Domains Branding

Sound symbolism: Good brand names have to feel right

Socrates once said that the best words are those whose sound perfectly matches their meaning.

While this does sound kind of occult, it starts making immediate sense when applied to branding. Brands do, in fact, leverage this logic to create more harmonious and memorable identities.

In this article, we’ll be looking into brand names specifically because, well, naming something is hard work. It’s a 5D-chess-like process—and it really doesn’t have to be.

I’d like us to also take a closer look at how businesses can turn naming a company or product into less of a guessing game by leveraging cognitive linguistics, phonetics, and psychology.

Let’s get into it.

Brand names and assumptions about the world

Have you ever noticed that people, in general, have a bunch of assumptions about the world that are in no way based on experience? For instance, why do we associate “up” with good and “down” with bad? Think heaven and hell.

Same applies to right and left. Some Romance languages go as far as using left-handedness as a stand-in for being clumsy (gauche in French, which English also graciously borrowed, or stângaci
in Romanian, which literally means left-handed).

While up and down may seem like simply words for spatial orientation, they still come with a hefty baggage of implied meaning. Basically, we unconsciously operate with thousands of metaphors on a daily basis. They often inform how we feel about something, for better or for worse.

Back in 1984, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote a fascinating and highly influential book called “The Metaphors We Live By”. In it, they explore the whole spectrum of unconscious metaphors people use in language throughout their lives. Here are a few examples of how brands use metaphors in naming: And metaphors are just a fraction of where meaning comes from. Say, for instance, you have a brand name that is a made up word (like Zlipa), and there is no clear metaphoric content, there are still lots of inputs that can affect meaning. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • Sound symbolism: Specific sounds can trigger emotional reactions, even if consumers don't understand why.
  • Semiotics: Every element in a brand name carries associations that resonate with audiences, impacting how consumers interpret and attribute meaning to the brand.
  • Cognitive processing: Brand names activate neural networks for memory, emotion, and attention, leading to increased recall rates, emotional engagement, and stronger bonds between the brand and consumer.
  • Metaphors: Metaphors in brand names create vivid imagery, foster emotional ties, and connect to collective memories and personal narratives, enhancing brand perception.
  • Cultural adaptations: Brands can adapt their names for local audiences by aligning with cultural values and beliefs, ensuring relevance and engagement with consumers.

Sound symbolism is one of the most important parameters that inform brand opinion, and it’s especially important with brands with invented names, like Xerox or Kodak. There’s something about the way Kodak sounds that carries a specific message to the potential customer and compels them to buy their products.

In the next sections, we’ll take a closer look at sound symbolism and how you can find the right startup or product name.


  • People hold assumptions about the world not based on experience, like associating "up" with good and "down" with bad.
  • Brand names are influenced by factors like symbolism, semiotics, cognitive processing, metaphors, and cultural adaptations.
  • Brand names tap into psychological landscapes through symbolism and create emotional associations.
  • Every element in a brand name carries associations that impact how consumers interpret the brand.
  • Brand names activate neural networks, leading to increased recall rates and emotional engagement.
  • Metaphors in brand names create vivid imagery and enhance brand perception.
  • Brands can adapt their names for local audiences by aligning with cultural values.

Is your brand name wobbly or sharp?

In order to start a meaningful conversation about sound symbolism, we need to explore the one piece of research that started it all—the “Bouba/Kiki” effect. You’ve probably heard of it.

If you haven’t — here’s the gist of it. A study published by Dimitri Uznadze back in 1924 found that phonemes influence people’s perceptions of forms. “Bouba” for some reason sounds round and wobbly, while “Kiki” sounds sharp and kind of jagged. And before you say “Well, obviously” — consider why exactly is that obvious to the vast majority of people.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans tend to avoid sharp objects because they associate with danger, while round shapes, on the contrary, feel inviting and kinda cute? Objects with sharp edges are prone to hurting us, while rotund things don’t evoke this sort of reaction.

Research has shown that rounded shapes evoke feelings of safety, calmness, and relaxation, while sharp-cornered objects can trigger fear and aversion. This preference for curves is influenced by various factors, including cultural differences and individual personality traits.

In a study led by cognitive psychologists Moshe Bar and Maital Neta, participants clearly favored curved items, especially when it came to real objects. To delve deeper into this phenomenon, the researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map cognitive responses.

The fMRI results showed that angular shapes triggered stronger activity in the amygdala, a brain region linked to fear and emotions, compared to objects with smoother curves. This heightened amygdala response to sharp angles supports the idea that such shapes can evoke feelings of fear and aversion.

Plus, research on sound symbolism and shape preferences has revealed that our natural attraction to curves goes beyond cultural boundaries. Even from a young age, humans tend to prefer rounded lines over straight ones, indicating an inherent inclination towards softer forms. This preference for curves not only influences our visual perceptions but also plays a role in shaping our emotional responses and aesthetic judgments.

It’s also important to underline that this isn’t exclusive to English or just languages written in Latin script, there are a bunch of studies that explore this effect with Tamil, Korean, Himba, and a bunch of other languages — and the results are robust across the board. So it’s safe to assume that certain sounds have specific connotations with people in general, connotations of shape, speed, and a host of other qualities.


  • The "bouba" and "kiki" effect demonstrates how phonetics shape our perception of forms, associating "bouba" with round shapes and "kiki" with sharp ones.
  • Evolutionary perspective: humans prefer round shapes due to their association with safety, while sharp objects evoke fear due to potential danger.
  • Research supports a preference for curves over sharp angles, with studies showing that sharp shapes activate the brain's fear response more than rounded shapes.
  • This phenomenon is universal, with studies across various languages confirming the robustness of these associations.

The sound symbolism of brand names

The phonetic structure of a brand name plays a crucial role in shaping consumer perceptions. A study by Klink (2003) in the Journal of Marketing found that the sounds of brand names influence consumer perceptions of the product. For instance, front vowels in brand names (e.g., "i" in "Nike") are associated with lightness and smallness, while back vowels (e.g., "o" in "Volvo") suggest heaviness and largeness. This phonetic appeal extends beyond the simple dichotomy of iambs and trochees to include the specific sounds used in the brand name, which can evoke certain associations and feelings in consumers.

Sound symbolism refers to the idea that the sound of a word can convey meaning in itself, independent of its definition. This concept is particularly relevant in the context of brand names, where the sounds can contribute to the brand's personality and image. Klink's research also highlights how certain sounds can make a brand appear more rugged or more sophisticated, depending on the phonetic choices made. For example, the use of hard consonants (e.g., "k" and "t") can give a brand a sense of ruggedness or reliability, which might be desirable for outdoor equipment or tools.

Theoretically, if one of your central USPs is speed, you could choose to name your brand something along the lines of FastPay, Fastly, etc. Or you could just leverage fricative sounds like “z”, “s”, “v”, and “f” — like Zoom did for instance or Paypal’s Xoom, which are pronounced identically. To convey the opposite, you could also use plosive sounds like “t”, “b”, “d”, and “p”.

Even cooler are the findings of Tina M. Lowrey and L. J. Shrum in a paper called “Phonetic Symbolism and Brand Name Preference”— it suggests that people interpret the made-up word "mil" as "smaller" than its counterpart "mal," and words starting with "gl" are often associated with visual concepts in many languages.

Here are some more insights from the same paper:

The use of artificial words is an obvious attempt to avoid confounds associated with preexisting meanings of words or syllables. However, these effects have also been shown to occur in real language. Jespersen (1922) has noted that back vowels such as the [u] sound in dull or ugh are very often found in words expressing disgust or dislike (e.g., blunder, bung, bungle, clumsy, muck), and words beginning with sl also tend to have a negative connotation (slouch, slime, sloven). Words beginning with fl often express movement (flutter, flap, flicker). Across languages and cultures, similarities have also been noted. Words connoting “little” in non-English languages are kleine (German), petite (French), piccola (Italian), and mikros (Greek), all of which have front vowel sounds for the initial syllable. The same is true for suffixes. Diminutives in English are made by adding ie, in Spanish ico and ito, and in Italian ino (Brown 1958).

— Tina M. Lowrey and L. J. Shrum

Zlipa is actually a good example of using both rapid and impeding consonants at the same time. Think of it this way: “Zli” is the more nimble half, “Z” conveys speed, while “li” makes the brand sound smaller. “Pa,” on the other hand, is meant to be more open and promising. The consonant “p” suggests an ending, and the vowel “a” is a rounded, spacious continuation.

We see Zlipa as a phonetic metaphor. First, we fasttrack you through finding a good name, domain, and branding. After that, you’re on the right path to start the next big thing.


  • Phonetic structure crucially shapes brand perception; front vowels (e.g., "i" in "Nike") suggest lightness, while back vowels (e.g., "o" in "Volvo") imply heaviness.
  • Sound symbolism: sounds independently convey meanings, influencing brand personality and image.
  • Hard consonants (e.g., "k", "t") can denote ruggedness, desirable for brands like outdoor equipment.
  • Sounds like "z", "s", "v", "f" suggest speed (e.g., "Zoom"), whereas plosive sounds ("t", "b", "d", "p") can convey solidity or impact.
  • Phonetic symbolism research by Lowrey and Shrum shows preferences for certain sounds, like "mil" perceived as smaller than "mal", and "gl" associated with visual concepts.
  • Negative connotations are linked with back vowels and certain consonant clusters (e.g., "sl" for negative concepts, "fl" for movement), highlighting cross-linguistic and cultural consistencies in sound associations.

Some practical advice on finding a brand name

To round things up, here are a couple of things to keep in mind when naming a brand or startup.

  • Strategic sound selection: Choose syllables, vowels, or consonant combinations that reflect key brand attributes. For instance, utilizing long "o" sounds can convey notions of size or openness, enhancing the brand's perceived characteristics.
  • Onomatopoeic elements: Incorporate onomatopoeia subtly to capture actions relevant to the brand. For example, the word "click" in Pinterest not only signifies connection but also adds a dynamic and engaging element to the brand name.
  • Rhythmic appeal: Employ rhythm, meter, or rhyme in the name to create memorable associations. Names with fast-paced rhythms or syncopated beats can be well-suited for energetic brands seeking to convey a sense of movement and vitality.
  • Phonetic techniques: Use linguistic devices like assonance and alliteration to make the brand name phonetically striking and easy to remember.
  • Cultural connections: explore foreign-language roots where the word's original meaning aligns with your brand's positioning. This can add depth and cultural richness to the brand name, resonating with diverse audiences.
  • Qualitative testing: Evaluate potential names qualitatively across different audience segments to gauge intuitive responses. Focus on emotional and aesthetic resonance rather than literal meanings to ensure broad appeal.
  • Visual synergy: Pair an abstract name with a visually impactful identity or narrative to create a cohesive brand experience. The combination of sound and visual elements should work harmoniously to communicate your brand's essence effectively.

However, here’s an important “but”—naming a brand can’t be reduced to strict symbolic rules. It has to sound right. Here are a few things to be careful with:

  • Lack of memorability: One common mistake is creating a name that is forgettable or fails to stand out. A brand name should be easy to remember and distinctive to leave a lasting impression on consumers.
  • Difficulty in pronunciation: Opting for names that are challenging to pronounce can hinder brand recall and customer engagement. A name that is easy to say and rolls off the tongue enhances memorability and accessibility.
  • Negative interpretations: Neglecting to consider potential negative interpretations of a brand name across different languages or cultures can lead to unintended associations or misinterpretations, impacting brand perception negatively.
  • Trying too hard: Striving for excessive cleverness or complexity in a brand name can backfire, as overly intricate or cutesy names may not resonate with consumers or be taken seriously.
  • Assuming top choices are available: Failing to recognize the limitations posed by the vast number of existing trademarks and URLs can lead to disappointment when preferred names are unavailable. It's crucial to explore a variety of options and think creatively.
  • Choosing a long name: Opting for lengthy brand names can make them cumbersome, difficult to remember, and challenging for customers to relay accurately, impacting brand recognition and recall negatively.