Naming In The News

Research Finds Vowels Key in Product Names

By Shannon Proudfoot
CanWest News Service, The Vancouver Sun
September 19, 2007

Would you buy an SUV called a Himmer? What about a chef's knife named the Gansu?

The latest study to examine the obscure cues that influence people's buying habits suggests you might bypass those products because the vowel sounds in their names give the wrong impression.

Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio have found that vowel sounds are universally linked to certain adjectives and that can influence the way people see a product based on its name.

Previous research in the field of psycholinguistics showed "front" vowel sounds that are made with the tongue forward in the mouth, such as the "i" in "mill," are associated with ideas such as small, fast, sharp, light, hard and angular.

"Back" vowel sounds made with the tongue farther back in the mouth, such as the "a" sound in "mall," call to mind notions like large, slow, dull, heavy, soft and round.

"It's overwhelming across the world's languages that the vast majority of words for small things have a front vowel sound and vice versa," says researcher Tina Lowrey. She notes with a laugh that the words "big" and "small" are two exceptions that people always mention when she talks about her work.

To test the effect of "phonetic symbolism" on brand names, Lowrey and her co-author L.J. Shrum offered volunteers pairs of invented words that differed only in vowel sound (such as brimley and bromley) and asked them to pick the best name for a product. Using the categories of vehicles and tools, the researchers picked products in which consumers would be looking for very different attributes: a sports convertible or an SUV, and a knife or a hammer.

People clearly preferred names containing a vowel sound associated with qualities that would be a big selling point for the hypothetical product, the authors report in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. For instance, 70 per cent chose a name with a back vowel that suggested large size and heaviness for the SUV, while 66 per cent picked a sharp-sounding front-vowel name for the knife.

"The sounds of words can convey meaning apart from their actual definitions, and this meaning can systematically bias perceptions and judgments," the researchers conclude.

But Gerry Lorente, general sales manager at Southgate Pontiac Buick GMC in Edmonton, Canada's busiest Hummer dealership, doesn't think the Hummer's name has much to do with its success.

"If you've ever driven or owned one, you'll find that wherever you go, people always ask, 'Can I take a look in your Hummer?'" he says. "It's very recognized."

He credits extensive media exposure in movies, rap videos and TV shows such as CSI for the luxury SUV's status.

Psycholinguistics has a long history, but Lowrey says those who name products have yet to harness the field's insights for their work.

"We're asked whether marketers already know this and do it as a matter of course," she says. "Apparently not, because there are lots of counter-examples."

Lowrey mentions the Porsche Boxster as a speedy little car saddled with a name whose syllables conveys heavy sluggishness. On the other hand, the Dodge Caravan's back-vowel name is well suited to its solid image, she says.

"From the way [a product name] sounds, it has the potential — based on the category, the space and the kind of promotion it gets — to make or break the product," says Diane Prange, chief linguistics officer at Strategic Name Development. The Minneapolis-based naming company gave the newest Wendy's burger its "Baconator" moniker, and has done exhaustive analysis on thousands of product names.

Its research suggests brands beginning with C, S and B are seen as traditional and classic, such as Coca-Cola, Sears and Budweiser. Conversely, products whose names start with X, Z, Q and V are seen as more innovative, as with XM Satellite Radio or Ziploc storage bags.