By Hannah Baker
Energy, appeal, power: These words are listed under Merriam-Webster’s definition of “oomph.” They all sound great, but how can a brand create these oomph-like qualities? While there are many ways to add appeal, the key answer may lie in the word itself.
What's in a word?
Imagine your job is to name the two products, shown below, given the made up words “mal” and “mil” to use. Which name would you assign to which table?
If you’re anything like the participants in linguist Edward Sapir’s study back in 1929, you’ll name the left table “mal” and the right one “mil." This is because “mal” contains what linguists call a low vowel; the sound is created with the tongue relatively low in the mouth. Studies have linked this particular sound with power, greater size and more intense qualities. The “oo” sound in “oomph” is also a low vowel, so it’s no coincidence that oomph’s definition matches closely to its sound significance. Researchers have coined this phenomenon, where sounds themselves are tied to specific meanings, as sound symbolism and have shed light on how it may serve as an advantage to your brand.
How does it work?
Vowels run along a spectrum with the categories high, low, front and back to describe the tongue’s position in the mouth when making them. The categories aren’t exact, but studies have been done on mainly two types of vowels that lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. "Oo” is a low, back vowel, and “ee” is a high, front vowel as pronounced in the word “beep” (which is similar to the “i” in “mil”). Just as “oo” signifies intense qualities, “ee” signifies the opposite. High, front vowels indicate small size, less power and qualities such as quickness, mildness, weakness and prettiness. They’re also associated with smaller, more angular shapes and lighter colors.
How do we know?
Science backs it up! A study found that that between the hypothetical ice cream brand names Frish and Frosh, participants preferred Frosh (with a low, back vowel) because it signified ice cream’s heavier qualities, such as rich and creamy.
This doesn’t mean that the “oo” type vowels are always favorable, though. In another study, participants voted on a two brand names for either a convertible or SUV. The majority preferred words with high, front vowels for the convertible, but ones with low, back vowels for the SUV, reasoning each time that the word highlighted the respective product’s positive qualities.
Is it really that simple?
Of course not! There are a whole range of vowels that fall in between low, high, front, that have different effects. Also, while the studies discussed here are all valid, they focus solely on vowels of one-syllable, made up words, otherwise known as “empty vessels” for their seemingly lack of meaning. Multisyllabic words that contain various consonants interact differently, while descriptive words promote a whole other set of associations. For example, a product named after an animal would convey qualities of that animal much more strongly than any association tied to the sound of its vowel (or consonant).
However, this complexity only highlights the importance of sound symbolism and brand naming, so add it to the list of questions to consider in strategic planning.
What does this mean for brands?
A brand's name is just as crucial as the quality of its products. Not only are associations tied to the sound of the word, but such associations are automatic and almost undetectable to consumers. Those who capitalize on sound symbolism to highlight positive and memorable qualities about their product may have enhanced perception among customers. The best part is that the phenomenon has been shown to be universal, helping to solve international branding dilemmas for a growing number of global companies. Understanding and incorporating sound symbolism into company, product, and campaign names will give your brand the oomph it needs.
Can you think of any brand that may be using sound symbolism? Share this post on their pages using the social media icons below or to the left.