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Since 800 numbers became portable in May 1993, there's been an explosion in the use of "vanity" numbers-numbers that translate into words for easy recall. Vanity numbers can be positioning statements, yet too little consideration is given to their impact-good or bad-on marketing strategy.

If you think of vanity numbers as mere novelties, consider the wake-up call experienced by floral delivery leader FTD. Since 1987, upstart 1-800-Flowers has grown to over $100 million in sales. According to a Wall Street Journal article, FTD is losing millions trying to break into the 800 delivery service with 1-800-Send-FTD.

And now 1-800-Flowers is adding retail stores, which will, of course, be named for their unforgettable contact number.

Vanity numbers can be viewed in terms of three essential criteria: the mnemonic, the message and the numeric translation.

The mnemonic: Ideally a vanity number has just 7 letters. But this is an imaginary constraint that may obscure the purpose: instant recall of the whole number, even years after media exposure. Numbers like 800-Blue Cross and 800-MicroSoft serve this purpose well, despite their length.

Contrast those with 800-2-So-Easy, 800-424-emc2 and other such nonsense, which is a pleasure to forget. Others, like 800-347-Water, will become "something"-Water within minutes.

Even numbers like 800-2-Diners and 800-Forbes-5 might be easy to recall for a few hours, but most people will quickly lose track of the spare, irrelevant digit.

When numbers are used, they should make sense. Excellent examples include 800-9-Months for a maternity outlet and 800-241-Travel for discount travel.

The message: The message delivered by your vanity number should be compelling or, at the very least, neutral. Numbers like 800-Get-Results and 800-Do-Lunch have impact and are a cinch to recall. Messages like 800-2-Diners (nonsensical) and 800-IBM-Call (reversed) detract from the ad copy by presenting an unclear message.

The message delivered by your vanity number should also reflect your long-term positioning strategy. 800-Pick-UPS, recently introduced by UPS, is a brilliant example of a message with enduring value.

The numeric: The numeric is simply the phone number that translates from the vanity number. Ideally, vanity numbers would be as easy to dial as, say, 800-555-5555. However, there is no such thing as a bad numeric. Some are just better than others. The trouble comes when a vanity number can be translated into more than one numeric, such as 800-For-Video, which could be misinterpreted as 800-4-Video, or misspelled, resulting in misdials and missed opportunity.

Erroneous translations can be minimized or averted altogether by proper planning and by securing the relevant numerics.

But creating phone mnemonics is only half the story. How do you know what's truly available?

Your long-distance carrier may report the number you want is unavailable when, in fact, it is available from a competitive carrier. We've found this misinformation is rarely intentional. It's just that most telecom professionals are naive to the workings of the national 800-database, and to the pre-portability assignments of the 500, 700, 900 and local numbering systems.

There is a subtle priority system that ensures that hundreds of obscure, mostly regional resellers have clout equal to the big-name carriers. Vanity number specialists have developed techniques that, in effect, circumvent the priority system that hinders individual carriers.

Naturally, those who act first will acquire the vanity numbers critical to dominating their respective markets; others will get what's left. In 800-cyberspace mindshare is everything. Retail locations mean little when customers can get equal or superior products and services on impulse. Why search the phone book for a local florist when you can just dial 1-800-Flowers?

If you missed out on the best 800 numerics, you may have heard that a new toll-free 888 exchange is planned for release in April 1996. But if you think an 888 number will be just as good, think again.

It will take years for consumers to recall something other than 1-800 for toll-free calls, despite 1-888's functional equivalence. Think of it like this: If an 800-number puts you on Main Street, then any new toll-free exchange will be a Second Avenue address, at best.M

Mr. Stocker is managing partner of Vanity International, a Chicago-based consultancy that creates, secures and applies vanity numbers.

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