The study, by researchers at the University of Texas, San Antonio, suggests that that product names with vowel sounds that transmit positive qualities about that product are considered more favourable by consumers.
Phonetic symbolism refers to the concept that the sounds of words, apart from their assigned definition, convey meaning.
Previous research has shown that the two types of vowel sounds - front vowel sounds, for e.g. the sound of the letter "I" in mill and back vowel sounds, such as the "a" sound in mall - are associated with different concepts that are remarkably 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. 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," write authors Tina M. Lowrey and L. J. Shrum.
For their study, 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.
The results showed that participants tremendously preferred words with front vowel sounds when the product category was a convertible or a knife, but preferred words with back vowel sounds when the product category was an SUV or hammer.
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 with 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. 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," the researchers write.
The study is published in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.