Phonetic symbolism and naming

Which one of these shapes is Booba, and which one is Kiki?

According to Wolfgang Köhler’s Booba/Kiki effect study, roughly 95% of people choose “kiki” for the sharp, angular shape and “booba” for the soft, rounded one. Even children as young as 2.5 demonstrated the Booba/Kiki effect. “But, how is that related to branding?” you may ask. Let’s find out.

Usually, when naming a new brand, we first try to find a name that means something, ideally a metaphor.  For instance, Nike (the Goddess of Victory)  is a great name for a sports apparel company, just like Oracle is a fitting one for a database management firm

However, such names are hard to find and even harder (much harder!) to trademark. So, these days, we often invent words, not unlike Xerox or Kodak.  There is, however, a method to the madness, for we could still convey meaning subliminally. Enter: phonetic symbolism.

Phonemes are the smallest units of sound (e.g. the sound of the letter p or s.) They form the fundamental building blocks of language. What’s truly fascinating, though, is that each sound means something. That’s why we must consider the meaning of a sound when inventing a brand name.

Here is a caveat: For words that already have a meaning, phonetic symbolism’s effect is minuscule. Apparently, semantic meaning trumps phonetic symbolism. For instance, for a bottled water brand, “Pure” (a name that has a meaning) is a better fit than “Silsh” (an invented word), even though the latter sounds way more fluid.

Arguably, phonetic symbolism is more critical for service firms than for products. Why? Because we can evaluate the size, shape, colour and price of a product. On the other hand, services are abstract. you can’t get cues about their size, shape, or colour. Without such built-in signals, customers have to make sense somehow, and that’s where phonetic symbolism comes in handy.

Let’s see the power of phonetic symbolism in action. Try to answer the below questions. If you feel like it, ask your friends and family and share your feedback with me. I will gladly publish them here!

Which table is larger? Mil or Mal
Which ice cream is creamier? Frish or Frosh
Which motorcycle is faster? Valp or Galp
Which one is more alive? Preff or Prezz
Which one is lighter? Simi or Somo
Which one is smaller? Tok or Gok
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10 Replies to “Phonetic symbolism and naming”

  1. Which table is larger?

    ’cause Mil is Slim!

    Which ice cream is creamier?

    Frish, not Frosh

    Which motorcycle is faster?

    Valp, not Galp

    Which one is more alive?

    Prezz, not Preff

    Which one is lighter?

    Simi, not Somo

    Which one is smaller?

    Gok is small and large


    Tok is tall and strong

    I Had Fun! Thank You



    1. Thanks Gabriel!
      Although there are no “correct” answers to these questions, I must tell you that you got all but one of them right (meaning as the majority of people would pick.) Which one could that be?

    1. It was frosh. Since “o” is a slower sound, most people tend to relate it to the smoothness and creaminess of the ice cream. People tend to think that “o” symbolizes “slowly made” nature of the product.

      I don’t have a focus group study, but you can refer to the third link in the article. There you can see many studies, which provide statistical information.

      Thanks a lot for commenting on my blog!

  2. Ok, when I got this, it like many of your topics were some what new, so I could not comment. Am trying not to read the comments by the others for now in order that i do not get influenced, so here I try.. 1. Mal is larger 2.frosh is creamier 3. Valp is faster 4. Prezz is alive 5.Simi is lighter (Somo fighters are heavier) 6.Tok is smaller (Goliath is taller)

    A. From this I guess you are saying thst as brand communicators, we should be more careful of our vocals, vowels/consonants, print messages… that’s cool but what do you do emotional intelligence is absent, you can not depend on the so called physical demographics of the m/trilions-even if its a hundred that may get your message. Peter Drukkers (I think- will cross check) pay attention to the signs not the size is necessary.

    B. What are the other creative applications of this?

    C. Kiki sounds female, booba (Allen iversion/George Bush) sounds masculine to me at least, does that affect anything?

    D. Am always of the opinion that if the competition has the same infor you have, for example if the same topics you offer can be found on your competitors site and they number over even ten, you not going to be that effective as it increases my work load. So what do you do- in respect kiki/booba and self marketing et al?

    E. As an aside, am hoping you will do a topic on the Olympics/NBA finals/NBA pay off line ‘where amazing happens’- I think it should be ‘where love happens’, as after the lockout, its love that brought back the fans/EPL/UEFA branding

    1. You are right on all of your guests. Congrats!
      Let me try to briefly answer your questions…
      A. The phonetic symbolism acts as a difference maker only when there is no semantic difference. They provide us cues for words that have no meaning, therefore being useful when coining new words. I suppose that answers B. too…
      C. Indeed I perceive Kiki and Booba’s genders as you stated. That said, I am not aware of such a research. Please do share if you find it!
      D.While I can’t tell you how phonetic symbolism can help you, I can tell you that students whose names start with certain letters get better grades than others. That is scientifically proven. Also it is also proven that, let’s say, someone whose name is Dennis is more likely to be a dentist. Cause or effect? Chicken or egg? I do not know yet…
      E. Once Thunder wins it all, I will write the article you requested…
      Thanks for your comment!

  3. am going to act as if have not seen your reply yet and add, why does (as at last year any way) the WNBA team Chicago Sky (if it still exists) use a male mascot ( Who buys must of their (WNBA/SKY) merchandise? Am yet to check if this applies to other WNBA team or even other female leagues. How does kiki/booba fit into all this?

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