Tag Archives: marketing

The slinky, seductive sound of brand names


Dec. 2, 2011

The name Mazda zips off the tongue, especially if you add that zoom zoom bit. Rolex rolls. Ferrero Rocher melts. Nokia clicks. And L’Oreal somehow makes you feel that you’re worth it.

Let’s face it: some names just work. And companies are knocking themselves out to get just the right one because big names that people connect with can translate into big bucks.

One company in particular is leading the charge, and it has a secret weapon: Linguistics.

Will Leben is the director of linguistics for Lexicon, a firm that’s created billion-dollar brand names such as BlackBerry, Dasani, Pentium and Swiffer.

Leben knows of what he speaks. He studied under the famed Noam Chomsky and taught linguistics at Stanford University for 35 years.

His view is that how a name sounds can determine its success in the marketplace.

Slinky sounds

“There were signs from past research that certain sounds convey certain meanings,” Leben says.

The shiny bull's horns are fine but linguists would say it is the zoom zoom that makes Mazda move. 

In the linguistic world, that’s called sound symbolism. And to discover which sounds convey which meanings, Lexicon has done two big studies.

The company’s Sounder I study in 1995 tested objective qualities such as how fast or luxurious a word sounds.

What it found was that consonants made with the tip of the tongue, like t, tend to make names sound faster. Think of Toyota, Total, Toshiba.

Sounds like p and b, made with more massive articulators — the lips and back of the tongue — are deemed more luxurious.

No surprise then the names Burberry and Porsche practically slink out of your mouth.

That’s because “voicing is the vibration of the vocal chords while the sound is being made,” Leben explains. “Voicing weighs down a sound. If a sound is voiced, it’s more likely to sound heavy. If it sounds heavy, it’s more likely to sound luxurious.”

He says that when Lexicon named Dasani, they started with “san” for sanitation. Then they added a D, which sounds relaxed because it’s voiced. Tasani wouldn’t have been the same.

Some sad words

In their follow-up Sounder II study in 2001, Lexicon linguists tested emotional qualities to try to determine whether words sounded alive, daring, sad or insecure.

One of the questions was: Which sounds more alive, Sekka or Zekka? (Which do you think?) Zekka was the winner.

They found that sounds like k, b and z were deemed more alive and daring. And the noisier the better! And that r, l and n sounds were smoother and mellower, even sadder.

So now it makes sense why Mazda zooms, Rolex rolls and L’Oreal makes you want to curl up on a white sofa and eat bonbons all afternoon.

Repetitive sounding names can also pack a punch. A University of Alberta-led study last year found that names such as Kit Kat, Coca-Cola and Lululemon have a positive effect on consumers.

Names that use haplology can work too. That’s when a word is contracted by omitting one or more similar sounds or syllables, as in Toys “R” Us or Crunch ‘n Munch.

An added punch can be had from names that rhyme, contain alliteration or onomatopoeia.

Name Changes

All this to say that a bit of linguistics knowledge can make for a successful name.

What's in a name? Lady Gaga accepting a Bambi media award in Germany in November 2011.

It can also explain why companies bother to switch from one name to another. The folks at Google clearly made the right choice ditching their original name, BackRub (yikes!).

But of course some companies get it wrong, like when Blackwater converted to Xe (did anyone think about the pronunciation factor?); or when Andersen Consulting became Accenture (“accent on future” which just sounds like a fake word created by a bunch of managers); or when Comcast became Xfinity, criticized for sounding like a porn company.

Actors, singers and sports stars have long known the importance of creating a zippy name, but it’s more hip than ever now to create your “brand.”

For example, the bubbly-sounding Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), the rebellious K-Os (Kheaven Brereton), down-home Shania Twain (Eilleen Regina Edwards), upscale Portia DeRossi (Mandy Rogers) and feisty Tiger (Eldrick) Woods. Hmm, maybe nix the last one.

I’ve dabbled with a name change myself. My running friends used to call me the rather jaunty-sounding C.Ro because I share J.Lo’s birthday. But it never really caught on.

Next frontier

Needless to say, many people feel a brand name itself is much less important than the marketing that surrounds it. Microsoft and IBM have done pretty well despite their blandness.

But tell that to the folks at Lexicon. They have a 77-member geo-linguistics team spread around the world that covers 53 languages. They’ve been busy researching how English names are perceived in foreign markets.

Now they’re onto the next frontier: researching how foreign brand names are perceived in an English market.

When you hear Chanel, you think French, seductive and ooh-la-la. It adds to the cache of the brand.

But what about the Chinese car Sunny? A pleasant name to be sure. But would you buy a car that sounds more like a weather report than a lean, mean machine?

And how do people feel about the Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee and the Korean Hankook tires, which are making inroads in the West.

In our globalized world, it’s more important than ever to have a name that not only connects with people, but translates across borders.

Linguistics may be the not-so-secret weapon that can give you that edge.

Listen here:

The Business of Language


August 6, 2007

It’s a languid summer afternoon and I’m tasked with fashioning a light radio piece on what not to wear to work. Two stylish men lolling outside a Bay Street office tower are my first victims.

One of them tells me that men wearing lycra bike shorts in the office, especially before morning coffee, is utterly unacceptable. He grimaces, chortles, then becomes serious.

He says what’s worn in the office has morphed over the past couple decades. It used to be that suits and ties were the norm, but the dot-com revolution changed all that by going ultra casual. Nowadays, jeans are paired with open dress shirts and blazers. 


“We’re expected to be everything to everyone,” he sighs. And that made me think: fashion is just one form of expression that’s adapted to a society pressuring us to be all that we can be, and more.  

Just like the attire we wear sends out different messages, the language we use in the world of business has also taken on multiple meanings.  In an age of globalization, business (wo)men are having to supersize: provide more to a demanding customer. 

Take emails, for example.

Marketing professor at Queen’s University, John Pliniussen, says we’re still expected to stick to a conventional letter format with proper syntax, capitalization, and salutations for professional communication. However, there’s also an expectation we know when to send a cool, flippy email to show our more social side.  

He tells me he’s just finished sending an email to an MBA student, half formal – answering career queries – half chatty, ending off with an emoticon. Pliniussen says that nowadays, clients and audiences are much more diversified, composed of different age groups, genders, and ethnic backgrounds.

To properly address those audiences, he says: “You have to understand more the power of colours, words, numbers and nuances.”  He adds that we’re expected to be able to flow into and out of different modes of communication on demand. 

That’s not a bad thing. This linguistic dance gives value to a wide range of communication skills and keeps us on our toes. 

The language of business also shows its multiplicity in the lingo related to technology. Lingo develops with every generation, evolving with what Pliniussen calls gecomacts (generational communication activities). 

Every new generation develops its own unique expressions that help brand it, based around activities. It’s just that now, there are so many ways to communicate with the written word.

Each innovation supplies its own language: the internet, blackberry, cell phone, and now Apple’s new iPhone, which will likely generate its own lingo. They’re all ways we can communicate with customers and colleagues, tailoring messages appropriately.


Another way in which business language refuses to be buttonholed into one fixed meaning is buzz words.

They’ve long been used to represent an industry’s philosophies and vision, but an advertising insider says that ever since ‘branding’ came on the scene in the mid-1990s, they’ve really taken off, some even jumping into the mainstream. In this sense, buzz words are used to convey a desired image, to sell people on an idea or product. 

“Buzz words are simply a new way to express an idea that is actually common sensical but gives the impression that you own it,” says the advertising insider.  

She says they’re more important than ever in an era where marketing has become such a science, where more and more people come equipped with marketing degrees to deal with savvy, scrupulous customers.

But the problem with buzz words is that they can have so many meanings, they can become meaningless: vague words that mask unformulated decisions and ideas.  

What do ‘synergistic’, ‘value-added’, ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘shifting the paradigm’ really mean? ‘Moving forward’? Where else would you want to move?Why say ‘ideate’ when you mean ‘think of ideas’? 

My personal favourite is an advertising industry expression: ‘strategic integration and executional synergy across all communications’. Translated: don’t waste money and make sure your message is consistent. So why don’t people just say that??

Buzz words are the epitome of trying to prove we’re all things to all people, a push to show we’re knowledgeable – even when we’re not.

Are today’s buzz words going too far in the quest to impress:  are we selling out our language? 

Adopting new ways to be creative reflects a changing society, but there’s still a need to retain meaning. The purpose of language, after all, is to make oneself better understood.

In the early days of my journalistic schooling, I was taught that a journalist’s job is to communicate in the clearest way possible. I frequently comb through media releases, looking for the ‘real’ words tucked behind buzz words and other meaningless expressions — words that communicate something substantial about the issue at hand.

Purposeful words are rare, therefore coveted. Communication that gives meaning to every word lays thoughts and emotions bare, with no words to scamper behind.

I advocate a real economy of language. It just makes good business sense.