The name on its own sounds evil, sinister, threatening. Even if you've never seen the Star Wars villain's metallic black face mask or heard his creepy breathing, the name alone just feels mean.
It shouldn’t sound like much at all – neither "Darth" nor "Vader" are actual words in English. They don't have any direct meaning themselves. But, they sound like and cue a host of evil associations. "Darth" sounds like a combination of "dark" and "death." "Vader" reminds us of the word "invader," and in a clever twist, even means "father" in German. Together, without using an actual word, his name subliminally primes us for thoughts of darkness, death and insidious invaders.
That might be an extreme example, but it shows the power in a name. A good name can help solidify and anchor your brand with the right set of associations, before you've said a word about it. "Zappos" sounds fun and friendly, is fun to say and comes from the Spanish word for shoes, "zapatos." That's perfect for their focus on creating a warm and friendly customer experience in selling shoes.
In fact, studies have shown that phonemes (the different sounds that make up words) can cue various associations, often subconsciously. For example, this study by Eric Yorkston, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, showed that the sounds that make up a brand name are processed automatically, and those sounds affect how consumers evaluate the brand and what attributes they associate with it. Another study by Abhishek Pathak et. al. showed that certain sounds are associated with luxury brands, while other sounds with more basic brands. They were even able to create fictitious brand names based on those sounds, and people would predictably sort these non-existent brands into luxury or basic categories based on the sounds chosen.
The consumer packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble, while incredibly successful with many leading brands, is not generally known for creative, emotional brand building efforts. More than most large CPG companies, they've made a concerted effort to tout the functional benefits of their products in their marketing.
However, I'd argue they do some great emotional brand building in the way I describe in this book – they imbue their brands with strong unconscious associations.
Take the dishwashing detergent brand Cascade. What does "cascade" make you think of? For me, I see clear, clean, fresh, rushing water from a pristine waterfall. If I could wash my dishes in a picturesque waterfall, I might actually do it. After all, what could be cleaner? Although I doubt many people ever think consciously about the meaning of the word "cascade" when choosing a dishwasher detergent, the priming research discussed in earlier chapters shows that that kind of name should cue up and activate many of these kinds of associations. And what great associations to tie to your brand. Compared to competitors like Finish, Cascade starts with an almost unfair advantage.
P&G follows this formula with many of its category-leading brands. In cleaning products, similar to Cascade, you have Tide for laundry detergent, and Dawn for dish soap. Tide is similarly fresh, clean and powerful. It reminds me of clean but strong crashing waves. Dawn, like the sun coming up over a dew-dripping field, feels fresh, renewed and optimistic. How about Crest for toothpaste? Like the snow capped peak of a mountain, it feels pure, clean, cold, bracingly refreshing and fresh – perfect for the underlying feelings I want associated with a toothpaste.
While P&G tends to use real words as names, this still works for made-up words (or “coined names”) as well. P&G departed from using real words with their highly successful Swiffer product. “Swiffer” sounds quick (think “swift”) and easy (the “-er” suffix hints that it does it for you), which is exactly the idea of this new kind of mop.
In fact, research has shown that humans have a universal tendency to ascribe certain sounds with meaning. In a famous experiment from 1929, Wolfgang Kohler showed people a drawing of a loopy, rounded shape object, and a sharp, jagged edged object, and then asked them which one was a “baluba” and which a “takete.” While these are made-up words with no inherent meaning, 95-98% of respondents said the soft rounded drawing was a “baluba,” and the sharp edged object was a “takete.” This effect has been shown to span geographies, cultures and ages, including 2 year olds who can’t read. This shows that while it may seem that words are arbitrarily placed with meanings, many words seem to naturally fit their meaning, and have a sound that just makes sense.
Which one looks like a Baluba, and which a Takete?
Similarly, we should try to choose names that just sound right with our brand. Even if it doesn’t have a literal meaning, the sound of the word itself should feel right for the product or service, and the mood you are trying to imbue it with. Although we don't think about them consciously, these associations get activated when we hear these words, and then become inextricably linked to our feeling towards the brand.
Many companies try to incorporate the benefits into the name, or try to explain what it is. While that can be helpful for really new or very different products that require some education, I’d argue that it’s more important to cue the right set of feelings and associations. It’s about capturing your brand’s feeling with the name, not just what it does.