The effects of sound symbolism and package shape on consumer responses to food products
Anna Fenko, Henriët Lotterman, & Mirjam Galetzka
In the global market, consumers are exposed to multiple brand names in unfamiliar languages. Even meaningless words can trigger certain semantic associations. This phenomenon is known as sound symbolism, i.e., the direct link between a sound and a meaning. Sound symbolism helps consumers to form product expectations based on unfamiliar brand names. Product expectations can be also formed based on various elements of packaging design, including colours, shapes and materials. This study investigated the effects of unfamiliar brand names (“Asahi” vs. “Ramune”), package shapes (round vs. angular) and product types (muesli cookie vs. butter cookie) varied in perceived healthiness (low vs. high) on perceived product healthfulness, product evaluation, taste expectations and purchase intention. General Health Interest (GHI) was used as the moderating variable. The results showed that package shape and product type significantly influenced the perceived product healthfulness of the two experimental products. Brand name alone did not affect consumer responses. However, the congruent combination of product shape and brand name (round “Ramune” cookie) was preferred to incongruent combinations. Furthermore, the congruent combinations (“Ramune” butter cookie and “Asahi” muesli cookie) were expected to taste better and were more likely to be purchased compared to incongruent combinations. These results suggest that congruency between the type of product, brand name, and package design is important for creating a successful brand strategy. The study also showed that the effects of sound symbolism and congruency on perceived product healthfulness are more pronounced for consumers with low interest in healthy eating. However, further research is needed to generalize our results to other product groups.
Food Quality and Preference, 2016, 51, 100-108
In a current global marketplace, multiple new brands and products with unfamiliar names are introduced every day. Consumer experience with products often starts with the sound of a product name. Unfamiliar names can trigger unconscious associations with product properties, because a mere sound of a word, apart from its actual definition, can convey a meaning. This phenomenon is known as sound symbolism, i.e., a direct link between a sound and a meaning (Hinton, Nichols & Ohala, 1994). Sound symbolism helps consumers to form product expectations based on unfamiliar brand names. Product expectations can be also formed based on various elements of packaging design, including colours, shapes and materials (e.g., Becker et al., 2011; Schifferstein et al., 2013; Velasco et al., 2014). This study focuses on the effects of sound symbolism and one of the elements of packaging design (namely, the shape of the package) on the perceived healthfulness and consumer evaluation of two food products that vary in the degree of their perceived healthfulness (muesli cookies and butter cookies).
Sound symbolism in product design
Spence (2012) describes sound symbolism as the association people have between specific sounds and particular stimulus attributes. Sound symbolism has been frequently examined in the fields of experimental psychology and linguistics. In the early experiments, Köhler (1929) asked people to match the meaningless non-words ‘maluma’ and ‘takete’ to abstract shapes. The results demonstrated that rounded, cloud-like shapes were matched with the soft sounding ‘maluma’, while spiky, star-like shapes were matched to the sharp sound of ‘takete’. Since then, sound symbolism has been further examined in a variety of contexts and languages. However, researchers only recently have started to realize the potential relevance of sound symbolism for the fields of product naming, branding and packaging design (Spence, 2012).
Product and brand names have the power to influence consumer expectations (Aaker, 1996; Belli & Sagrillo, 2001; Spence, 2012). Research have suggested that the soft, rounded-sounding names better match with sweet-tasting food (Abel & Glinert, 2008). For example, people are more likely to match a creamy milk chocolate truffle with the brand name ‘Lula’ rather than ‘Koko’ (Ngo, Misra & Spence, 2011). People also believe that an ice cream has a creamier taste if it is called ‘Frosh’ rather than ‘Frish’ (Yorkston & Menon, 2004). Klink (2000) has demonstrated that the use of front vowels in brand names (i.e., Pepsi) creates associations of smallness, lightness, thinness, coldness, mildness, fastness, bitterness, weakness, femininity and prettiness.
Sound symbolism can be considered one of the elements of product design and successful brand strategy (Abelin, 2015; Klink, 2001; Spence, 2012; van den Bergh, Adler & Oliver, 1987). The principles of sound symbolism have been already used in developing brand names for products in many different sectors, varying from consumer electronics to prescription medication (Abel & Glinert, 2008; McNeil, 2003). However, the success of a new brand or product depends not only on a brand name, but also on a number of different factors, including packaging design. Therefore, it is important to consider sound symbolism in combination with other product characteristics, such as product category and package shape.
This study focuses on the effect of sound symbolism combined with one of the elements of packaging design, namely shape. Starting from the pioneering work of Köhler (1929), cross-modal correspondence between sound and shape has been extensively documented. People spontaneously associate certain sounds with specific shapes (Boyle & Tarte, 1980; Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). For example, nonsense words such as ‘takete’ and ‘kiki’ tend to be associated with angular shapes, while ‘maluma’ or ‘bouba’ tend to be more associated with rounded shapes instead. Besides, larger objects have been found to correspond to lower-pitched sounds, while smaller objects are associated with higher-pitched sounds (Parise & Spence, 2009;).
Shape also shows cross-modal correspondences with taste. Spence & Gallace (2011) demonstrated that people prefer to match carbonated water with angular shapes and still water with round shapes. Furthermore, people seem to match dark chocolate with angular shapes and milk chocolate with rounded shapes (Ngo, Misra & Spence, 2011). Velasco and colleagues (2015) conducted a series of experiments on the cross-modal correspondence between basic tastes and shape roundness/angularity. The results showed that people consistently match taste words to shapes. Sweetness was matched to roundness, and other tastes (bitter, salty, and sour) were matched to angularity instead.
Perceived product healthfulness
Research on sound symbolism suggests that the consumers’ perception of healthfulness of a food product can be also influenced by the sound of a product name. For instance, names like ‘takete’ and ‘kiki’, which are associated with angular shapes, can be also linked to a healthy product, while names like while ‘maluma’ or ‘bouba’, which are associated with rounded shapes, can be linked to a less healthy product.
Based on the previous findings, we propose that the perceived healthfulness of a food product can be influenced by the product category, the shape of a product package and the sound of an unfamiliar brand name. Therefore, we formulate the following research hypotheses:
H1: A product that belongs to a healthy category will be perceived as healthier than a product from a less healthy category.
H2: A product in an angular package will be perceived as healthier than a product in a round package.
H3: A product with a name associated with “healthy”, “light” and “thin” will be perceived as healthier than a product with a name associated with “fat” and “heavy”.
Interest in eating healthy
Interest in eating healthy is measured by the general health interest scale (GHI), which consists of eight statements related to an interest in eating healthily (Roininen, Lähteenmäki, & Tuorila, 1999). General health interest appears to influence food intake and healthy dietary behaviour (Zandstra, de Graaf & van Staveren, 2001). When people are more interested in health and therefore have a higher score on general health interest (GHI), they tend to eat healthier than people who are low in general health interest. People with high GHI are more likely to purchase food products based on their health benefits rather than hedonic benefits (Lähteenmäki, 2013). These findings suggest that the effect of perceived product healthfulness on taste expectation, product evaluation and purchase intention are moderated by general health interest of consumers. Therefore, we propose the following hypotheses:
H4: The products perceived as more healthful will be evaluated less positively and will have lower taste expectations and purchase intentions among consumers with low general health interest (GHI).
H5: The products perceived as more healthful will be evaluated more positively and will have higher taste expectations and purchase intentions among consumers with high general health interest (GHI).
To test these hypotheses, a between-subject experimental study was conducted with three independent factors: product category (healthy vs. less healthy), brand name (associated vs. not associated with health) and package shape (angular vs. round), four dependent variables (perceived healthfulness, product evaluation, taste expectation, and purchase intention) and general health interest (GHI) as the moderating variable.
Participants (N=165) were aged between 18 and 65 (M=33.9; SD=14.4), 108 were females, 60.6% had higher education (college or University).
Brand names. The pre-study was conducted to select brand names that are associated with health. Participants (N=125; 80 females; aged from 18 to 65; mean age 37) evaluated 12 unfamiliar names of food products on 15 bi-polar 5-point scales (including healthy/unhealthy, warm/cold, dark/light, good/bad, light/heavy, slim/fat, etc.). The product names unfamiliar in Dutch language were collected from Japan, Indonesia, Morocco, Norway, Sweden, Italy and the United States via online search. The results showed that the word ‘Asahi’ was perceived as significantly softer, lighter, brighter, slimmer and healthier than other names, while ‘Ramune’ was perceived as harder, heavier, darker and fatter. ‘Asahi’ was selected as the name with healthy associations and ‘Ramune’ was selected as the name with unhealthy associations. ‘Ramune’ and ‘Asahi’ did not significantly differ on attractiveness and good/bad scales.
Product categories. A muesli cookie was selected for the healthy category, because it contains fruits and cereals, which are usually considered healthy by consumers. A butter cookie was selected as the less healthy product, because it contains a lot of fat, sugar and calories and is generally classified as a hedonic product.
Package shapes.A round, thick shape was selected as the unhealthy package shape and an angular, slim shape as the healthy shape because people associate a slim, angular body with a healthy person and a fat, round body with an unhealthy person (Katz et al., 2004).
The results showed a significant main effect of General Health Interest, Package shape and Product category on perceived product healthfulness. Products in angular packages were perceived as healthier than products in round packages. Muesli cookies were perceived as healthier than butter cookies. The higher participants’ general health interest was, the less healthy they found any of the experimental products.
Round cookies were evaluated higher with the name Ramune compared to round cookies with the name Asahi. For angular cookies, the effect of name was not significant.
Angular cookies were expected to taste better than round cookies. Butter cookie with the name Ramune was expected to taste better than muesli cookie with the same name, but for cookies with the name Asahi the effect of product category on taste expectations was non-significant.
Butter cookie with the name Ramune were more likely to be purchased than muesli cookie with the same name For cookies with the name Asahi the effect of product category on purchase intention was non-significant.
The results also revealed the interaction effect of Brand name and GHI on perceived product healthfulness. Participants with low GHI perceived the Asahi cookies as healthier than Ramune cookies. However, participants with high GHI did not perceive the healthfulness of Ramune and Asahi cookies differently.
The analysis further revealed the significant interaction effect of Brand name and GHI on purchase intention. Participants with low GHI were less likely to buy Ramune cookies compared to Asahi cookies. On the contrary, participants in the high GHI group were more likely to buy Ramune cookies compared to Asahi cookies.
Besides, significant 3-way interaction effects of GHI, Brand name and Product category on Product evaluation and Purchase intention were revealed. Participants with low GHI preferred the congruent combinations of names and products (Ramune butter cookie and Asahi muesli cookie) to incongruent (Ramune muesli cookie and Asahi butter cookie). Participants with high GHI, however, preferred muesli cookie irrespective of the brand name.
Our results demonstrate an interaction effect of brand names and package shapes on product evaluation. Angular Asahi cookies and round Ramune cookies were evaluated more positively than round Asahi cookies and angular Ramune cookies. Therefore, congruent combinations of brand names and package shapes were preferred to incongruent combinations. This result is in line with previous findings of the effects of cross-modal correspondences between sound and shape (Parise & Spence, 2009). Together with previous findings, our results suggest that products with congruent combinations of shape and name are perceived more positively than products with incongruent name and shape.
Our results also slow an interaction between brand name and product category on taste expectations and purchase intentions. Ramune butter cookies and Asahi muesli cookies were expected to taste better and were more likely to be purchased compared to Asahi butter cookies and Ramune muesli cookies. Here, congruent combinations of product category and brand name were preferred to incongruent combinations. These results point to the importance of congruency between product category and the sound of brand name. Although previous findings suggest the existence of taste-shape correspondences, most of empirical studies that point to such correspondences were performed within one product category, such as mineral water (Spence & Gallace, 2011) or chocolate (Ngo, Misra & Spence, 2011). Our data additionally suggest the existence of cross-modal correspondences with the product category. Consumers seem to associate the brand name Ramune with butter cookies and round shapes and the name Asahi with muesli cookies and angular shapes, and they seem to prefer congruent combinations to incongruent.
Our analysis revealed the main effect of general health interest on perceived product healthfulness and interaction effects of general health interest and brand name on perceived product healthfulness and purchase intentions. Consumers with low interest in healthy eating perceived Asahi cookies as healthier than Ramune cookies, but consumers with high interest in healthy eating were not affected by sound symbolism. This result can be explained by the differences in information processing between consumers with high and low interest in health. People who are interested in healthy eating probably use central route of information processing and analyse information more systematically, while people with low interest in health might process information more intuitively and use peripheral cues, including package shapes and sounds of brand names (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). This is in line with the findings of Visscher and colleagues (2010) who found that health motivation seemed to stimulate deeper processing of nutrition information.
Furthermore, three-way interactions between health interest, brand name and product category on product evaluation and purchase intention clearly demonstrate that participants with low health interest prefer congruent combinations of names and products (Asahi muesli cookie and Ramune butter cookie) to incongruent combinations (Ramune muesli cookie and Asahi butter cookie), while participants with high interest in healthy eating are not influenced by symbolic congruency. They prefer muesli cookies irrespective of their name. These results support our suggestion that people with high interest in health process information more systematically and are more likely to respond to central cues (i.e., product ingredients) than to peripheral cues (i.e., symbolic congruency). However, for people with lower interest and lower motivation to process information, symbolic congruency and cross-modal correspondences between different product properties (shape, name, product category) are more important, since they increase processing fluency and require less effort to make a purchase decision (Gottfried & Dolan, 2003).
Together, our results make an important contribution to understanding how consumers with different health motivations and interest in healthy eating process multisensory cues and how they respond to cross-modal correspondences and symbolic congruency in food products. Our results suggest that health-interested consumers tend to use central cues (such as product category) and ignore peripheral cues (such as sound symbolism, package shape and cross-modal congruency), while less health-interested consumers rely more heavily on sound symbolism and other peripheral cues, including cross-modal correspondences and symbolic congruency between different product properties.