What’s Wrong With Numbers?
By Bryn Hauk, Linguistics, & David Placek, President and Founder
“Do we really need a brand name for this product? Why can’t we just call it the XR6.1?”
At Lexicon, we regularly field this kind of question from clients in the process of brand name development. And it’s a great question: why not numbers? We can think of dozens of successful brands that use alphanumeric names (that is, both letters and numbers): 3M, 7-Eleven, WD-40, to name a few. How do we know when – and when not to – use numbers in branding?
First, let’s consider potential reasons not to use numbers.
Cultural differences. What’s your lucky number? Your answer may depend on where you’re from. While 7 is considered lucky in the US and much of Europe, the opposite is true in parts of China, Vietnam, and Thailand, where July, the 7th month, is associated with ghosts. A similar story can be told of almost any number: 4 is lucky in Germany, but it means “death” in China and Japan; meanwhile, 8 is lucky in many East Asian cultures, but unlucky in India. For an international brand, a numeric name will communicate different things in different markets, so picking a number could mean testing your luck.
Cultural change. It happens from time to time that sequences of numbers with no strong associations suddenly acquire a new, unpredictable meaning: think 420, 69, 88. When Formula 420 (a cleaning product) went to market 25 years ago, they probably would not have predicted that a niche slang term from the marijuana subculture of 1970s California would someday become widely associated with recreational marijuana use even among “squares.” And unlike words—which regularly acquire new meanings but tend to retain their original meaning as well—there are no “original definitions” of numbers to fall back on to mitigate these new associations. A number like 9-11 will never again, in our lifetimes, mean simply “nine” and “eleven.”
Memorability. Our most important caution when considering alphanumeric names is, quite simply, numbers are not as memorable as words. Even coined words, like Sonos (a name developed by Lexicon), far outperform numbers in terms of memorability and recall.
Don’t believe us? At the beginning of this post, we mentioned a number in a hypothetical product name: Why can’t we just call it __? Without scrolling up, can you remember that alphanumeric name? Your customers won’t either.
That said, we believe alphanumeric brand names can be a great choice, under the right circumstances.
In sectors where products are updated quickly, a transparent nomenclature (naming system) for new products in your portfolio is crucial. The tech sector makes effective use of numbers in versioning: customers intuitively understand that “5G” is the next generation after “4G,” etc. If you want to make clear where your product builds on previous versions or how it fits within a large portfolio, alphanumeric is a tried-and-true approach.
When the number capitalizes on a meaningful expression. A1. Take 5. Four Seasons. In brand names formed from familiar expressions, numbers are more than just numbers. No one would mistake Take 5 as the fifth generation of a Take 1 candy bar. The trouble here, of course, is that there is a limited number of positive-sounding numeric idioms—7th heaven, cloud 9, perfect 10—and the trademark clutter around such expressions is likely insurmountable.
When the number tells a story about your brand. Six Flags Theme Parks are famously named after the six nations that flew flags over Texas through its history—a colorful, evocative story that makes the name highly memorable. V8 juice contains the juice from 8 vegetables. 5 Gum® is so named because of its appeal to the five senses. Numbers that tell a story about your brand, your history, or your impact can make a powerful brand name.
Of course, there are pitfalls here as well: Four Loko was named after its four main ingredients, three of which quickly fell victim to bans in multiple states, leaving only one loko to back up the name.
These are just some of the factors we consider when recommending for or against numbers in brand naming. We encourage careful consideration before you zero in on an alphanumeric approach, so you don’t have to eighty-six a favorite name at the eleventh hour.