Do you remember what your reaction was to hearing the name “Nintendo Wii” for the first time? What about its follow up, the Wii-U? Like a lot of people, you may have snorted in laughter or at least arched one dubious eyebrow. I remember very much wanting to know what other more explicit names Nintendo had rejected. What names could have been sillier or sounded more like a bodily function?
“Wii” and “Wii-U” may still sound silly, but Nintendo may have been on to something. Intentionally or not, they may have been capitalizing on a psychological phenomenon called the fluency effect. Some psychologists studying language and names say that monikers like “Bob” or “Anne” are fluent to native English speakers (for example) while more difficult to pronounce names like “Quina” or “Geralyn” are disfluent. Adam Alter discusses fluency in detail early on in his book Drunk Tank Pink1 and offers this litmus test for determining if a name is closer to disfluent than it is fluent: imagine that you’re a presenter in front of a huge crowd and you’re announcing an award winner. Do you get nervous when you open the envelope and see the name? By this measure, the Wii seems like a pretty fluent name.
What’s more, Alter describes research showing that life tends to be slightly easier for those with fluent names. People can remember them and disfluent names can trigger the halo effect, where the difficulty of saying someone’s name can bleed over into our unconscious, global evaluations about him. Alter and two of his colleagues conducted a study where they found that the fluency of lawyers’ names determined whether they got a boost in their career. The effect even existed independent of the person’s ethicity –it persisted even when the researchers considered only Anglo-American names.2
But that’s people and the Wii is a product, right? To prove that the effect extended beyond people, Alter and his colleagues did another experiment looking at company names listed on the New York Stock Exchange between 1990 and 2004. They hypothesized that since determining the value of a company is such a massively difficult task, the fluency of the company’s name might exert some influence. Investors feel better about fluent names, and that feeling bleeds over, unconsciously, to their evaluation of the stock. Indeed, companies with more fluent names did better. Alter points out that an investment in the ten most stocks with the most fluent names would earn a 11 percent return, while the ten most disfluently named stocks would only get you 4 percent.3
If “Wii” and “Wii-U” are more fluent names than “Xbox” or “Playstation” then Nintendo probably benefitted some from the fluency effect. Lord knows they’re more fluent than “Ouya.” But there’s one other reason that Nintendo might have chosen the name: the psychological power of phonemes. Some spoken sounds just seem like they have certain qualities. Some time ago, German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler proposed this simple thought experiment that illustrates this idea.4 Consider the two shapes below:
Which of these do you think is more likely to be called “Maluma” and which do you think is “Takete?” Most people think the rounder, smoother shape is Maluma and the other, angular shape is Takete. It proved to be a very robust finding that extended to kids that were too young to read or write the two names. Likewise, “Wii” suggests something round, friendly, and playful. It’s not coincidental that it sounds just like the sound kids make going down a playground slide. Or some adults, for that matter.