Strengthening Brand Coherence Through
Cross-Modal Correspondences

With Nicole LeBarr, PhD, Director of Behavioural Science

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Nicole LeBarr

PhD, Director of Behavioral Science

Introduction and Poll

Today I'm starting with a poll. You're going to see two shapes - one of them is called a BOUBA and one of them a KIKI. I want you to tell me in the poll, WHICH ONE IS A KIKI? The one on the left or the one on the right.

As expected, most people say the spikey shape is a kiki and would probably also agree the blob shape is a bouba.

This bouba / kiki effect was first observed in 1929 by Wolfgang Kohler, but has been replicated much more recently many times over. In fact, the effect has been found across languages, among remote tribe members, and kids as young as 2 and a half.

Cross Modal Correspondences

The idea behind it is that we inherently relate speech sounds and visual objects. Further, the way we relate or map these two sensory modalities is NOT arbitrary - we show distinct patterns that are common across a lot of people. These are called cross modal correspondences.

The principle goes beyond this bouba / kiki example to other senses and properties. We have intrinsic biases around the types of correspondences we should see across the board of modalities.

For instance, many of us would likely agree on which of these shapes is…

Colour: Which one is lime green (kiki) versus soft blue (bouba)?
Taste: Which is a sharp cheddar (kiki) versus brie (bouba)?
Texture: Which is crispy chips (kiki) versus fluffy bread (bouba), which is sparkling water (kiki) versus still water (bouba)?
Finally, we even see correspondence with personification: Which is Tough (kiki) versus Nurturing (bouba)? I suspect personality and emotional associations for these shapes would be quite different if we mapped their equity through Hotspex’ Human Motivation Framework.

I want to caveat, this is not just about shapes and sounds, which is just the example I'm using as framework here. There are unique interactions between many of the other modalities as well.

How does this relate to brand building?
Well, we know there is power in brand coherence. And these cross modal correspondences highlight the opportunity to achieve coherence across not only all touchpoints, but also across sensory modalities. We can leverage these underlying automatic associations to our advantage to deliver a consistent sensory and emotional brand experience, from…

Product experience
To packaging
To path to purchase
To logos
To positioning
To branding, etc.

I read a great article about this that said now you'll start seeing it everywhere for brands. Let's go through a couple of brands that I think do a good job of unifying senses and emotions…

Pampers feels more bouba: expectation of product softness, used with babies, comforting / nurturing positioning, rounded font, calming blue colour, logo is a rounded heart.

San Pellegrino feels more kiki: expectation of sparkling water as 'prickly' textured, angular font, even the logo is a bright red star.

Eos lip balm feels more bouba: expectation of softness benefit, product packaging is rounded, soft colours, rounded lettering / logo.

So now that you have a good primer on cross modal correspondence, I'd love to hear YOUR best examples of how you’ve seen it play out in practice with brands.