Why most brand names start with the letter K: the origin and future trends of the K EffectRelevant topics Archive, Strategy
From Kodak to Coca-Cola. And from KitKat to Kool-Aid. Over the years, many brands have been born with the letter -K as their first phoneme. This preference among branding practitioners was so apparent that Schloss (1981), who was first to quantify the overrepresentation of the letter K, has dubbed his linguistic discovery the “K effect”.
Is there something magical about the letter K that made it the phoneme of choice among brand creatives? Should new brands adopt it as well, or is it wiser to avoid it nowadays? And how did the K effect fare in recent years? Recently, a new study has been conducted to see whether K has held its ground in 2021.
Why K works
So, what’s all this K fuss about? There are two reasons lingering behind marketeers’ preference for this particular phoneme: distinctiveness and sound symbolism.
Distinctive Brand Assets
Firstly, the higher usage of the letter K is surprising given the fact that it’s one of the least common initial letters in the English dictionary. Likely, in their never-ending search for distinctive brand assets, brand creatives could very well have been attracted to K for this reason alone. When the objective is to ‘sound unique’, our current lexicon would naturally lead to uncommon sounds which are still easily digestible, hence the letter K.
Sound symbolic associations
Secondly, sounds are able to subconsciously transfer meaning. The way a brand name sounds plants certain expectations for the product in our minds. For example, a brand name for hiking boots should convey ruggedness, like Reebok. Alternatively, a moisturizing product such as Dove or Olay should automatically evoke feelings of softness. Ample studies demonstrate that if product features and brand name sounds are congruent (e.g., heavy sounds with an apparently rugged product), such products are appreciated more.
It has been found that initial plosives such as k, along with p, t, b, d, g, enhance brand recall, recognition, and awareness. These sounds appear to have more power in capturing a share of the customer’s mind.
Moreover, the /k/ sound has been found to associate with angular objects. For instance, in a task where names have to be linked to random shapes, the name Kiki has been found to universally apply to a spiky shape, whereas Bouba links to a round shape. Although this K sound symbolism has some practical relevance for product brands that come in a particular shape (you may not want to use the K sound for a new brand of tennis balls, but it will certainly benefit a set of kitchen knives), this certainly does not explain the omnipresence of K across the entire field of branding.
It’s all about how a name enters our ear
Although the classic adage that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’ certainly applies to brand names, there’s new research suggesting that the initial sound we hear when pronouncing a brand name is most impactful on the formation of brand associations and memory. Note that this refers to the entire first sound, not just the first letter. Letters don’t matter, but the actual sound does.
Our brain appears to be especially sensitive to the first phoneme of words and concepts. Two names can have a different first letter yet share an identical first phoneme, such as Coca-Cola and Kodak. The power of the first phoneme is also evidenced by the all too famous tip-of-the tongue phenomenon, which occurs when you vaguely have a concept or person in mind but can’t think of the exact word or name. Research shows that the most effective key to successful retrieval is when the word-initial phoneme is presented.
New trends in brand naming – and their surprising origin
While the marketplace is still saturated with many time-honored brands starting with K, its usage has grown less widespread among brands launched after the turn of the millennium. Has the K effect lost its touch? A few years ago, a study by Van Doorn et al. (2016) indeed seems to suggest that the K effect has vanished among recently introduced brands. However, this conclusion was premature, as the authors focused on the letter K instead of the phoneme /k/. When analyzing the occurrence of the actual phoneme, the K effect is still there, but is now more often disguised in C’s and CH’s.
More interestingly, popular phonemes in brand names appear to follow trends in the naming of newborn babies. This is an interesting phenomenon, especially considering the recent trend of parents choosing a name that is high on uniqueness and individuality and which can make a child ‘stand out’, rather than ‘fit in’ (Twenge et al., 2010).
Many studies have shown the existence of the Name-letter effect: we like things that sound similar to our name. That’s why the name Dennis is overrepresented among dentists and a bit more Mindy’s can be found in Minneapolis. The authors expect the preponderance of certain phonemes in the popular names will positively influence their usage in the prevalent brand names too. Branding practitioners seeking for creative guidance should therefore look into which initial phonemes dominate trending names.
Based on current trends in people's names, what can we say about which letters will accompany the brands of the near future? At the time of this article, children names starting with the phonemes, /ʒ/, /ɔː/ and /z/ (as in Jacques, Orlando and Zoe) are on the rise.
Smart brand creatives could let their creative juices flow in the right direction by occasionally glancing a bit more often at the newspaper’s birth announcements.
How would NIKE in uppercase fit differently to both men and women consumer decisions, compared to head & shoulders in lowercase? And what subtle effects had switching PEPSI to pepsi in 2004, after the brand case had been uppercase for 32 years? The present research in neuromarketing explains what effects letter case might have on consumer decisions. UBER and lyft seem to provide similar services, although their brand case might appeal specifically to either men or women.