Numbers in branding

June 19, 2014

Do you have a favorite number? Mine is 27. My birthday is July 27th. I guess I could have chosen the number 7 since I have several in my birthdate, but it seemed too common as a favorite number. I like the non-mainstream, so have always just felt a stronger affinity to 27. To the point where when I see the number places – say on a digital clock or a road sign - I feel a kinship with that place or moment. Like it’s talking to me, personally.

It may sound a little nutty to you that I feel so strongly about a number, but a recent Radiolab episode explored just how common it is that numbers can elicit emotions from us. Whether it’s the shape of the numbers or what it represents, the majority of people have strong associations with specific digits.

So, it’s no surprise that companies try to take advantage of these associations to boost the emotional appeal of their products and brands.

In the Radiolab piece (which is really worth listening to, I promise, and it’s only 20 minutes) they cite several examples of numbers being used to reinforce brand characteristics. The first one they mention is the 11 herbs and spices in KFC fried chicken. While there may or may not be truth behind the number of spice-like ingredients, it is to KFC’s benefit that the number 11 “has enormous mystical potentials because it’s not 10, or 12, or 5. It’s not a sensible number.” Being one more than our standard of 10 (ten fingers to count on) brings us beyond the concrete and into the ether – into the next realm. On the other hand “10 feels ordered. It feels highly rational.” It is suggested that round numbers be used for inspiring confidence – such as with Oxy 10 pimple cream. The 10 in the name symbolically stands for trustworthiness, sturdiness, practicality.

This episode was so fascinating to me, hearing the voices of different listeners free-associating how they feel about certain numbers and why. My mind started roaming to all of the different brands I can think of that use numbers to influence audiences. 7 for All Mankind jeans – it’s probably not a coincidence that 7 is the most popular number (more than 30% more popular than the next), and therefore it really is for all the majority of mankind. WD-40, while descriptively named for the 40th try at creating a water displacement solution, it has a round-number scientific feel that reinforces your confidence that it will fix your squeaky problems. Would Baskin Robbin’s ice cream evoke feelings of creativity, inspiration and wonder if there were 30 flavors instead of 31? Does it reduce the sentiment toward the thoughtfully-crafted burger and efficient operations of Five Guys to learn that there were actually only four original inventors?

And then there are issues where the number in a name can trip up a company. Like 20th Century Fox becoming outdated at the turn of the century. Or how the Super Bowl is going to break tradition and use the Arabic number 50 for next year’s game as Super Bowl L just didn’t have the brand appeal they wanted.

Numbers are all around us all the time, so it’s no wonder that we end up with positive and negative associations with them through our experiences. And it’s clever of brand managers to use them as an additional tool to influence emotions and attract us to their products. Now if someone would just name a company 27-something, I would become their number one fan.

Do you have a favorite number? If so, why? What are some brands you can think of that successfully use numbers in a symbolic way? What brands out there use them in a descriptive way (like 7-Eleven or 23 and Me)?

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