Bad branding: how to avoid the worst branding mistakes


Bad branding can be the worst version of iconic. Remember the awkward-looking logo of the 2012 London Olympics? Or the US’ anti-drug campaign, headed by the meticulously thought out slogan; “Meth. We’re on it.”.

We thought so. Don’t catapult your brand to fame for all the wrong reasons; check out the article below to learn how to avoid common branding mistakes and steer your brand straight to success.

What does “bad branding” mean?

Bad branding can actually be worse than no branding at all, which makes it markedly different from other facets of your business. For example, “zero sales” is the worst possible sales scenario. Similarly, having “zero product support” is rock bottom from a customer experience standpoint. But, branding is different; brand damage is bottomless.

The same way that a bad reputation is worse than no reputation at all, bad branding can actually be worse than zero. A branding mistake—if it’s bad enough—can send you plummeting to the complete demise of your business.

bad branding stinks: an illustration
You’d be surprised at how much bad branding stinks. By OrangeCrush

Customers wouldn’t be oblivious or indifferent to your badly-curated brand; they’d be avoidant, seeking your competitors and growing them while they shrink your market share. In that sense, a bad brand is very effective advertising—for your closest competitors.

The internet never forgets bad branding and many of these woeful companies have garnered a ton of attention for their branding mistakes—the wrong kind of attention—scorn, ridicule, mockery and worse. You may have heard that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”; the gravestones of blundersome companies with ruined brands beg to differ.

The damage stemming from carelessly designed logos, advertisements with unintentional hidden meaning and other oversights that are obvious in hindsight will reverberate for years afterward. This brand damage is pervasive and multifaceted, making it difficult to measure accurately, but there are a few metrics that can quantify and clarify:

  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) aggregates customer feedback,
  • Share of voice tracks how much of the conversation surrounding your industry is about your brand,
  • Brand recall measures how reliably your brand comes to customers’ minds when thinking of your industry.

Strong brands have these metrics trending upward over time, but brand blunders can lead to a correlating (or causal) decline in these scores, which is almost assuredly followed by less effective marketing, lower sales and diminished revenue.

But, the good news is, whether you are a designer or not, you can spot, anticipate and prevent a branding blunder… and doing so just may turn you into the unsung hero of your workplace.

Branding, marketing, logos and how they relate

Before we delve into bad branding mistakes and how to avoid them, we should draw some distinctions between branding, marketing and logos. These three facets are closely interrelated components of your company’s public presence, but they are not synonymous.

A hot logo design by Terry Bogard

So, what is a brand? Some define a brand as a promise made from company to customer. Your advertising team may define a brand instead as the cumulative sum of all advertising, earned media and other impressions made on the public. Your customer experience team may say that a brand is a reputation. Lastly, your customers themselves may contend that a brand is a feeling that they have about your company.

I prefer to keep all of these definitions in mind; consider them different facets of your brand, each stemming from its own company mission, advertising, reputation or emotional standpoint.

Marketing takes many forms, but it is essentially the ongoing process of winning the awareness, interest, business and loyalty—in that order—from prospective customers. A company’s brand, reputation, public presence and associated feelings obviously have a profound influence over that process. A great brand can streamline sales and a branding mistake can grind them to a halt.

Finally, a logo is simply a distinct, recognizable visual representation of the company, its brand and its product offering. While it may seem like simple work to those inattentive to the nuance and details involved, it is tremendously difficult to encompass everything that a company offers into a simple, singular design that conveys the right message, suits all purposes and mediums and deftly navigates through a minefield of potential branding mistakes.

ship logo design is the antithesis of bad branding
Steer your branding voyage carefully. Design by Studio yknot

Saving your company from a branding blunder

When launching a new brand or reviving an old one, a well-organized company will make the most of its collective brainpower, experience and expertise.

You might think that non-designers are less capable of spotting a branding mistake, but they can often see an impending obstacle that others have looked past in their unintentional “tunnel vision” on the most detailed aspects of the newly-crafted brand. There are a number of errors that can prove cataclysmic for your brand. Show awareness and keep the following in mind:

Common branding catastrophes

1. Cold email campaigns

There is little more alarming than seeing “cold email campaigns” written into an email marketing strategy. It’s intrusive, suspicious and generally generic. Unless of course, you are aiming to end up in a spam folder or to be reported as a Phishing scammer, avoid sending out cold email campaigns at all costs. The likelihood is your audience will not welcome this.

2. Ignoring SEO

We are in a Google-centric digital era. If you don’t monopolize this to master SEO, you risk falling behind competitors at a dangerous level. Your target audience should never find it difficult to find or access your brand—and ignoring SEO means they’re going to be up against it. Instead, find out what keywords that are relevant to your brand message are trending and how they’re being searched. You can then come up with a strategy to work out your brand’s response to this.

As part of this, it’s also good to keep in mind your site will rank better if it has a more legitimate-sounding web address. If your domain is already taken, see if there’s any room for exploration with your name, otherwise you can try and buy the domain of its current user, or you may need to go back to square one and think of a new name concept.

3. Poor web design

If you have a digital presence, it needs to be a strong one. Unfortunate design choices cause negative experiences for users when accessing and using your site, which reflects badly upon your brand. It leads to distrust between user and brand; a therefore negative brand perception and, ultimately, a loss in potential sales.

Web design is something worth investing in; it enables small businesses especially to extend their reach much further than would have otherwise been possible in an in-real-life setting. This means a larger audience, a wider impact and more potential sales.

4. Lack of consistency

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, inconsistent branding is a recipe for disaster. It conveys to audiences that you’re not sure who you are or what you stand for. It hinders successful communication with audiences and, again, results in a lack of customer trust and negative brand perception. The way to achieve consistent branding is through honing in on your brand identity and creating a strong and thorough brand style guide.

5. A disconnect with the audience

Failing to research target audiences makes it hard to know how to connect with them.

inclusive audience illustration
Find your group and understand how to interact with them! Illustration by Fe Melo

It’s worth investigating the psychology behind branding, to understand how forming emotional connections and positive interactions will win over customers. Designs need to be inclusive and accessible to attract as wide a net of people as possible.

6. Being ‘fake’

Authenticity is at the heart of the majority of successful brands. Sure, brands who “fake it” can reach success as well, but you live and work with the risk of customers finding out and revolting.

With climate change dominating much of the news at present, there’s an ongoing shift in society that means customers more and more are wanting to see brands practice sustainability and hold themselves accountable in doing so. “Greenwashing” is a prime example of brands faking it to fit in with trends; it’s misleading, unethical and an unsustainable method for your brand.

7. Being generic

As we’ve mentioned above, coming across as generic is not ideal. What constitutes generic branding, you may wonder?

  • Relying too heavily on stock imagery
  • Skimping on your core branding elements; e.g. using a logo generator to provide your brand with a generic logo
  • Having a brand name that sounds or looks similar to competitors’
  • Offering a product/service that is similar to competitors’—without surpassing them in terms of quality
  • Using non-specific terms in your copy

The more generic your brand, the less special you appear to your audience. This means the less chance you have to catch their attention and connect with them emotionally. All too often, brands that tick off the above bullet points feel haphazard and unprofessional. A generic brand reflects a brand without innovation or an interesting personality and who’d want to buy into that?

Flying into a branding blunder: a case study

A restaurant firm launched an eatery in a U.S. airport. After exhaustive market research, careful consideration of their competitors, planning, permitting and other logistics, they settled on a steakhouse as the theme of the restaurant.

All of the research suggested it would succeed. There was nothing like it in any wing or terminal of the airport. Flights from the meat-loving midwest were constantly landing hundreds of potential diners at their doorstep. Other restaurateurs had missed this brilliant idea and left this type of cuisine vacant.

So, they hired a design team to build a brand, installed a quarter-million dollars worth of industrial grills, structured relationships with local high-quality meat producers and were nearly ready for their grand opening. A nearby aircraft technician caught word of the upcoming launch of the steakhouse and his first thought stunned the investors: “But how do they cut the steaks?”

steering clear of bad branding: bag design featuring a pilot
Pilot your brand like it is precious cargo. Design by Ange!a

These expert entrepreneurs were dumbstruck. They had been so immersed in their process that they overlooked the fact that you can’t give serrated steel steak knives to travelers in an airport. They’d already ordered thousands of dollars in cutlery and designed their layout and service process with the assumption that customers would be cutting thick steaks with large finely-sharpened knives.

Knives were prominently part of the logo. The chosen restaurant name included the word “cut.” The whole brand identity relied upon knives that were absolutely prohibited in the venue. There was a ton of waste as they spent thousands redesigning the logo, reconstructing the signage, changing the menu and repositioning the restaurant layout to be a buffet where the knives stayed behind the counter in the hand of the chefs.

That’s how quickly and easily one of these costly mistakes can happen.

So, how can you prevent branding mistakes at your own company?

Pick a great designer and take full advantage of their expertise

Your designer can help with much more than the aesthetics of the branding work. Relay any market research, positioning strategies and past marketing/branding challenges to your design team, whether they are part of your full-time staff or a contracted freelancer. It’s bad for both designer and client to limit your design talent to being nothing more than an illustrator of your own branding ideas.

If you instead articulate your goals in broad, abstract terms, you’ll be leveraging the full value, expertise and experience of your design team. Just as importantly, you’ll empower them to detect and avoid branding pitfalls and mistakes. It’s far better to give them too much background information than too little.

Involve your full staff, not just your design team

There may be organizational knowledge that could save you from the effects of poor branding and that knowledge may not necessarily come from within your marketing, branding, design, or PR teams. It’s possible that your organization has already designed something similar and you may be unknowingly repeating a mistake.

At another job, during a very expensive production of a science documentary, our video editor found numerous typos and factual errors in our educational film. Those mistakes would have damaged the credibility of the film and the brand behind it had they made it to the final cut.

Video editors are typically charged with spotting continuity errors in a film, such as an unexpected change in clothing, background, or lighting), but they are rarely expected to proofread or research the subject matter, so these potential mistakes were spotted and stopped by someone going outside the scope of their work.

office scene at work
Get everyone at the office involved, by felipe_charria

If you similarly involve your staff, invite their feedback and create the circumstances for them to catch a branding mistake, it will stop an expensive and damaging mistake and set a great example of teamwork and collaboration in your workplace.

Even if it’s not part of your job description, you the reader might be the one to catch the oversight, giving you an honorary membership to the branding team and the gratitude of your colleagues.

Capture the customer perspective

Along similar lines, a fresh perspective on your upcoming branding plans from outside the confines of your company can reveal undetected problems and undiscovered opportunities to better your brand. This time, you’re not just recruiting help and insights from outside the design team; you’re reaching out directly to those that keep your company afloat—your customers.

Your marketing team will likely be able to segment a subset of customers that are big spenders, early adopters or spreaders of positive word of mouth. You can define your own criteria, but I’d encourage you to be as broad and inclusive as possible. It’s far less informative if you accidentally narrow in on just one customer type who you’ve already won over… we’re looking for constructive criticism here.

A simple, straightforward email campaign inviting this customer segment to provide some feedback about branding ideas will leave you with a list of willing volunteers. You’d be surprised how enthused some customers can be about a glimpse into the potential future of a product they use. Capturing feedback via surveys, webinars, polls, or similar methods is a great addition to inform your decisions.

Simple, straightforward survey tools like SurveyMonkey can be deployed in minutes and yield great insights and at the other end of the spectrum, sophisticated customer experience management tools like Clarabridge can unearth a treasure trove of valuable customer data.

The voice of the customer would have some well-deserved influence on your branding decisions and a single instance of this kind of feedback that points out a looming issue could save you enormous trouble and cost.

Think globally and futuristically

A brand is both an initial and ongoing investment. You don’t want to make that investment without futureproofing it.

blue earth branding
Think globally, like this brand here. By Gemera

If your company exists in a rapidly evolving industry such as technology or transportation, stick to abstract visuals and the conveying of a broad purpose rather than committing to imagery or symbolism that is likely to quickly look dated.

Believe it or not, Netflix once had DVDs as prominent parts of their brand imagery; you don’t need to make the same mistake and tether your brand to today’s specific methods or technologies to deliver your product.

Similarly, do the necessary research to expand your brand globally without the need to modify your brand for certain markets or territories due to trademark issues or unintended linguistic or colloquial connotations in other languages.

Factor in your brand history

The iterative past of your brand plays an important role in your brand’s future. Like a forensic scientist or archeologist, seek out the branding materials, style guides, creative and designs of the past. At the very least, this will assure you that you aren’t unknowingly repeating work (and potentially, mistakes) of the past. By process of elimination, it can rule out ideas that have already been tried or served their purpose in the past.

A less diligent designer will inadvertently fall into a cyclical design process where they are trotting out old ideas that have already been considered. Especially when it involves design work, clients are not interested in a high volume or quantity of design work; they want you to concentrate your efforts smartly into the right design with competitors, value proposition and your brand’s history considered and incorporated.

Consider your competition

Branding without studying and accommodating your competitors  is a clear mistake and the effects of poor branding can have large, quantifiable costs to your business. The purpose of your branding efforts is to stand apart and it’s hard to do that without a thorough understanding of what you need to distinguish yourselves from.

If your brand closely resembles a competitor, you are risking everything from legal issues and trademark violations to fielding expensive support inquiries from customers who bought their product but are (mistakenly) asking you to support it.

Mimicking a competing brand makes you instantly look generic. You may see white labeled food products resemble known brand leaders as closely as the legalities allow, but unless you make generic cereal or soda and are betting on a confused or price-sensitive customer picking your product, it’s not a viable strategy for your purposes.

Consider connotations and context

When producing a new brand or polishing an old one, there are many types of visual and situational mistakes that can be made. As a basic checklist, run your new branding ideas through the following thought exercises to potentially unearth a big branding problem.

  • Study the words of your new branding materials closely. Do they (unintentionally) spell anything vertically via multiple lines? Are there accidental acronyms or colloquialisms? Are there any problematic rhymes or verbal similarities? Are there any other unintentional messages?
  • Examine the negative space of your logo. Look at it sideways, reversed and upside down. Does it form any unwanted or intended shapes or imagery?
  • Check the words, syllables and rhymes of your brand with foreign languages. Do they mean something confusing or negative to certain language speakers?
  • Show your potential new brand to at least three different generations. Does it unintentionally  touch on a sensitive current or historical issue or related imagery or symbolism?

Bid farewell to branding mistakes

Goodbyes don’t always have to be sad and now you’ve read this piece, you should be firmly shutting the door on any risks of bad branding. Context, customers and quality design should be at the forefront of your mind as you begin any branding venture; with these three you can’t stray too far from success.

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