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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sound Symbolism, Trademarks, and Consumer Experience

A recent tweet from Ed Timberlake brought a new study to my attention. According to the authors of the study, beer tastes better when paired with the right music. (It also works with chocolate, among other foods). Possible applications include pairing a six-pack of beer with an mp3 for a curated listening experience.

This connection between hearing and taste reminded me of another line of research I recently mined for my article, Are Trademarks Ever Fanciful? (105 Georgetown L.J., forthcoming 2017). Trademark law presumes that when a word is coined for use as a trademark (like XEROX for photocopiers or SWIFFER for dust mops) the word can't carry any product signifying meaning, so it must be inherently source signifying. That presumption about coined words is not entirely true. In fact, there is a significant body of research into sound symbolism that indicates many sounds carry meaning independent of the words to which they belong. This is true for consonants and vowels, and true even if the word at issue is a nonsense word (like XEROX or SWIFFER).

Courts haven't realized that sounds convey meaning in this way. This is unsurprising because most consumers don't realize it either. But marketers know, and they spend a significant amount of time trying to craft marks that take advantage of sound symbols. In light of this research, the presumption that a fanciful (coined) mark is entitled to instant and broad protection may require some rethinking.

I'm excited to hear your observations about sound symbols and trademarks, or your favorite food/beverage and music pairings, in the comments below.

Posted by Jake Linford on August 24, 2016 at 11:35 AM in Food and Drink, Intellectual Property, Music, Science | Permalink


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Posted by: smith | Mar 9, 2021 2:20:30 AM

Incidentally, through rigorous experimentation, I have found that music sounds better when paired with pretty much any beer. Coincidentally bourbon & gin seem to work, too.

Posted by: Brian L. Frye | Aug 24, 2016 5:44:15 PM

An interesting post indeed! On a somewhat related note, back when I was primarily a film programmer, we did a short film program in which the audience was given different foods to eat while watching each film, with the foods paired to the theme or content of the movies. I can't say the pairing was very "scientific" but it did interestingly affect the experience of watching the movies. More recently, we did something similar with cocktails, which was also a lot of fun. Cf. http://expcinema.org/site/en/tags/robert-beck-memorial-cinema

Posted by: Brian L. Frye | Aug 24, 2016 3:06:51 PM


I cite to the studies on the Bouba/Kiki effect, as well as many others. One of the earliest studies found, for example, that nearly 90% of respondents concluded that of two imaginary tables, the one named "mal" was bigger than the one named "mil." The effect held for adult and child respondents, and native English and Chinese speaking respondents. http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1929-04177-001.


Posted by: Jake Linford | Aug 24, 2016 12:34:04 PM

Interesting post, Jake!

By chance have you heard of the Bouba/Kiki Effect? It is a fun demonstration of how even apparently arbitrary sounds carry meaning.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouba/kiki_effect

Posted by: Patrick Goold | Aug 24, 2016 12:11:31 PM

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