Four Dumb Branding Mistakes To Avoid

4 min read · 9 years ago


Whether you're a multinational conglomerate or a one-person shop in Kalamazoo, you are a brand. That means you're subject to the same brand demands as Apple, Coca Cola, and General Motors, only with an infinitesimal sliver of their marketing and advertising budgets.

You've got to do the same things they had to do – come up with a unique name, a catchy tag-line, an easily identifiable logo. More important, you've got to establish a unique identity and stick to it.

You know what? You're probably going to screw up – at least a little. Cheer up – it's normal, plenty of others have, including some of the biggest brands in the world. OR you can read this and learn from their mistakes.

Dumb branding mistake #1: Names matter

Choosing the right name for your business seems simple enough. But the road to marketing success is littered with the corpses of unintentionally amusing names [fair warning – this link contains risque jokes]. Take, for example, PMS Mortgage, STD Flea Market, or the Mammoth Erection Construction Company.

Even big companies can fall on their faces. When the SciFi channel re-branded itself as SyFy in 2009, executives at NBC Universal were probably unaware that #syfy is a common hashtag for a venereal disease. (Perhaps they spent too much time shopping at the STD Flea Market.)

Before you even start brainstorming names, you need figure out what your company is really about, advises Joshua Adams, owner of Rock Paper Simple, a web design and development company.

“We came up with the name for our company after we'd determined our core set of beliefs and our personality,” he says. “Our philosophy was 'keep it simple,' and the personality we created was professional but also quirky and humorous. Once we had a core set of principles, a personality, and a visual brand, we were able to successfully market ourselves.”

When you're finally ready to come up with that killer business name, consider how it will look when it becomes a URL. For example, PenIsland sells custom writing implements, but its URL – –suggests a different kind of implement. Likewise, WhoRepresents,a database of talent agents, becomes (Insert your own joke here.)

While you're vetting names, do the “teen test,” advises designer and image consultant Laurie Morse-Dell.

“Challenge any teenager to come up with the most inappropriate adaptation or abbreviation of your desired name,” she says. “If they start cracking up, you know you need to start over.”

Though a name that teens find amusing isn't ideal, it's still better than one that's simply boring, says Glenn Romanelli, president and creative director of Lighthaus Design.

“Too many small businesses have bland websites and nondescript names like 'KLS Consulting' or 'BMH Systems,'” he says. “Take chances, be funny, be weird. You want to be unforgettable.”

Dumb branding mistake #2: Logo no no's, terrible tag-lines

The right image and slogan can go a long way to making your brand memorable. A logo that bears a passing resemblance to genitalia, implies two people engaged in coitus, or suggests acts illegal in all 50 states may also be unforgettable, but not in a good way.

Likewise, the wrong taglines can cause damage by being vague (“Excellence through total quality”), hostile (“What's your problem?”), creepy (“Is that a Playtex under there?”), or just unsettling (“We put people in front of cars”).

The rule in either case is keep it simple, stupid.

“Logos and names need to be simple and easily recognized for buyers to have a chance at remembering them,” says Bonnie Taylor, VP of strategic marketing for CCS Innovations, a marketing and creative services firm. “Every brand also needs a tag line that instantly explains the business. The best tag lines are short and share enough information to lure a buyer into reading more.”

Tag-lines that hit the mark include Geico's “15 minutes could save you…” and L'Oreal's “Because you're worth it,” says Taylor. And if you manage to be short, clever, and memorable – like Jolly Plumbing's “A flush beats a full house” – you're golden.

Dumb branding mistake #3: Phony baloneys

Just say the words “Harley Davidson,” and your senses are flooded with the mingled aroma of grease and leather, the bone-rattling roar of a1300-cc four-stroke engine, the delightfully refreshing taste of a white wine cooler.

Did we just say wine cooler? Yes, we did. For a few twisted moments in the mid 1980s, the iconic motorcycle maker decided to expand its brand to encompass a line of wine coolers (as well as colognes). That went over about as well as you'd expect, says Barry Silverstein, an instructor for the online course, Big Brand Strategies for Small Brands.

The problem? The brand did not stay true to its core ethos, says Dora Drimalas, principle and creative director at Hybrid Design. “Anything that does not align with the core of the brand is not authentic to who the business is and what they do.”

Likewise, many brands fail because they're inconsistent. Brands need to be consistent only for the types of products or services they offer, but also with regard to logos, fonts, colors, and other design elements across all forms of media, says Kyle Lin, Art Director of 99designs, an international online graphic design marketplace.

“Your goal is to create a brand that's memorable, and consumers are more likely to remember you if the visual messages they receive across your marketing collateral are consistent,” Lin says. “Every piece of your brand identity should relate to one another. They don't have to match exactly, but the relationship between them should be clear.”

Dumb branding mistake #4: Social media moronitude

All the hard work you put in choosing the right name, designing the perfect logo, and staying true to your core beliefs can be obliterated in 140 characters or less.

The poster child for egregious use of Twitter has to be shoemaker Kenneth Cole, which has used riots in Egypt and debates over gun control to promote its footwear. Running a close second is Epicurious, which used the occasion of the Boston Marathon bombing to tweet out promos for cranberry scones and breakfast cereals.

Even innocuous promotional tweets can come off as tone deaf  when everyone else is talking about a national tragedy, notes Lisa Tilt, founder of branding firm Full Tilt Consulting.

“Don’t be the company that blindly continues to promote itself when the rest of the Twitterverse is updating, conversing and mourning the fallout,” she says.

Social media can be a minefield even for well-established brands like McDonalds. Last January, the fast food giant attempted to use the hashtag #McDStories to elicit fond memories of Big Macs and Mayor McCheese, only to have it hijacked by Twitter users with a less rosy point of view. Like:

Fingernail in my BigMac once #McDStories

Dude said he found a roach on his sandwich #McDStories

Mmm, nuggets. Full of chicken. Eyes and feet and bones and all. #McDStories

My father used to bring us to McDonalds as a reward when we were kids.Now he's horribly obese and has diabetes. Lesson learned #McDStories

The lesson learned here: When it comes to social media, tread carefully.

The comforting part? No matter what branding mistakes you've made or are about to make, somebody much bigger than you has probably done worse.So relax, you're in good company.