Company News » Branding – Buy the numbers

If there is anything in the old belief that accountants are more comfortable with numbers than they are with brands, then what happens when the brand is a number? Does the numbers-oriented FD feel more affinity with the brand, marketing and marketers in companies such as 3 (Hutchison’s new 3G offering), 3663 (the food distribution group), Five (as Channel 5 is now more trendily called) or the legendary 007; or even in companies where the brand is partly a number, like 118118 The Number, 3M, 3i, Club 18-30, Boots No 7 or Levi’s 501s?

BMW is one of the most effective employers of the numbering convention. “The BMW 3, 5 and 7 series have real customer resonance. Each number conjures up an immediate perception of the product, and everyone knows each range is beautifully engineered and sits at the top of its segment in terms of quality, price and performance,” says Hugh Davidson, author of Even More Offensive Marketing.

BMW’s strategy is considered and consistent: it has been using the numbering device for 25 years. Other car makers, however, such as Rover, Peugeot and Jaguar, have been less successful in their use of numbers – possibly because they have adopted them as ‘me-too’ strategies and because they have failed to invest sufficiently in either the parent brand (also known as masterbrand) or sub-brand.

Similarly, the BBC uses numbers successfully – BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, along with its radio equivalents. All are clearly differentiated and conjure up distinct images in their audiences’ minds. But the difference between Sky Sports 1, 2, 3 and 4 is arguably less easy to discern.

But Davidson believes the industry that has really “screwed up” the convention of number branding is airlines. The Boeing 707, launched in the 1950s, was the first decent jet, with the 747, the first really big jet, following a decade later. But today we also have the 737, the 757, the 767 and the 777 – and few know the difference between them.

“Boeing clearly doesn’t understand the use of numbers in the way BMW does. Why didn’t it relaunch the 747 as a new model, building and repositioning the brand instead of adding more versions which has, in effect, diluted the brand equity?” wonders Davidson.

According to Interbrand chairman Tom Blackett: “Companies get stuck with numbering conventions and have to perpetuate them. This takes them down blind alleys. In many cases, the numbers may have meaning inside the organisation, but none to consumers.”

Blackett believes companies often “drift into numbers through lack of imagination or because they can’t be fagged to think up a name”, and that the apeothesis of this is 3.

“I was very disappointed when 3 launched: it demonstrates an incredible lack of imagination,” he says. “It may be successful in the short term, but what happens when advances render it obsolete? Will it rename itself 4?”

20th Century Fox successfully preserved its identity going into the 21st century, but such resilience is rare. Also, the film company had been getting on for a 100-year legacy, while the lifespan of 3G will be measured in a few short years.

Not only could its name hold 3 back, says Blackett, it could also create problems. For example: “You can’t get trademark registrations for single numbers because they are considered generic. So anyone could come along and use the same name if they wanted to.”

Some companies have managed to use a number brand once very successfully, yet resisted the temptation to perpetuate it – Chanel No 5, Boots No 7 and Levi’s 501s are good examples. Other companies have given their historic numbering convention a clever twist by converting numbers into different languages. For example, the Fiat Cinquecento conjures up a more sexy image than the Fiat 500. The name also refers to the 16th century Renaissance in Italy. And Intel’s Pentium and Centrino chips are rather more evocative than the Intel 50 or 100 would be.

Similarly, Fujitsu’s Estrielle computer (the name was derived from its code number S3L pronounced in a Japanese accent) was arguably more successful than it would have been had it continued to be known as the S3L.

However, technology companies are big users of numbers to define their products and, in many cases, gracing them with the name brand seems to be stretching a point. Too often, technology number brands are unimaginative transmutations of internal code numbers. This failing is particularly pronounced in the business-to-business environment, where marketing is still poorly understood.

“A typical engineering company’s best-selling product might only be known by a reference number, even though that product could account for one-third of their sales,” says Davidson. “Such companies believe their products are boring and that the buyers they sell to will have lots of technical knowledge. While that may be true, it is a mistake to treat buyers like robots and assume they have no emotions, because they do. Using numbers as product designators invariably indicates a lack of customer understanding.”

There are, of course, exceptions that prove every rule. Microsoft’s Windows 95, 98 and 2000 naming convention was a classic example of number manipulation to get customers to upgrade. “This product obsolescence strategy was perfectly legitimate and sensible marketing,” says Davidson. “The way Microsoft handled the introduction of each new version – on the same day of the year around the world with stores open until midnight – was also very clever.”

In other cases, the company might believe the numbers are meaningful for customers but, in reality, are of far more use to the business itself. Nokia is a case in point. The handset manufacturer groups its 20-plus phones into different segments targeted at its different groups of customers. For example, the 9000 series is ‘business and communicators’, the 6000 series is ‘messaging’ phones, the 3000 series is ‘expression’ phones, the 5000 series is ‘active lifestyle’ phones. And each category is subdivided: the 6200 is a ‘performance classic’, the 9500 is a ‘big wireless’ phone, and so on.

Nokia UK finance director Craig Fialko explains: “If we had only two or three products and slower rollover, we could give them names. But given the wide portfolio of phones we produce, we need a logical way of positioning and pricing them that is identifiable to the general public.”

But a Nokia 6200 is never going to be the same sort of aspirational ‘must-have’ purchase as the BMW 7 series. And, frankly, aren’t most of us guided in our mobile phone purchasing decisions by retailers such as Carphone Warehouse and Phones4U?

Fialko admits that retailers help profile and steer customers – an admission that marketing consultant Mike Sommers judges to be an abdication of branding responsibility. “A brand should be like a familiar face at a party – the person you talk to when you don’t know anyone else,” says Sommers. “If you let that friend be the retailer, then you only have yourself to blame when they delist you because your products aren’t selling well.”

However, concedes Sommers, Nokia’s masterbrand approach is an example of a growing and eminently sensible trend, particularly in the fast-moving technology market, where purchases are high-ticket and infrequent. “Masterbrands are increasingly used to deliver the brand promise, with number sub-brands underneath them,” explains Sommers.

It also happens to be an easier and cheaper strategy to market: you focus your money and effort on the masterbrand, and the number sub-brands reinforce it. “At the fast-moving consumer goods market, say, with the brand Twix, the fact that it is made by Mars is of lesser importance.”

However, it is not inconceivable that masterbrand strategies employing number sub-brands will become more common across other industries. But the fact remains that numbers don’t have the same resonance with consumers as names do.

Ian Ryder, vice president of brand and communications at Unisys, says: “It is difficult to associate an emotion with a number. Building a brand is about creating meaning for consumers, and you have more scope to do that using a name than a number.”

Anne Bahr Thompson, founder and managing partner of strategic inspiration and implementation consultancy Onesixtyfourth, disagrees. She explains that the name of her firm may sound like a smart restaurant or a street in New York City, but it is actually all to do with the Fibonacci Sequence, Egyptian Mythology and Horus’s Eye. In an era when customers seem keener on products that do what they say on the tin than on clever constructs, you can’t help but think that Onesixtyfourth has missed the Zeitgeist.

There are advantages to number brands, though. You’re always at the front of the phone book and at the top of lists such as the FTSE-100, points out Patrick Dunne, group communications director of 3i. And number brands are immediately understood around the world, adds David Haigh, MD of Brand Finance. 7-Up is a great example and 7-Eleven is “a brilliant number brand: it just shouts convenience”, says Haigh.

But perhaps the most potent number brand of all is 9/11. In three years it has become one of the world’s most famous brands, associated with the vivid image of New York’s burning Twin Towers. Davidson believes the use of number brands has grown since – and possibly as a consequence of – 9/11. And the chances are the trend will continue.

So is this good news for FDs? “There is no correlation between number brands and the extent to which FDs understand marketing,” says Davidson. Or, as Dunne puts it: “FDs don’t give a 4X what their company is called.” ?: