Brand Name Shape: The Psychological Significance


Words. They are fundamental to every brand name on the planet. Even if we recognise a brand through its iconic logo, such as the four linked circles of Audi, or the half-eaten fruit of Apple, we hear those words in our heads. The words used by every brand have profound psychological effects on us, making us like that brand or just see it as an “also ran”.

The same is true for domain names. Would “Facebook” have caught on so much if it had retained its original name of “Facemash”? The words used by brands, online and offline, are fundamental. That is why branding agencies spend hours, days, or weeks considering the name for a new brand. They do not always get it right; remember “Insignia”?

What is it about the words of brands that make us like or dislike them? Part of the answer lies in complex psychology known as “Gestalt”. Gestalt psychology is about how we perceive the world around us, and is largely about how our brain interprets shape and form

Words have shapes that have an effect on us when we look at them. One way of realising the impact of the form of words is to take a ruler to some text and run a line horizontally through all the words. If you cut off the bottom half of every word, you can still read them. It is the top half of words that matter, in terms of our perception of the text. The bottom half of a word is mostly redundant. Even if a character descender is cut off, such as in p or y, we can work out what the word means from the rest of the shapes of all the other characters.

Partly, this is due to learned character recognition, but partly it is grounded in the ideas of Gestalt psychology. This suggests that we can often perceive things as a complete whole, even if the item is not finished. If you draw a box made up of dotted lines you see a box – even though there is not actually a box, but a series of short, unconnected lines. You “fill in the gaps” inside your head. The same appears to be true with words. We only need the top half of characters to work out the entire word because we “fill in the gaps”.

For brand names, this is important. It means that you do not need a whole word or even complete characters for people to recognise the name. Instead, people mentally fill in the gaps themselves. The IBM logo, for instance, is not made up of those letters “I B and M”. Instead, it is constructed from a series of parallel lines that we interpret as those letters. Our brains fill in the gaps.

It does not always work so well, however. Words can easily get confused because our brains expect individual letters to be there through this “gap filling” tendency. So the diet products called “Ayds” can easily get misread as “AIDS”. Similarly when GAP revealed its new logo back in 2010, it was quickly derided by customers. The company was forced to retreat to its original logo, even after spending a great deal of money on the rebrand. The new logo inadvertently created a Gestalt problem. The final letter P in the word had a blue box running through it. It meant that the character was interrupted, yet strangely also completed, and filling in the gap was difficult. It meant it was difficult to interpret even a three-letter word.

Shapes And Sounds Affect Brand Names

Selecting the best brand name is always difficult. Considering the shape of the word, however, is worthwhile because of the instant psychological impact this has.

Take the name “Kodak”. This is widely reckoned to be an excellent brand name. However, it is a combination of the shape of the word and the sound of the word that creates the impact.

The shape of the word itself is primarily perceived as whole and complete – that happens because the first character and the last character are the same. Not only that, the letter “k” is made up of straight lines. Our brains try to connect these up, leading to a rectangular perception of the name. For Kodak, when it began, that worked very well because what it was selling were square products. The shape of the name reflected the shape of what the company sold.

However, the Kodak name also has a sound that connects well with the kind of cameras that existed when the company began. They made two quick clicking sounds as the shutter was pressed. The hard consonants at the start and end of the word “Kodak” imitate in our minds the sound of the camera. Not only is Gestalt perception helping the brand name work well, but the sound of the name is also helpful. Neither of these was, apparently, a consideration when the brand name was invented. All that the company’s founder, George Eastman, wanted was a brand name that wasn’t easily confused with any other and which was unusual. It seems the psychological benefits of the brand name were stumbled upon accidentally.

The same goes for Apple. In the biography of Steve Jobs, the biographer Walter Isaacson reveals that the company name was dreamed up after a visit to an apple orchard. That is confirmed by the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who has said that he and Steve Jobs came up with the brand name on the car journey home from the orchard. There was no fancy, elaborate branding exercise. Today, though, Apple is the world’s most successful brand. The word “apple” must be part of the reason. After all, even if the company had gone on to produce iconic products would it have done so well if it had been called “Rhubarb Computers”?

The chances are, it would not. Apple works well for the kind of company that Steve Jobs created. The whole ethos of the company is coming up with fresh ideas, of never thinking that anything is complete. The word “Apple” coincidentally, is like that too. It represents in our minds an image of something fresh. However, the word itself is, from a perceptual consideration, unfinished. It unusually ends with a vowel – the majority of words end with a consonant. Ending with a vowel suggests to our minds that something else is to follow. Most words that end with a vowel have something that follows them. So, by accident, not by design, Apple came up with a brand name that psychologically reflects the business – of always having something else up its sleeve.

Choosing The Right Name By Thinking About The Words

Whether you need to choose a new brand name or a new domain name, the psychological impact of the words you select is important. Think about the shape the name makes. What shape do the characters of the word imply? Equally, what sound does the name make, and does that sound resonate with your brand itself? Top brands like Apple and Kodak stumbled across the psychological impact of their names by accident. You might not be so lucky.