Wrong expectations you see
Remember the Johnny Cash song ‘A boy named Sue’? As brand designers we’ve always known intuitively that ‘congruence’ is important when it comes to naming and branding new products. It meant that in a perfect world the overall brand should reflect the product and its physcial attributes, and that all the different elements of the branding (name, packaging, livery, packaging design etc) should work together because they also reflect the product. It’s common sense really.
But it’s nice to finally have the theory confirmed by science -or neuroscience to be more precise. In a paper soon to be published by the Journal of Consumer Pyschology, Professor Charles Spence of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford shows that marketers can markedly improve consumers’ experience of a product by setting up the right (congruent) sensory expectations.
In particular he is interested in sound symbolism – the association that people experience between specific sounds and particular attributes (e.g., when they associate words containing the ‘i’ sound with smallness). But he also looks at shape symbolism (e.g., between sharp pointy shapes and bitterness or carbonation in foods and beverages).
One of his most important findings is that these cues don’t operate in sensory isolation. They are ‘cross-modal.’ So a stimulus in one sense (say sound) can set up expectations in other senses (say taste or appearance). In keeping with other findings of neuroscience Professor Spence says that these effects appear to operate subconsciously so consumers aren’t necessarily aware of what is going on).
He produces mountains of evidence to back his case. For instance had it occurred to you that the letter K was a predictor of commercial success? Spence points out the disproportionate occurrence of ‘K’ in successful brand and business names. Think Kraft, Kellogg’s, Kodak, KFC, K-Mart, IKEA, TK Maxx to name but a few.
And he shows that people’s impressions of a new food product can be shaped by the vowel sounds contained in the product name. So respondents in one study were more likely to believe that an ice cream would taste creamier, smoother, and richer when it was given the invented brand name ‘Frosch’ than when it was called ‘Frisch.’
In another study respondents thought that a lemonade with a brand name having a higher-frequency vowel sound (such as the ‘i’ in Bilad) was more likely to taste bitter than a fictional brand name containing a lower-frequency vowel (such as the ‘o/’sound in Bolad). In the same research, the invented name Godan (containing an initial back vowel) was associated with a darker beer than the invented name Gidan.
The good news for international naming and design projects is that these responses seem deeply wired. The effects seem to operate subconsciously (so consumers aren’t necessarily aware of what is going on). And when you concentrate on the sound, (rather than the meaning) many of these responses are universal across cultures.
But this doesn’t mean we can market sewage as perfume or make up for poor quality products simply by setting up the right sensory expectation through branding. Professor Spence warns of the awful consequences of what he calls ‘disconfirmed expectation’ and you and I would call ‘over claim’. “When the product experience does not meet the consumer’s product expectation, it can cause long-lasting negative consequences for product perception and consumption,” he concludes.
So the idea that names and brands should reflect the product is not just a marginal factor. It’s a powerful tool that can make or break new brands. As Sue found to his cost it should be used with great care.