Take a look at the images above. Which one is a bouba, and which is a kiki?
If you said the rounded, blob-like shape was the bouba and the sharp, angular shape was the kiki, you’re like more than 95 percent of people. No matter what language people speak, virtually everyone agrees curvy equals bouba and jagged equals kiki.
The phenomenon, dubbed the bouba/kiki effect, dates back to 1929, when psychologist Wolfgang Köhler asked participants speaking English and Spanish to match made-up words to shapes (he used the words baluba and takete). His results demonstrated that our brains attach meaning to different shapes and sounds in a remarkably uniform way. Researchers have studied the effect in a variety of real and fake words, including food and first names. It turns out people associate different traits with each kind of word – a bouba word is seen as more likely to be easygoing and adaptable, while a kiki word is more analytical or precise.
The Bouba/kiki effect has clear implications for brand names and the associations that come with them. A name like Uber is more likely to conjure up an easygoing, relaxed experience. Ikea may convey a more exact or precise product or service. Successful brands use these associations combined with many other levers to shape an overall brand identity.
Long story short: The second someone sees or hears the name of your brand, they start making assumptions and associations. When you’re deciding on a name, start with the fundamentals of your brand experience and how you want to be perceived. Then, pick a word that’s either a bouba or a kiki.