Would you drive a SUV called a Himmer" Phonetic symbolism refers to the notion that the sounds of words, apart from their assigned definition, convey meaning. A fascinating forthcoming paper from the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research applies this theory to product names. The researchers find that product names with vowel sounds that convey positive attributes about the product are deemed more favorable by consumers.

Front vowel sounds are ones that are made with the tongue forward in the mouth, such as the sound of the letter "I" in mill. Back vowel sounds are ones that are made with the tongue farther back in the mouth, such as the "a" sound in mall. Numerous prior studies have shown that the two types of vowel sounds tend to be associated with different concepts that are strikingly uniform, even across cultures. Front vowel sounds convey small, fast, or sharp characteristics, while back vowel sounds convey large, slow, or dull characteristics.

"The implications of phonetic symbolism for brand names are relatively straightforward," write Tina M. Lowrey and L. J. Shrum (University of Texas - San Antonio). "If sounds do convey certain types of meaning, then perceptions of brands may be enhanced when the fit between the sound symbolism and the product attributes is maximized."

The researchers created fictitious brand names that varied only by one vowel sound (e.g. nillen/nallen). They then varied product categories between small, fast, sharp objects - such as knives or convertibles -- and products that are large, slow, and dull, such as hammers and SUVs. They asked participants to choose which of the word pair they thought was a better brand name for the product.

Overwhelmingly, participants preferred words with front vowel sounds when the product category was a convertible or a knife (by about a 2:1 margin), but preferred words with back vowel sounds when the product category was an SUV or hammer (again, by about a 2:1 margin).

The researchers also tested a vowel sound that is generally associated with negative meaning (e.g., the "yoo" sound in the word "putrid"). Regardless of product category, words this vowel sound were least preferred by consumers.

"New brands are frequently created, and thus so are new brand names. In many cases, brand managers use various linguistic devices to increase the memorability of those names," the researchers write. "Our findings suggest that in these cases, understanding the relation between the sounds generated by vowels and consonants and the meanings that are associated with these sounds would be useful."