Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Constructing Identity through Sound: Brand Naming Practices and Phonetic Symbolism

Constructing Identity through Sound: Brand Naming Practices and Phonetic Symbolism

Kathryn Nowinski

Think about what is called to mind when one reads words like “Google,” “Coca-Cola,” or “Twitter”—few today would find these words meaningless or be unable to identify these global brands. Examples like these illustrate the ways in which the combinations of a few short sounds can culturally connote and evoke a great deal of meaning. In such cases of particular brand names, meaningfulness exists as part of broader productions of brand identity. Brand identities are culturally constructed via choices which are made to foster relationships between corporations and various publics. This research seeks to anthropologically deconstruct how such relationships are produced by centrally questioning how brand naming practices are influenced by social beliefs about the inherent qualities of sounds in relation to the shapes of sounds. This research bridges the ways in which biological realities of sex and social constructions of gender are connected to the shapes of sounds that make up gendered brand names. Potential answers to such questions are answered within the scope of this project via an exploration of the linguistic phenomenon of phonetic symbolism as applied to corporate brand-name creation. Today, research into phonetic symbolism often explores this phenomenon’s potential biological origins; however, instead of seeking out the origins or universal reality of phonetic symbolism, this project asks how the perceived effectiveness of phonetically symbolic brand names perpetuates such naming practices. My research sets out to understand how brands utilize sound symbolism to market themselves to gendered consumer demographics. There has been a great deal of research produced on how to apply sound symbolic principles to company or product names, this research seeks to critique such marketing research by questioning how cultural constructions of gender may impact the socially-agreed upon effectiveness of certain brand-names. This research is important to an anthropological understanding of how humans both perceive the world and communicate within it.


April 6, 2015 - Posted by | abstract


  1. I have been curious about this from our first discussion. You mentioned that certain elements of words tend to be engendered and we discussed how that plays a role in branding. Placing this in line with my own work on feminine hygiene products, I wondered if they fit your model. I tend to follow a metalinguistic belief that sharper sounds are more masculine like “_X’. Two large feminine hygiene brands, Tampax and Kotex, utilize this sound in their name. How would you interpret this branding?

    Comment by Kaitlin Scharra | April 19, 2015 | Reply

  2. I thought about this too when I was reading your abstract! So while I also think there’s a metalinguistic belief that “_x” sounds are more masculine, that sound is also talked about as sounding technological, “modern,” and “fast-paced” (zippy even?)…Perhaps these top two brands are drawing not from an identity associated with the feminine, but with modernity and sanitary conditions. Through discursive chambers, I think ideas of “modernity,” “technology,” and “masculinity” have long been connected…though I’ve read and spoken to some gender studies scholars who disagree (they think modernity has long been “distrusted” like woman and that technology “partners with” men in the same way women long have…). I think it’s a complicated question you’re getting at…

    Comment by Kathryn Nowinski | April 21, 2015 | Reply

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