In 1981, advertising researcher Ira Schloss published a journal article headlined “Chickens and pickles”. The research found the letter “K” was overrepresented as the initial letter in top brand names.
Thirty-five years on we see it in Kellogg’s Special K, Ford’s Ka, and the cider known simply as K.
But recent research suggests the (initial) letters used for product names are subject to trends, much like anything else. In the early years of the 21st century, for example, it was fashionable to have X as the initial letter of a product or brand name (think Xbox, X-factor).
More recently, the explosion of the lower-case “i” prefix, in the wake of the Apple revolution, spurred a range of “i” inspired brand names: iSnack 2.0 and iView.
The authors suggested that both X and i are used to appeal to a younger generation of customers through a style of writing that, in part, mimics text messaging.
So how did K come to be used more often in brand names than would be expected by chance? Research suggests that the sharp-sounding K might cut through background noise more effectively than other speech sounds.
The same research also suggested that K has some very unique characteristics that lend itself well to brand names. Firstly, it has positive sound symbolism. It is also versatile in that it can be used in combination with commonly appearing initial letters such as S, L, or R.
K is also unique in the sense that the letter C ensures that K occurs infrequently as the initial letter in words. And K is memorable because it is what linguists refer to as a plosive. The research mentioned above demonstrated that words beginning with plosive sounds (i.e. B, hard C, D, G, K, P, and T) are easier to remember.
Further research has argued that because K has the same sound as a hard C, companies can generate unusual spellings for their products (e.g. Kit-Kat, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts) which, again, and because of uniqueness, has the potential to enhance brand name recall and recognition.
Interestingly, Kit-Kat and Krispy-Kreme have repeating phonetic sounds. And research has found that exposing people to brand names containing repeating phonetic sounds (e.g. Coca-Cola, Hubba Bubba, Jelly Belly) can have a positive effect on their evaluations of the brand and their choice of product.
Using the top 200 company names from the Fortune 500 list, and comparing the initial letter-frequency to two benchmarks, our analyses revealed, in fact, that A and J are overrepresented as initial letters in top company names, while S is underrepresented. In neither of our analyses was the letter K overrepresented among top company names.
If there has been a shift in companies’ and/or consumers’ preferences for rounded letters, why might this have occurred?
Perhaps the popularity of J in company names is a result of the popularity of baby names beginning with J? Research has suggested that “names are more likely to be popular when similar-sounding names have been popular recently”, and that this should hold for names across a variety of domains (e.g. songs, companies).
As our list of company names began in 2010, we used a list of the top 200 baby names from 2009 to see if the “popular recently” hypothesis held true. To our surprise, baby names that had J as the first letter occurred at a frequency greater than that of words in the English language. As such, the preference parents had for names beginning with J some five or six years ago may be contributing to the popularity of companies that have a J as the initial letter of their names today.
The idea here is that company names that are comparable, but not identical, “to currently popular cultural items may be particularly successful” because they are the perfect combination of originality and familiarity. For example, “Johnson & Johnson” may be popular at the moment because the name Johnathan was popular in the recent past.
So what does the future hold for company names? If there is a link between baby names and company names, companies beginning with A, E, J, K, and L may be successful in the near future. These were the most popular baby names in 2015 and their first letters occurred with a frequency greater than that of words in the English language.
Given that J is the only letter with a rounded shape here, it may be that company names with initial letters that are angular in shape (e.g. K) will soon experience a surge in popularity.
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