Imagine you are shown two different shapes – one is a blob, and the other is spiky. Which one would you say is KIKI, and which one is BOUBA? Interestingly, most people say the spiky shape is KIKI and the blob is BOUBA. This relationship between speech sounds and visual objects was first discovered by Wolfgang Köhler, a German Psychologist, in 1929, and has since been replicated numerous times. The concept underlying this effect is cross-modal correspondences, the human tendency to make connections between various attributes across different sensory modalities.
Although the underlying cause of this effect is not exactly clear, Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001) proposed that the connections between sensory and motor nerves in the brain foster inherent associations between sensory modalities. For example, they suggested that the brain links the shape of an object to the shape made by our lips while saying the name of that object, i.e., either wide/open or narrow/sharp. Therefore, the connection observed in the KIKI/BOUBA example may be based on the way our mouth moves to form the corresponding word itself: KIKI requires us to make a sharp movement while BOUBA involves a rounded movement. The KIKI BOUBA effect is evident across languages, among members of remote tribes, and in kids younger than two years of age. This further suggests that the connections drawn between sensory attributes are not random but rather, something inherent to the human brain.
Cross-modal correspondences can go beyond speech sounds and visual objects and can be applied across other sensory modalities. This includes colour, taste, texture, and personification. For example, lime green is more KIKI, while light blue is more BOUBA. Crispy chips are KIKI whereas round soft cookies are BOUBA. Similarly, sparkling water is considered more KIKI, and still, water is more BOUBA.
Still and Sparkling Water: What’s in the Name?
Brands can leverage cross-modal correspondences to achieve coherence across all sensory modalities, thereby creating a consistent brand image. Brand builders can optimize their product experience, packaging, the path to purchase, logos, positioning, and branding to deliver a consistent sensory and emotional experience to their customers.
A recent study conducted by Pathak et al. (2022), demonstrated how sound symbolism, the meaning communicated by certain sounds, can be used by carbonated drink brands to stand out in an increasingly competitive market. The authors found that names created using voiceless consonants (e.g., p, k, t, f, sh, s) were seen as more appropriate for carbonated drink brands as compared to words created using voiced consonants (e.g., b, g, d). Voiceless consonants are perceived as spikier than voiced consonants, an attribute associated with carbonation. Further carbonated drinks, such as sparkling water, are associated with angular shapes and sharp sounds (e.g., t, k), while still water is associated with rounder shapes and softer sounds (e.g., b). A brand that leverages this effectively is Schweppes, as ‘Sch’ makes use of a voiceless consonant and sounds like the sound of gas escaping as the bottle is opened, suggesting high carbonation. This is further personified in their tagline “Schhh…Schweppes.”
Today’s carbonated drinks market is booming like never before. In 2020, its market was estimated to be $221.8 billion, with a projection of sustained growth. Variations of new craft beers, hard seltzers, and sparkling water are introduced in the market every day to meet the increasing demand of the new generation. In such a competitive market, carbonated drink brands need to differentiate themselves using novel techniques, effective marketing strategies, and understanding their customer’s expectations. A strategically crafted brand name is one way to do this.
Brands need to capitalize on sound symbolism and cross-modal correspondence to stand out in an already fragmented market. As discussed above, voiceless consonants in your brand’s name can drive associations with a higher level of carbonation. If you have an already established brand name, you can try using adjectives to help your customers associate your brand with a high level of carbonation. Several established beer brands use ‘light’ and ‘strong’ to give more choices to their customers. Try going beyond such descriptors to make use of sound symbolism. Brands need to evaluate which associations they want to elicit from their customers and pick their brand names and sounds accordingly. Building brand coherence goes a long way by delivering the right sensory and emotional experience to your customers.
Cross-modal correspondence is the human tendency to make automatic connections between various sensory attributes in different modalities. Brands can leverage this effect to deliver a consistent sensory experience to their customers. Carbonated drink brands, for instance, can use particular sounds and consonants to associate their products with higher levels of carbonation.
Etchells, P. (2016, October 17). The Bouba/Kiki Effect: How do we Link Shapes to Sounds? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2016/oct/17/the-boubakiki-effect-how-do-we-link-shapes-to-sounds
Köhler, W. (1929). Gestalt Psychology. Liveright.
Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia–A Window into Perception, Thought and Language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3-34.
Tazi, R., Calvert, G. A., & Pathak, A. (2022). Sparkling or Still: It Depends on the Brand Name. WARC Exclusive.
Pathak, A., Motoki, K., Techawachirakul, M., & Calvert, G.A. (2022). Spiky sounds sparkling: How voiceless consonants present in the brand name of a beverage are more appropriate in conveying its carbonation strength, Food Quality and Preference, 96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2021.104404.
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