We've seen concepts as brands (Escape, Fresh), place names as brands (Patagonia, Mars Colorado), and even colors as brands (Orange, Red). But these work because, unlike numbers, they are inherently evocative and rich in meaning.
It's fairly obvious why abstract concepts work as brands, and the same is true for place names, which often function as a virtual shorthand for a more complex set of attributes or characteristics. In the case of colors, there's plenty of research that indicates that the meaning is deep-seated: Orange is warm, suggesting sunrise or sunset. Blue is cold but tranquil. Red is synonymous with fire, blood and danger.
All of these characteristics come from enduring associations, and they seem to be fairly cross-cultural (usually a big plus for any brand-owner hoping to appeal cross borders). Surely this can't be the case for numbers? As a recent HSBC advertising campaign reminded us, while there are several examples of numbers having cultural meaning, it is often quite localized.
Thirteen and 666 are considered unlucky in predominantly Christian countries; while 888 sounds like "good fortune" in Chinese. Conversely, four is a bad number in China because in Mandarin and Cantonese it sounds like "to die." (During school exam-time earlier this year, Shanghai's largest taxi company bowed to public pressure by recalling all cars with the number four in the license plate; apparently no one wants to go to an exam in an unlucky cab.)
So numbers do sometimes have meaning within different societies, but by-and-large they do not have inherent meaning that can span regions. This doesn't rule out using a number as a brand name, and in fact it can be a good reason to do so, provided that numbers with negative connotations can be avoided. The benefit of numerical names is that they can be used as a blank slate into which a brand personality can be built, rather than the other way round.
There are a number of examples where brand owners have invested time or money in building successful numerical brands. Australian TV station Channel Ten has the strongest youth positioning in its market. In the UK, Channel Four is associated with young people, highbrow and culture. In British radio, Three means classical music, and One pop music. Mobile phone brand 3 (which has rolled out in parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East) has built a positioning around being youthful, fun, contemporary and in-touch.
A significant downside to numbers is that they are difficult to own, at least in a legal sense. The fact that BMW already has a 3-series does not stop Hutchison from launching a mobile phone brand called 3, but as the two refer to very different markets, there is little danger of an unsuspecting consumer getting them mixed up.
Ownership of a numerical name is of course much trickier with two brands in the same sector. There was some speculation a few years ago that the UK's television station Channel Four may have been annoyed when BBC Four was launched with a similar urban, self-confident, highbrow positioning. But then there's the similarity between Channel Four and another much older entity, the BBC's own Radio Four.
By the same token, 3 might be safe within the telecommunications space, but what happens if the brand owner wants to move into a different sector? Here is a name that will cause confusion in any market where an existing operator already owns a brand called "three." This has serious implications for Hutchison's chances of successfully moving the brand into automotive, radio, and (most worrying of all) television markets.
Until recently, the main reason to adopt a number as a brand name was that the company had simply been allocated the number by the government or an industry regulator. uch numbers usually take the form of a channel number, most commonly in the case of television or radio stations. But there are other examples too: France's Neuf Telecom took its name from a dialing code and Russia's newest airline, S7, takes its name from its international airline code.
Of course, having a channel number isn't a reason to automatically adopt it as the brand name. Many TV stations don't use their channel number as their brand name. ITV in the UK is received by most households on channel 3, but never describes itself as such. ABC in Australia is transmitted on UHF channel 2, but never refers to itself as Channel 2.
So why might a business choose a number over a word for a name? There appear to be a number of reasons.
Some numbers spell out figures. Many telephones carry alphabetic characters as well as numbers, and text-friendly mobile handsets have reintroduced familiarity with letters on a ten or twelve-digit keypad. British foodservice company 3663, which spells f-o-o-d on a keypad, took this to its logical conclusion. So long as it can hold on to the right phone numbers and domain names, then this seems to make sense. But at the end of the day it's a clever stunt. One wonders whether this approach is likely to catch on for other firms.
Most importantly, clever use of a numerical brand name can achieve stand out status from competitors. Mobile operator 3 is particularly interesting in this regard. Seemingly rapt at the success of a color as a brand name for an earlier business (Orange), owner Hutchison Telecom seemed intent on repeating the trick in even more esoteric style with a numeral. While it is difficult to imagine Orange being called Grey, I'd contend that it is quite easy to imagine 3 being called 5.
But having said that, the people at 3 have developed a fairly compelling rationale that seems to show that they have a universally appropriate number for their name. As explained on the website:
We are, after all, the third planet from the sun.
In every fairy tale there are always 3 wishes.
In Chinese, 3 sounds like life.
There were 3 wise men.
3 is the lucky number.
You can only truly know where you are if you have 3 coordinates.
You can't have space without 3 dimensions.
No 3, no mathematics.
3 is dramatic: act one, act two, act three.
If the company can make it work, it could be a category killer.
What is indisputable is that 3 has succeeded in building a brand personality in much the same way as it could have if its name were a word instead of a number. While a name like Orange has given that particular company a head-start in terms of positioning (it means something the first time you hear it), 3 has no less inherent meaning than it would with a jumble of letters or a made-up word as a name.
Of course in terms of awareness-raising there are implications to taking an esoteric route. It is interesting that 3 is beginning to call itself 3 Mobile in some markets, so the brand is clearly not yet universally understood. Like acronyms or new words, numbers don't immediately express their proposition or product, with the result that greater effort, time or expenditure may be required to build associations into the brand.
In a very different way, UK directory inquiries service 118118 has also used its number to obtain category leadership. Following an EU-wide decision to use 118 as the prefix for all directory inquiry numbers, a round of auctions followed in most major countries.
While some operators attempted to gain numbers that carried some kind of meaning (118123 is the number you call to reach BT; 118247 is the number you call to reach Yell), canny operator infonXX acquired the number 118118. It then took the decision to use its telephone number as its brand name.
In the two years since launching, 118118 has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the UK market; part of the reason can be traced to its easily remembered, repetitive name. In fact, the first ad campaign played on this theme with twin spokesmen in identical 118 running clothes.
Chris Moss, chairman and former CEO of 118118, says that making numbers brands rather than just memorable numbers requires a different approach. He goes on to explain "When we chose to use our telephone number in this way, we first expected that a jingle and or tone would be the key... But everyone's heads are full of PIN numbers, house numbers, ZIP or postcode numbers, short dial numbers and password numbers… The key was to stand away from the crowd. To create a personality was paramount."
When Moss talks about creating a personality with his numerical brand, his business has clearly delivered against this objective. Originally, the only meaning 118 has is in virtue of its role as the standard European prefix for directory inquiry numbers. While this delivers a degree of prestige (and memorability) the real brilliance of the brand stems from using the number as the brand and doing so in such a successful manner.
The rare occasions where numbers will be universally recognized as "good" numbers tend to relate to mathematical symmetry or usage in counting protocols (such as time or dates). These are the closest you can get to inherent meaning as far as numbers are concerned. Numbers like 247, 0, or 365 immediately convey a stance: convenience, ubiquity (or the opposite) and availability, respectively. But, perhaps surprisingly, there are few examples of these numbers with mathematical appeal being used as brand names.
So numbers stand out in a world of words regardless of how the number is arrived at. But there are other advantages to numbers as brand names.
Perhaps most significantly, numbers can be used to neatly create sub-brands, with the added benefit that they fall neatly into an obvious hierarchy or sequence, for example, ABC1 and ABC2 in Australia, and BBC1 through to 4 in the UK. However, applying the same logic, it is interesting to note that ITV in the UK was able to launch a second channel as ITV2 by rebranding its first channel as ITV1. This would have been impossible if ITV had been in fact called Channel 3. Channel 3.1 and Channel 3.2 doesn't make much sense and doesn't sound like much of a portfolio.
Numbers have famously been used in the car industry – most notably by BMW, Volvo and Saab, but also to varying degrees by Mercedes, Mazda and others. As well as creating a brand architecture that is readily understood (with the added benefit that it incorporates a strong sense of ranking or progression), it also ensures product and company brands don't conflict.
It is no coincidence that automotive brands which are strongly product-led (Ford Focus, Toyota Echo, Hyundai Excel) tend to use words for the names of their products; while those that are more company-led (BMW 3-series, Maybach 57, Mazda 6) tend to use numbers.
It seems that as long as "bad" numbers are avoided, there are few barriers to numbers adopting meaning in the same way as made-up words. Numbers also have the in-built advantage that they can also provide an easy-to-remember contact mechanism (so long as appropriate URLs or telephone numbers can be secured). As we have seen, they also work particularly well for use as sub-brands.
Numbers can be differentiating within a sector, but as a consequence this means that the opportunity to use them as brand names is limited. It's a fair bet that there can only be one numerical brand within the mobile telecommunications market; and only one foodservice company with a number as its name. As noted above, the fact that many TV stations share the same (or very similar) numerical names has already caused problems.
There are limits to the way numbers work; they are not as flexible as words. Numbers are harder to protect than words; so it's unlikely that we'll see numerical brands in every category and every market segment. The fact that numbers need to adopt or co-opt meaning from other aspects of communications or brand experience also means they can be expensive.
The good news is that when they do work, numbers have the potential to stand out from the crowd.