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Word up: The phonetics of branding in marketing

Although I have published a number of papers on the psychology of gambling advertising, branding, and marketing, I cannot claim to be in expert in the more general area of branding psychology. However, I feel more knowledgeable about the area having just read a fascinating paper by Sascha Topolinski, Michael Zürn and Iris Schneider recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Their paper examines the biomechanical connection between articulation and ingestion-related mouth movements to introduce a novel psychological principle of brand name design”. Now I’m sure a lot of you will be none-the-wiser from that description but keep with me because I think what they have done is ingenious. Before I get to the heart of their research findings, I ought to add that I also learned a lot in their paper’s introduction. For instance:

  • Repeated exposure to brands increase positive attitudes and the likelihood of eventual brand choice, and also increases the fluency of a brand name.
  • Repetition-induced high fluency due to advertising depends upon subtle mouth exercises. Activities that stop this happening (such as eating popcorn while watching an advert in the cinema) inhibit the effect of the advertising.
  • Easier to pronounce brand names (unsurprisingly) increases fluency. The easier the brand name is to pronounce, the more positive individual’s attitudes are towards the brand.
  • Consumer responses to brands can be influenced by how the name of brand sounds (so-called ‘phonetic symbolism’). In these instances “the sound of a word conveys certain characteristics of the denoted object or product, such as size, color, or touch. For instance, some vowels sound high (for instance [i] as in SWEET), and other vowels sound low, (for instance [u] as in LOOP). High vowels are associated with little, fast, or light objects, while low vowels are associated with large, steady, or heavy objects”. Research has shown that fictitious brand names for hammers (that are heavy items) are preferred by consumers when they contain low vowels whereas fictitious brand names for knives (that are light items) are preferred by consumers when they contain high vowels.

Based on these research findings, Dr. Topolinski and colleagues reached the conclusion that in relation to brand names, consumer choice can be influenced by word sounds and articulation fluency. However, their new research studies (seven studies in one paper) went beyond this by examining consumer behaviour towards brands based on the muscle movements while saying the name of the brand. The studies constructed brand names for diverse products that are spoken inwardly (from the front to the rear of the mouth, such as the fictitious brand name ‘BODIKA’), or are spoken outwardly (from the rear to the front, such as the brand name ‘KODIBA’). Here is the authors’ easy-to-understand explanation:

‘[It] is possible to construe words that feature consonant sequences that wander either from the front to the rear (inward) or from the rear to the front (outward) of the mouth. Take, for instance, the three consonants K, D, and P. Arranged in the word KADAP, first the rear back of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate to generate K, then the tip of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate to generate D, and then the lips are pressed together to generate P. These muscle tensions thus wander from the rear to the front of the mouth, this is, outward. Reversely, arranged in the word PADAK, first the lips are pressed together, then the tip of the tongue touches the soft palate, and then the rear back of the tongue touches the soft palate. These muscle tensions wander from the front to the rear, of the mouth, that is, inward. Combining such articulatory patterns with the muscle patterns of ingestion and expectoration, it is obvious that inward consonantal wanderings (PADAK) resemble the muscular dynamics during ingestion, and outward consonantal wanderings (KADAP) resemble the muscular dynamics during expectoration…Since ingestion is positively associated, and expectoration is negatively associated…consonantal wanderings may feel positive and outward wanderings may feel negative”.

The seven studies that were carried out (comprising a total of 1,261 participants) compared the fictitious inward speaking brand name (e.g., ‘BODIKA’) with the fictitious outward speaking brand name (e.g., ‘KODIBA’). The results of the seven studies (using a variety of different methodologies including laboratory experiments and surveys, and including participants that spoke different languages [German and English]) were very revealing. In summary, the participants (i) preferred the inward name product to the outward name, and (ii) reported higher likelihood to purchase the inward named product, and (iii) reported higher willingness-to-pay for the inward named brand (participants said they would pay 4-13% more for the inward name brand). The same effects were found in both English and German language. The authors concluded:

“[The] present approach exploits the biomechanical connection between articulation and ingestion to introduce a novel psychological principle for brand name design. Brands for which the consonantal articulation spots wander inwards in the mouth compared to outwards are preferred, elicit higher purchase intentions, and even trigger higher willingness-to-pay with a substantial possible monetary gain”.

The paper did make me wonder about implications for brand names in the gambling industry. All things being equal, it suggests that gamblers may prefer to spend their money with companies such as PKR and Bet 365 than Corals and 888.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Baker, W. E. (1999). When can affective conditioning and mere exposure directly influence brand choice. Journal of Advertising, 28, 31–46.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Children and gambling: The effect of television coverage and advertising. Media Education Journal, 22, 25-27.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Does advertising of gambling increase gambling addiction? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 3(2), 15-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Responsible marketing and advertising of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 50.

Hanss, D., Mentzoni, R.A., Griffiths, M.D., & Pallesen, S. (2015). The impact of gambling advertising: Problem gamblers report stronger impacts on involvement, knowledge, and awareness than recreational gamblers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 29, 483-491.

Janiszewski, C. & Meyvis, T. (2001). Effects of brand logo complexity, repetition, and spacing on processing fluency and judgment. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 18–32.

Laham, S.M., Koval, P., & Alter, A. L. (2012). The name-pronunciation effect: why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimantal Social Psychology, 48, 752–756.

Lodish, L. M., Abraham, M., Kalmenson, S., Livelsberger, J., Lubetkin, B., Richardson, B., et al. (1995). How TV advertising works: a meta-analysis of 389 real world split cable TV advertising experiments. Journal of Marketing Research, 32, 125–139.

Lowrey, T. M., and Shrum, L. J. (2007). Phonetic symbolism and brand name preference. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 406–414.

Rozin, P. (1999). Preadaptation and the puzzles and properties of pleasure. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp.109-133). New York, NY: Russell-Sage).

Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2009). If it’s difficult-to-pronounce, it must be risky: fluency, familiarity, and risk perception. Psychological Science, 20, 135–138.

Topolinski, S., Lindner, S. & Freudenberg, A. (2014a). Popcorn in the cinema: oral interference sabotages advertising effects. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 169–176.

Topolinski, S., Zürn, M. & Schneider, I.K. (2015) What’s in and what’s out in branding? A novel articulation effect for brand names. Frontiers in Psychology 6, 585. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00585