Radiolab recently examined the emotional power of digits when guest Alex Bellos, who writes and lectures on mathematics, discussed a global survey he conducted—on favorite numbers.
What he found, among 30,000 responses from across the world, is that we have a universal tendency to anthropomorphize numbers. The number 1 garners rogue, cowboy-like descriptors like "independent" and "strong." The number 2, seen as "delicate," "soft, nurturing," and "sympathetic," is considered to be more feminine.
Our feelings about numbers have considerable implications for big companies and their branding efforts. Greg Rowland founded The Semiotic Alliance to work with companies—clients include Coca-Cola, Ford, and IBM—to demystify the emotional responses we have to words and numbers. His favorite case of successful numeric branding? Kentucky Fried Chicken’s famed 11 herbs and spices. Rowland explains:
The symbolic truth is far more interesting and potent [than Colonel Sanders cooking in his kitchen]. Eleven has enormous mystical potential because it’s not 10, or 12, or 5—it’s not a sensible number...with 10 you’re implying you have a decimal balance at work and it’s hard to engage people emotionally. 10 feels ordered, it feels highly rational . . . 11 is that extra one that has made Colonel Sanders un-copyable.
The same thinking goes for Levi’s 501 jeans: "501, again, has gone one beyond the place you expect it to," Rowland says.
Conversely, to understand the no-nonsense associations we have with the number 10, consider Rowland’s take on a brand like Oxy-10, the acne cream:
The 10 there is where we get to a solution. Ten is where our hands run out, so there is a sense of completion there. We’ve gone through the process and we’re going to come out OK. With 11, you’re embarking upon the infinite. You’re going beyond the finger count.
Listen to the entire episode here.