The interest in healthy food has grown rapidly among both consumers and food manufacturers in recent years. Previous research has shown that as well as nutritional information, non-sensory factors such as portion size and the colour and shape of its packaging can all shape the consumer’s perception of healthy food.
However, it is less clear how brand names might influence perceptions of healthy food. That’s despite this being one of the most important external cues for product evaluation and which has been shown to affect the perceived quality of both products and brands.
In what they believe to be the first study of its kind, researchers from Miyagi University in Japan and Oxford University in the UK investigated whether the sounds present in fictitious brand names would influence the expected healthiness of food.
The conclusion? “We demonstrate that phonemic sounds with higher (vs. lower) frequencies (e.g., /f, s, i, e/ vs. /b, d, g, o, u/) are perceived to be healthier,” they revealed.
Their research consisted of four studies. In one, participants were informed that they would be shown the fictitious brand names of certain food products, and that they had to rate them on the expected healthfulness, tastiness, calorie count, and the presence of three macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates).
This revealed that those fictitious food brand names containing higher frequency sounds were expected to be healthier when compared to those fictitious brand names containing lower frequency sounds.
In a second study participants had to indicate which fictitious product brand name sounded healthier, and by how much (tastier/more salt/more sugar/more calories). Again, this demonstrated that the participants expected fictitious brand names containing higher frequency sounds to be healthier than those names containing lower frequency sounds.
In another study participants read the following instruction: “A global company is about to launch some new food products internationally and is looking to determine the appropriate brand names and their impressions. There is no right answer, so just follow your instincts.” The participants were then shown the fictitious names and were asked to make their choices and rate them. Again, names with higher (vs. lower) frequency sounds were perceived to be more appropriate for healthy foods. Participants also expected fewer calories, less saltiness, and reduced fat content from those brand names that incorporated higher (vs. lower) frequency sounds.
While higher frequency sounds were found to change the health perception of savoury food, the role of sounds was not observed in the health perception of sweet food.
Higher frequencies sound ‘healthier’
Why the association between high frequencies and health perception? The authors suggested this was down to the previous research suggesting that lower frequency sounds (such as the growl of large animals) tend to be associated with larger size and heaviness, while higher frequency sounds are often associated instead with smallness and lightness (such as the twittering of birds).
Similarly, healthy foods are often described by consumers in terms of ‘small portions’ and ‘light foods’ (versus large portions and heavy foods). Given this evidence, the researchers predicted that those fictitious brand names containing higher frequency sounds (e.g., f, s, i, e) (vs. lower frequency sounds, e.g., b, d, g, o, u) would be perceived to be healthier.
“These findings provide actionable insights for those wanting to develop brand names for food products and reveal its important link with the consumers’ perceptions of healthy food,” said the researchers.
They pointed out, however, that all of the results were from Japanese participants.
“Given that onomatopoeia and sound symbolism seem more common in the Japanese language than in other countries/languages,” they said, “it might be expected that Japanese participants would be more sensitive to these than those in other countries. Further research is therefore needed to replicate our findings in non-Japanese participants.”
‘Constructing healthy food names: On the sound symbolism of healthy food’
Food Quality and Preference
Kosuke Motokia, Jaewoo Park, Abhishek Pathakd, Charles Spencee