If Apple were named “Plum”

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” —William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


Iconic though that line may be, Juliet Capulet would be a terrible branding consultant.

Names are incredibly powerful when it comes to consumer attitudes and decision making. While a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, ask yourself this: How successful would Steve Jobs’ computer company have been had he named it “Plum” instead of “Apple?”

“Plum” sounds like a worse name for a computer, right? It sounds slower, bigger, and heavier—all the things you don’t want associated with your product if you’re in the technology market.

That’s because certain sounds tend to conjure certain images, regardless of the language or your culture.

  • Vowels produced in the front of the mouth (like those in “fit” or “feet”) are associated with smallness, lightness, quickness, sharpness, and effectiveness[1].
  • Vowel sounds coming from the back of the mouth (like those in “tuck” and “tool”) show the opposite pattern, having associations with heaviness, roundness, sluggishness, fullness, strength, and warmth[1].
  • Consonants matter, too—“k,” “p,” “s,” “f,” and “t” sounds are associated with things that are more angular, stronger, and faster, while “b,” “d,” and “g” sounds are lower-pitched and associated with heavier, rounder, slower things[2].

When it comes to branding and product naming, these associations are critical—pressed for time, and in a crowded market, consumers’ preferences are heavily influenced by names, packaging, and appearances[3].

This is why many pharmaceutical brands contain lots of hard “p,” “s,” and “k” sounds, uncommon “z” and “v”sounds, and front-mouth vowels[2]. Names like “Vyvanse,” “Paxil,” “Excedrin,” and “Afrin” have a high concentration of these sounds, implying efficacy and quickness of action[4].

You see something similar in the names of automobiles5,6. Sports car companies looking to evoke speed, sleekness, and effectiveness come up with names like “Viper,” “Miata,” “Spyder” “Cayman,” and “Genesis.” Pickup truck makers, on the other hand, wish to convey size, strength, durability, and masculinity, which has led to names like the “Toyota Tundra,” “Ford Super Duty,” and “Chevrolet Colorado.”

Are these phonetic tricks effective?

In an experiment, people were asked to imagine buying a car from one of several different fictional brands[7]. Among those asked to imagine buying a large car, more preferred brands with rear-mouth vowels and “softer” consonants. Those asked to imagine buying a small car were instead drawn to brands with front-mouth vowels and “harder” consonants.


So, yes, choosing the right sounds for your brand can make the difference between getting a sale or not. But why stop there? By subtly embedding words, or chunks of words, into a name, you can evoke more complex associations in the consumer’s mind.

In one study[8], a fictional laptop called “Vexlight” was more favorably perceived than one called “Vextrill.” Though both brands contained similar sounds, the one with “light” evoked lightness and portability—desirable characteristics for a laptop.

Similarly, the fictional pain reliever “Zinfast” was preferred to one named “Zindin,” and the fictional shampoo “Silsoft” was better liked than “Silbee.”

This effect can be seen in real product names as well—for better and for worse.

Consider the ride-sharing company Lyft, which has a near-perfect name. The “t” and “y” sounds give the impression of quickness, and the entire name is pronounced “lift”—a slang term for a ride in a car.

On the other end of the spectrum is Custom Service Chemicals, which decided in 1964 to change its name to a portmanteau of “analytical” and “technology.” The new name, Analtech, was received unfavorably by consumers due to a number of relatively obvious undesirable associations[9].

So, to Juliet’s original question: what’s in a name? Well, if you’re trying to sell a product or market your brand, a whole lot more than most people imagine.

References

1. Spence, C. (2012). Managing sensory expectations concerning products and brands: Capitalizing on the potential of sound and shape symbolism. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 37-54.

2. Abel, G.A., & Glinert, L.H. (2008). Chemotherapy as language: Sound symbolism in cancer medication names. Social Science & Medicine, 66, 1863-1869.

3. Hillenbrand, P., Alcauter, S., Cervantes, J., & Barrios, F. (2013). Better branding: brand names can influence consumer choice. Journal of Product & Brand Management, 22, 300-308.

4. Klink, R.R. (2000). Creating brand names with meaning: The use of sound symbolism. Marketing Letters, 11, 5-20.

5. Lowrey, T.M., & Shrum, L.J. (2007). Phonetic symbolism and brand name preference. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 406-414.

6. Kuehnl, C., & Mantau, A. (2013). Same sound, same preference? Investigating sound symbolism effects in international brand names. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 30, 417-420.

7. Klink, R.R., & Wu, L. (2014). The role of position, type, and combination of sound symbolism imbeds in brand names. Marketing Letters, 25, 13-24.

8. Klink, R.R. (2001). Creating meaningful new brand names: A study of semantics and sound symbolism. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 9, 27-34.

9. (4 April 2017) “Where does ‘Oath’ rank among the worst corporate names?” TheStreet.