car Sunny? A pleasant name to be sure. But would you buy a car that sounds more like a weather report than a lean, mean machine?
And how do people feel about the Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee and the Korean Hankook tires, which are making inroads in the West.
In our globalized world, it's more important than ever to have a name that not only connects with people, but translates across borders.
Linguistics may be the not-so-secret weapon that can give you that edge.
You can see Colleen's other columns at: www.colleenross.org