Until you sit down to try it for yourself, it’s hard to understand just how complicated naming your business can be. Not only should it convey your brand identity and business services in one succinct bite, it should also be unique, catchy and memorable. Finding a good name can take a lot of time and money, so it’s important to get to grips with the power of sound symbolism before making a big investment.
Sound symbolism, or phonosemantics, is the idea that vocal sounds or ‘phonemes’ carry meaning in and of themselves. How a word sounds informs our impression of the thing it is attributed to. You might be familiar with this concept through onomatopoeia and clustering, which we will explore further in the next section.
Branding works in the same way, and the articulatory qualities of your business name can encourage ideas or associations in the mind of consumers.
What is sound symbolism?
Margaret Magnus is the author of a comprehensive book on phonosemantics, Gods in the Word. In the book, Magnus discusses different types of sound symbolism. Onomatopoeia is a type of sound symbolism which directly mimics to the sound the word refers to, such as ‘crash’, ‘bang’ and ‘wallop’. However, not all sound symbolism is onomatopoeic.
Clustering describes groups of words with similar sounds and meaning such as ‘glow’, ‘glimmer’, and ‘glisten’. Iconism, on the other hand, is used to describe words that have an inherent meaning due to their acoustic qualities. An example of this might be the ‘mp’ sound denoting force—’stamp’, ‘trample’, ‘stomp’—and an ‘r’ sound setting a word in motion ‘rolling’ ‘writhing’, ‘driving’.
Sound symbolism is often used by authors to convey the personality of characters to the reader at the first meeting. Dr Seuss is well known for his mastery of such phonetic techniques; The Grinch is grumpy and mean, with a name so similar to words like ‘grouch’, ’grump’ and ‘grunt’ this is just what the reader expects.
But sound symbolism isn’t confined to children’s literature, it can impact branding and marketing too. From business names to advertorial campaigns, sound symbolism can be remarkably important.
Sound symbolism in branding
Sometimes, inspiration for a business name is as close as the founder’s own name. Other times a catchy acronym will suffice. Unless you’re blessed with a particularly inspiring family name, however, these options mean compromising on marketing techniques like sound symbolism and clever word play.
Branding experts are able to invent words which convey meaning about a business services or industry to create memorable, unique business names. Novanym are one such branding company that go about this creative process in a similar way to authors such as Dr Seuss. Without being literal or descriptive, they create catchy business names that share phonetic links with key industry terms. This means that the business name sounds right, it matches the expectation of the customer seeking the relevant product or service.
For example, if your business had a name like ‘Architeve’ or ‘Urbanewel’ it wouldn’t be hard to guess that your company is involved in building design and urban construction. Novanym state that the business name ‘Destiniva’ is immediately suggestive of travelling, but the subtle associations to this theme mean that it could be applicable to business trips and luxury holiday companies alike.
This is particularly prominent practice in the food industry, linguist Dan Jurafsky used the example of crackers. Crackers, which are products meant to be crisp and crunchy, tend to have names that convey those qualities. For example, Cheez-Its, Ritz, and Krispy.
Of course, it is not always an exact science. According to linguist Steven Pinker, one particularly bad example of a brand using sound symbolism was the rebranding of tobacco company Philip Morris to Altria. The company felt that by calling themselves ‘Altria’, which derives from the Latin word for high ‘altus’, they would help change public perception of a business who had numerous publicity scandals, to one marked by altruism. According to Time Magazine, the change didn’t work as “instead of making customers forget about Philip Morris, Altria’s new name just reminded them that the company wanted to avoid being blamed for the adverse health effects caused by its tobacco products.”
The advice from Steve Cecil, a verbal branding professional, is to come up “a great number of bad names.” According to Cecil, “You have to work through the first couple (hundred) obvious ideas before you get to the brilliant-but-not-obvious connections that are truly memorable and marketable.”