Bupa, First Direct and Forte have learned through experience that a
handful of digits can be a powerful branding tool. Take Forte’s
freephone booking number: 0800-40 40 40. Or First Direct’s 0800-24 24
24. They’re easy to remember and can even be catchy and relevant -
Bupa’s dental careline number is 0800-230 230 (’tooth hurty’, ’tooth
It’s hardly surprising, then, that since these ’golden numbers’ were
launched in the 80s, an industry has sprung up supplying customised
numbers and a range of call services which have all been eagerly pounced
on by telemarketers. Growing demand and limited capacity, however, now
look likely to significantly restrict future opportunities.
’The growth of the 0800 number has been incredible,’ Tanya Walsh, BT’s
head of marketing for in-bound services, says. ’It’s not just about
having a golden number but about what 0800 says about your company -
your willingness to add consumer value.’ Increased demand contributed to
the recent decision to introduce an extra seventh digit to 0800, 0990
and 0345 numbers. The seventh digit will eventually require all
companies using these phone numbers to alter promotional and product
information to accommodate the change.
Telephone numbers are allocated to 40 or so different telephone service
providers - the largest of which is BT - by the telecoms industry
watchdog, Oftel. Until July 1997, BT had a monopoly on freephone numbers
with an 0800 prefix, local rate (0345) and national rate (0990) numbers.
Today, different numbers are owned by different telecoms companies. This
has limited marketers’ choice of telephone numbers for marketing and
other customer communications campaigns, claims Michael Teggerdine,
managing director of Golden Number Bank, an independent agency which
leases such numbers to businesses.
’It’s good news for a company like ours but bad news for the
telemarketing business,’ he says. This is because the best golden
numbers have long been taken. And recently announced plans to increase
the quantity of such numbers available by altering the freephone,
national and local rate prefixes will only exacerbate the situation.
To extend the range of numbers available to telemarketers, Oftel began
introducing a new generation of seven-digit numbers last June. It also
started the phased introduction of new prefixes, less well known to UK
consumers. So, for example, 0800 - which commands greatest recognition
and clearest understanding by British consumers - will be joined by
0808, 0807, 0806 and so on, depending on the service provider. It will
inevitably take time for callers to recognise that these numbers are
’Golden numbers are valuable because you don’t have to show your ads as
many times to generate a response,’ Teggerdine says. ’But it’s difficult
to see how anyone can be inventive with the numbers available today as
0800 numbers remain the most familiar.’ Eighty per cent of UK companies’
customer services, enquiries or support lines are now 0800 numbers paid
for by the company concerned, according to BT. Thirty five per cent of
the population makes regular use of the special numbers and 27 per cent
claims to use 0800 numbers regularly. The industry predicts that, by the
end of 2000, the percentage of the UK population using special numbers
will have increased by 60 per cent.
One improvement has been the introduction of number portability. Until
last summer, if a company wanted to switch telecoms network providers
for whatever reason, it meant sacrificing hard-won numbers along with
existing stationery, marketing materials and even advertising
Number portability allows numbers to be retained, explains Walsh. Even
so, it does not get around plans to introduce the seventh digit to
In spite of this, moves continue to upgrade the telephone services
available to marketers. Historically, each country has its own freephone
number - even in the US the 800 code is different from the UK’s.
International freephone numbers were launched in the early 90s. Last
year, BT unveiled Universal Freefone - a product popular among
multinational companies, although it has yet to gain universal appeal.
’The product is a single, freephone number which can be used on every
piece of promotional material, packaging or merchandise anywhere in the
world,’ Walsh says.
’For global brands, it promises the ultimate in international
The numbers business has now passed into its second phase. Walsh adds:
’In the early days, it was transaction-based and focused on customers
phoning in to buy. Increasingly, we are seeing companies using these
telephone numbers for a more diverse range of customer services:
out-bound and in-bound calling; product information; complaints and
customer care.’ Another area ripe for future development is ’alpha
numerics’, where numbers and letters are linked on a telephone keypad.
This is a big business in the US, where consumers might dial, for
example, 1-800 FLOWERS to contact a flower delivery company.
However, the UK telephone system and its customers are not set up to
exploit alpha numerics fully. There is a lack of standardised keypads,
for a start, as the advent of STD codes in the 60s rendered superfluous
the letters which once were standard on telephone dials.
Although tricky, alpha numerics can work in the UK and some believe they
could provide a more powerful communication for some brands,
particularly generic services. British Midland, for example, has 0345 I
FLY BM, translated numerically as 0345 435 926. Others counter with the
claim that a choice array of digits is more appropriate for a strong
brand. For the time being, the canny are investing in both.