Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Which Ice Cream Tastes Better: Frish or Frosh?

College students eating ice cream called Frosh find it significantly richer, smoother and creamier than do students eating the same ice cream called Frish. This is the finding of Eric Yorkston and Geeta Menon in their 2004 article in the Journal of Consumer Research. Both "frish" and "frosh" evoke positive and negative associations at about the same rates when tested as standalone words, so what explains their effect on perceptions of ice cream?

Consumers are forced to make judgments about products with very little information. The brand name itself is one piece of information that is often available and, no surprise, consumers make inferences from that name. It would be no surprise if ice cream branded Rich 'n Creamy were found to be richer and creamier than ice cream branded Lite 'n Tart. What's interesting is that the manipulation of a single phoneme with no difference in the semantics of the words can affect perception. Yorkston and Menon call this phonetic symbolism, arguing that the smoother sound of the phoneme ah in frosh invokes a perception of smoother taste. This effect is grounded in the onomatopoetic (always wanted to use that word) theory of language: words sound the way the things they represent sound (or behave)...as in the dog BARKED or the ice cream tasted frosh.

What are the implications for namers? Consider carefully the few attributes you most want to emphasize or evoke in your product, service, or organization. Then, select or construct words that automatically evoke those attributes. Yes, of course, use the descriptive power of words to do this-- when naming your new super-sharp knives you're better off calling them Sharpmaster Knives instead of Boston Knives. But also consider the symbolic meanings of the phonemes themselves-- you're also better off calling them Kiki Blades rather than Swup Blades.

Every time I buy ice cream in Philadelphia, I just can't bring myself to choose Turkey Hill brand. (Really...what were they thinking?) Turkey has both the wrong semantics (how about some gizzards with your ice cream?) and the wrong phonetic symbolism. Turkey Hill is all tuh and kuh, exactly the wrong phonemes for something you want smooth, creamy, and rich.