Top Mistakes Made in the Name of Branding

Last week we laid out the basics of cost, convenience, and cool in branding. Here’s what you don’t want to do in your ads.

A great tag line will brand your company and make you the next Coke. What genius thought up “For the Driver Human”? Does that differentiate the company from all the companies selling to the “Driver Inhuman”?

Spend a fortune on a big marketing blast. Why would a company spend $60 million for a campaign featuring a sock puppet? Does this amusing set of commercials point out clearly defined benefits to the consumer? recently was put to sleep. An article about its demise stated:

    “Underlying that weak stock price were several business problems, including a reluctance among consumers to shop for their pets online, costly shipping charges for bulk items like kitty litter, and severe discounting to compete with stores like and”

Were these things that could have been considered before the site was launched?

Many years ago, Alka-Seltzer created one of the most memorable commercials of all time. It showed a man in obvious agony who had just finished a huge bowl of pasta. His line, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” became a national buzz phrase. But guess what happened? Alka-Seltzer’s sales went down. Turns out that people don’t think it’s funny when their buttons are popping off their shirts. They want relief. Other boring antacids gained ground. Their ads simply promised to make us all feel less bloated.

People are creatures of habit. It’s hard to get us to change. My wife and I had to deal with a serious issue when we first started dating. I grew up in a Hellmann’s mayonnaise household. She grew up in a (God forbid) Miracle Whip household. There was no way in hell I would ever use Miracle Whip, and she felt the same about Hellmann’s. Old habits die hard. We worked it out. Our kids use mustard.

Lesson: Unless you create something that can overtake such deep-rooted behavior, you’re in trouble.

Waiting for the ball to drop. Companies change their ad agencies and strategies constantly. Long-term planning in this industry is six months. Product managers come and go. What kind of consistency is built with a new contact person every few months? The first thing these new managers do is put the account in review or change strategy so they can put their stamp on it. Do you know when most ad agencies are the most nervous? When everything is going just great. It usually means the ball will be dropping soon.

Most of your audience doesn’t care. Most of your audience doesn’t spend the hundreds of hours obsessing about your product category as you do.

Example: I used to work for a major credit card company. I would write copy begging people to accept a preapproved offer for credit. Then, 40 or 50 coworkers would dissect, rewrite, edit, and butcher my copy until it resembled a mishmash of crap. For what? How many credit card offers do you receive in the mail? Most of us get 10 to 20 per month. When is the last time you brewed a cup of General Foods International Coffee, picked out your favorite cushion in the bay window, and curled up with a credit card mailing? It’s the rate, stupid! If you sent a piece of brown kraft paper with the words, “1.1 percent APR for life,” you’d get the biggest response in history.

Stop using jargon. It’s a scary idea, but just try going a full day without saying:

  • Value-added (What the heck does this mean to anyone?)

  • Best practice
  • Benchmark
  • Out-of-the-box (not the terrific Disney program for kids)
  • Touch base

If you look at ads targeted toward other businesses, you will invariably find some of the worst jargon violators. It has nothing to do with branding; it’s just laziness. Talking above people’s heads isn’t smart — it’s arrogant. The next time your ad includes the phrase “mission-critical,” cross it out, and replace it with a word or two that means something to someone, like “essential.”

Talk one to one. This axiom is almost universally violated. When you’re thinking about an ad, whether it’s in a magazine, on TV, or in a letter, visualize whom you are writing it to. If your ad isn’t written for an individual to receive a benefit for what you’re selling, you’re wasting your client’s money.

There. I feel better now. I hope that the basics of cost, convenience, and cool make sense to you. Branding is a wonderful concept, but if you’re branding a product with no point of differentiation, it’s like putting a tuxedo on a pig. It looks silly and really ticks off the pig.

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