Branding the Sustainable Development Goals: Will “17” Work?
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UN Member States have drafted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that should guide the world's transformation towards a greener future free of poverty.

UN Member States have drafted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that should guide the world’s transformation towards a greener future free of poverty. While the final goals still need to be adopted as part of the post-2015 development agenda, there is already a discussion about the communications campaign required to support this global undertaking.

The communication of the first set of goals, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), was successful because of their singular definition as the “global anti-poverty goals.” The fact that there were eight goals was a central attribute of the MDG brand. I will show in this article that the figure “8” was a useful marketing asset.

As the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals will partially depend on the how well they will be marketed to key political constituencies, a few people already asked me, will the number “17” work from a communications perspective? Is it a catchy number? Does it create positive feelings? Will “17” stick? Can it help hold people’s attention or will it push audiences along to the next news story or tweet?

Numbers are frequently used when building brand names. Take the automobile industry: BMW series 3, 5, and 7; Toyota RAV-4; Mazda 6; or Porsche 911 Carrera. These figures are not used randomly: strategists and marketers take advantage of research into how some numbers are better at making consumers like, remember, and understand brands.

For example, Dan King and Chris Janiszewski from the University of Florida claim that we “like” numbers that we often computed as children. Let’s say that as a child you were drilled on 3×4=12. The frequent computation of this simple arithmetic problem developed an association called “a number fact.” The number fact stored in your mind allows you to effortlessly process number 12 in your daily life. You then interpret the ease with which you operate with this figure as “I like number 12.”

King and Janiszewski suggested that the repeated arithmetic drills are responsible for the fact that “people like the sum-numbers two through 20 (e.g. 1+1=2 through 10+10=20) and product numbers (e.g. 2×2=4 through 10×10=100) more than the other numbers.”

From this perspective, “17” works: it is a sum-number that falls within the group of numbers “from two to 20” that people tend to “like.”

However, King and Janiszewski carried out another experiment finding that non-product numbers (for example 13, 17 or 19) are less preferred because we have not been computing these numbers as much, therefore they don’t offer many “number facts.”

Since “17” is a non-product number, it could turn out to be less attractive to mass audiences than product numbers such as “8.” Eight is a number related to a simple multiplication that we all know by heart (4×2=8), which makes it easier to process any communication containing the figure “8.” That, in turn, makes it an attractive figure for numerical brands as in the vegetable drink V8 or the eight MDGs.

Going back to the SDGs – let’s say there were 16 goals instead of 17; we could be saying, for example: “The new goals guide policy making in 4 areas – social, economic, environmental, and governance – and under each of these areas, there are 4 objectives that create together a set of 16 sustainable development goals.” This definition of goals would use the universally known multiplication “4×4=16,” which should make it an easier marketing pitch to audiences around the world.

Of course, despite the interest in the number of SDGs, “17” is not going to make or break the post-2015 development negotiations. Among other things, the international community will have to grapple with the fact that the world news agenda is currently dominated by armed conflicts and humanitarian crises. It has become increasingly difficult to secure coverage of issues such as maternal health or access to sanitation, unless it is reported from refugee camps or bombarded cities.

The communications success will also depend on the final framing of the SDGs (as was the “global anti-poverty goals” frame for MDGs).

Will “17” work? Maybe there are better suited numbers for branding purposes, but it can work. In the end, the potential of the goals to mobilize political will to achieve their targets will be more important than anything else.

Stanislav Saling is Communications Advisor for the UN Development Programme in 36 countries in Asia and the Pacific. You can follow him @StanislavSaling.

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