How the Boring Area Code Became a Hot Branding Commodity
It’s not just a 3-digit number but a kind of secret handshake that locals — and consumers in-the-know — can recognize
In a remarkable case of a company tucking its tail between its legs, headwear giant New Era last month apologetically pulled its “Local Market” line of baseball caps from its website after they were subjected to vigorous mockery on social media. The caps were similar to those that New Era produces for every Major League Baseball team, except that they were decorated with various graphics that were supposed to pay tribute to the local culture of each team’s city: the Statue of Liberty for the New York Yankees, a palm tree for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and so on. And on the front of each hat, right next to the team logo, was a list of area codes for the region, presented as authentic indicators of localness.
The problem was not only that the caps were festooned with so many of these cringey and stereotypical bits of clip art, but that the area codes themselves were often simply wrong. For instance, the Kansas City Royals cap listed four Kansas area codes, but not 816, the city’s primary prefix, while the Pittsburgh Pirates were allotted no area codes whatsoever.
The obvious business lesson here is that if you’re going to try to sell local culture back to the people it belongs to, you need to do more homework than just a simple Google search (and in fact, if you Google “Kansas City area codes,” as I did while writing the previous paragraph, you’ll see how New Era got tripped up).
But there are more interesting questions here about how businesses try to be seen as local through their branding. In particular, the use of area codes in a commercial context as symbols of a city or region is a trend that seems to be picking up steam, as seen in trademarks for companies and products such as “Area 313,” “Vapin’ the 619,” and “Yo ♥ 305.”
An examination of government trademark data shows that the five most common area codes used within the U.S. marks are 212 (New York City), 305 (Miami), 808 (Hawaii), 303 (Denver), and 310 (Los Angeles). Of course, the use of these three-digit sequences does not always mean that an area code is what is being communicated: it’s likely that some of the 212 trademarks are referring to the boiling point of water, and the fact that 360 represents the most popular three digits in trademarks is certainly because it’s the number of degrees in a circle, not the area code for the non-Seattle parts of western Washington. Graphing the prevalence of these five most popular area codes in trademarks over the last five decades, we can see a modest increase in recent years.
The fact that area codes were created and assigned by AT&T in 1947 would suggest that they were unlikely candidates to catch on as beloved local identifiers. After all, the imposition of an impersonal number by a large, outside corporate entity on a local area seems like exactly the type of bureaucratic power play that Americans tend to push back against. But 74 years later, combinations like 713, 901, and 312 can now be seen as “our” numbers. And the mathematical aura of the three digits allows them to act as a sort of alternative symbol of a city; it’s not just an area code, but a kind of secret handshake that locals can recognize.
The use of area codes in a commercial context as symbols of a city or region is a trend that seems to be picking up steam, as seen in trademarks for companies and products such as “Area 313,” “Vapin’ the 619,” and “Yo ♥ 305.”
The area code shares characteristics with other alternate ways of identifying cities: it is like the abbreviation in its brevity and like the nickname in its informality. A look at how various terms for New York City have been used in trademarks shows that the “New York” name, the “NYC” abbreviation, and the “212” area code are all on the rise, while the “Big Apple” nickname is falling out of favor.
While area codes themselves may seem arbitrary and meaningless, there’s always been a bit of significance baked into them. The first area codes were devised to give big cities smaller first and third digits, with the rationale that those numbers took less time to dial on the rotary phones of the time, making telephone calling more efficient for more people. So today we may at least subconsciously think of area codes like 202 (Washington, D.C.) and 213 (Los Angeles) as more prestigious, while those like my own — 928 for the wilds of Arizona — suggest an uncouth provinciality.
Over time, as the number of American telephones and therefore area codes multiplied, clever technocrats began hiding “Easter eggs” in the new codes. When Knoxville, Tennessee needed a new area code in 1999, local officials went with 865 because it spelled “VOL” on the telephone keypad, building goodwill for the change by making reference to the hometown University of Tennessee Volunteers sports teams. Other such hidden meanings exist for area codes like 463 (IND for central Indiana) and 321 (a countdown of sorts for Florida’s Space Coast).
Today’s demand for more phone numbers has caused some new area codes to “overlay” the territory of older codes. As a result, area codes can now be indicators of history as much as geography. L.A.’s tony 310, propelled, as we saw above, into the top five of area code trademarks by its Beverly Hills snob appeal, was overlain by 424 in 2006. Those with 310 numbers today may look down their noses at their 424 neighbors as johnnies-come-lately.
While the meanings that accrue to area codes over time help endear them to local residents, I wonder how well they actually work when used in a local context. When you do business in New York under the name “212 Widgets” (or “Big Apple Widgets” or “NYC Widgets,” for that matter), you’re just riding the coattails of an existing local identity which will never truly belong to your brand. On the other hand, an external clientele, customers in Peoria or Plano, might be intrigued by the big-city sophistication of your 212 Widgets.
New Era may have gotten it backward. The allure of the area code may best be exploited not by an outsider peddling it to a local market (and if, like New Era, you’re calling that place a “market,” rather than a city, you likely don’t understand its culture anyway), but by a local with a legitimate claim to the code who can export its meaning to entirely new areas.