The 8 Biggest Branding Mistakes Organizations Make

The hotel had a problem. No one was coming to their happy hours.

Why? There were dozens of restaurant/bars in their area hosting happy hours.

No wonder they weren’t making any money; they were blending in. And blending in is for Cuisinarts, not for businesses.

If you want to lose money, do what everyone else is doing. If you want to make money, figure out how to lead your crowd, not follow it.

In my ten years helping individuals and organizations develop one-of-a-kind identities and approaches so they can break out, I’ve met a lot of people who have spent a lot of money developing brands and slogans that didn’t work. In fact, bad brands can cost you customers, income, momentum and market-share.

I’ve kept track of the 8 biggest branding mistakes business make. I share them here so you can do the opposite of these errors and develop a Purposeful, Original and Profitable brand that gets you noticed . . . for all the right reasons.

#1 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: Their Brand Doesn’t Pass the Eyebrow Test

“There are few times in life when it isn’t overly dramatic to say your destiny hangs on the impression you make.” – Barbara Walters

What do Google, Roomba, Boppy and Yahoo all have in common?

They all are fun-to-say, easy-to-remember brand names that have made their companies millions.

Want a tangible way to check the commercial viability of your brand name anytime, anywhere . . . for free?

Simply tell people your brand name . . . and watch their eyebrows. If their eyebrows knit or furrow, it’s back to the drawing board. It means they’re perplexed. And if people find your brand name perplexing, you’ve got a problem.

Why? People are way too busy to take the time to figure out something that’s confusing. If they don’t instantly get your brand name, YOU won’t get their business.

The Eyebrow Test is an almost infallible way to test market your brand name’s appeal. If people’s eyebrows go UP as soon as they’re introduced to it, it means they’re intrigued. This is a visceral almost involuntary indication of curiosity. It’s the mind’s way of saying, “Hmm, this is interesting, tell me more.”

Are people favorably impressed with your brand name or slogan the first time they encounter it? If so, good for you. If not, you might want to purchase a copy of POP! (which Ken Blanchard calls a “lively guide to getting results,”) and turn to Chapters 16-18 to discover how you can coin an easy-to-pronounce-and-remember brand name that makes eyebrows and sales go UP.

#2 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: They are One-of-Many

“It’s not enough to be the best at what you do, you must be perceived as the only one who does what you do.” – Jerry Garcia

Remember the hotel I referred to at the beginning of this article with the unsuccessful happy hours? Well, the enterprising manager kept looking for a way to stand out.

One day, he noticed that one of their loyal patrons tied his dog up outside when he came in for a cold one after work. Light-bulb moment. Why not offer a special happy hour for people who wanted to bring their poor pooches who had been cooped up all day while their owner was away? They could put out water bowls, hand out dog biscuits and offer a discount on beer so it was a win for everyone.

What to call this? Well, use a POP! technique called Alphabetizing in which you talk your key word through the alphabet, “Aappy Hour, Bappy Hour, Cappy Hour, Dappy Hour” . . . and you eventually get to Yappy Hour!

You may be thinking, “Big deal, so it’s a clever name.”

You bet it’s a big deal. The Washington Post wrote about the throngs of people showing up for the restaurant’s wildly popular (and profitable) Yappy Hour. That article was picked up by a hundred newspapers across the U.S. Now, millions of people know about the Alexandria, VA Holiday Inn’s one-of-a-kind Yappy Hour . . . all because the manager wasn’t content to be common.

If your business is not making as much money as it could or should; chances are you’re offering the same services and products as everyone else. Keep your antennae up for what customers want and can’t find . . . and offer that. It’s a way to stand out from the crowd instead of get lost in the crowd.

#3 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: They’re Content with a Common Name

“When you can do a common thing in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” – George Washington Carver

Sure, you can call your business The Nail Place – or you can call it Texas Chainsaw Manicure. Guess which salon attracts clients from around the world because people read about it in a magazine or saw it featured on TV?

In the hyper-competitive meeting industry, Convention Visitor Bureaus have the daunting task of trying to convince corporations and associations to bring their conferences to theircity . . . .when there are hundreds of other options.

I had a chance to speak for MPI (Meeting Planners International), and met the Convention Sales Manager for Seattle’s CVB office in Washington DC. Stephanie told me Seattle hit the jackpot by coining an original brand – Metro-Natural — that’s generated a billion dollars (yes, that’s a b) in buzz and free publicity. That Half & Half term cleverly captures the dual nature of the city’s cosmopolitan yet park-like setting. Well done.

Jay Sorenson saw what everyone else saw – those cardboard insulating sleeves you put around your cup of coffee so you don’t burn your fingers- and turned them into a 15 million dollar a year business. How? By giving a generic product a genius name – Java Jacket. Sorenson said, “That trademarked brand is worth more than our patents – it has such a dominant market awareness that people who meant to call our competitors call us instead.” That’s the power of giving a common product a catchy name that gets it noticed, remembered . . . and bought.

#4 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: They Don’t Listen To Their Customers Whine

“The way to a man’s heart is through his opinion.” – Malcolm Forbes

What?!” you may be asking in disbelief. “Why should I listen to people complain?” Because they’re telling you their opinions and problems. If you fix their problems and listen to their opinions, they’ll flock to you.

For example, a Hawaii dive shop got tired of turning away customers who didn’t have a current scuba certification.

Solution? Why not run an air hose from the dive boat that people can keep in their mouth, kind of like an elongated snorkel? This way, you can swim with the fishes to your heart’s content. There’s no risk because you’re only 10-20 feet down and can resurface in seconds. You don’t have to haul around heavy oxygen tanks or mess with a regulator. And no certification is necessary so anyone can do this.

This Equity Idea spawned a multi-million dollar industry – partially because solved a problem their customers were having and partially because they used a POP! technique called “Half & Half” to coin a brand new name for this brand new activity.

It’s half snorkel – half scuba; it’s SNUBA! Give your invention an attention-grabbing name and people will seek you out because you’re offering a first-of-its-kind option.

#5 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: Their Marketing Messages are Way Too Serious

Art Buchwald said, “I learned when I made people laugh, they liked me.”

Study your signage, web copy, ads and marketing slogans. Do they make you smile or laugh? If not, they could be costing you sales.

Inject some humor into your marketing to increase likability. When Coca-Cola launched Coke Zero, their goal was to convince consumers who didn’t like the Diet Coke taste that this new option was the real thing.

Their witty ads cleverly make that point and have generated a double-digit growth in sales – which constitutes a LOT of money in the $90 billion beverage industry. A USA Todayarticle lauded their success with a half-page article that pictured their ad, “Tastes so much like Coke, our lawyers have contacted our lawyers.”

Vegetarian alert. Just because you don’t eat meat doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a delicious holiday turkey. Thanks to Turtle Island Foods, you can have a Tofurky (270,000 people bought one last year). As founder Seth Tibbott says, “We’re fine with the fact that people think the name is funny. People remember jokes.”

Saddled with a difficult nickname, the Sioux City, Iowa airport considered asking the FAA if they could change it. In a bold move, they decided to capitalize on their three-letter identifier, SUX, instead of apologize for it. Their new marketing campaign FlyingSUX and its associated line of FlySUX t-shirts and caps have become such a hit, airlines have added flights. “Now the whole world knows about us,” boasts Airport Director Rick McElroy.

#6 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: Their Brand is Too Bland

“Only dead fish swim with the stream all the time.” – Linda Ellerbee

By doing the opposite, not the obvious. Here are several ways to introduce something that is unique to you instead of duplicating what’s already available.

Go where your competitors aren’t. Enterprise wanted to enter the car rental business but Hertz and Avis dominated the market. So, Enterprise asked themselves, “What do our competitors all have in common?” Well, they’re all situated by airports – so Enterprise decided to locate their rental centers in neighborhoods.

Offer what your competitors aren’t. What didn’t rental car agencies offer? No pick up or drop off service – so Enterprise offers to pick you up and drop you off at your hotel or workplace. This much-welcomed service has resulted in Enterprise becoming one of the top three agencies in that multi-billion dollar industry because they successfully identified two specific P.O.D.’s – Points of Distinction.

Turn your industry on its head. After 40 years of pounding our palms against the bottom of catsup bottles in a futile effort to get the slow-moving condiment out, Heinz had a “Duh” moment and turned its bottles upside down. Target did something similar with an upside-down Christmas tree. Yup, the pointy part’s on the bottom. Their reasoning? More room for presents! This novel product generated tons of press and be-the-first-on-your-block-to-have-one sales.

Be an UN. Ask yourself, “How are all my competitors alike? How can I be UN-like them?” This is what 7-Up did. Instead of going head to head with Coca-Cola and Pepsi, it offered an alternative to all the dark soda pops and became the UN-Cola.

Reverse an industry norm. In the 60’s, Detroit auto-makers were turning out large, luxury automobiles. So, Volkswagen went small. They figured there were consumers who didn’t want or need a station-wagon or a four door, so they introduced the “Bug,” a two-door for budget-minded people (i.e., college students and young adults).

Volkswagen didn’t stop there. They capitalized on their P.O.D. in self-deprecating ads that turned their small size into a proud, viable option to gas-guzzlers. One full -page ad featured 75 % blank space with a tiny Volkswagen Beetle in the lower right hand corner. The one-sentence caption said, “It makes your house look bigger.”

#7 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: Their Brand Name is Nonsensical

“The soul never thinks without a mental picture.” – Aristotle

Brand names that don’t make sense are off-putting. If your name consists of a string of letters that are meaningful only to you, it’ll be tough to grasp and ever tougher to relate to. And if people can’t relate to your company or product name, why would they want it?

My master mind buddy, Marilynn Mobley, Senior Vice President of Edelman, the #1 rated PR agency in the United States, told me about a startling study that was done with preschoolers that illustrates the power of making your brand name visual. Researchers asked these youngsters what sounds barn-yard animals make. When asked, “What sound do sheep make?” they said, “Baa.”

When asked, “What sound do cows make?” they said, “Moo.”

When asked, “What sound do ducks make?” the kids said, “AFLAC!”

Wow. That’s branding.

AFLAC, the huge insurance giant, had a branding challenge. People were reluctant to entrust AFLAC with something as important as their life insurance because they didn’t know what the name “stood for.”

So, in an effort to make their name more “relatable,” asked themselves, “What does AFLAC sound like, look like in the real world?” Well, with a little stretch, it looks and sounds like a duck who quacks. This was the genesis of their popular ads featuring a lovable duck quacking “AFLAC.” GEICO (Government Employees Insurance Company) achieved a similar success by using a friendly gecko as their visual icon and “spokesperson” (spokes-lizard?).

It’s a mistake to keep a brand name consumers don’t understand, relate to or want. Follow AFLAC and GEICO’s example and create a visual icon people associate with you so they “get the picture.” Connect your company’s name to something in the concrete world people can touch, feel, smell or taste. All of a sudden, something obscure becomes clear. Something nonsensical makes sense. Instead of going “Huh?!” people will say, “Oh, I see now” or “I get it.” And when they get it, chances are you’ll get it.

#8 Branding Mistake Organizations Make: They Can’t Explain Their Brand in 15 Seconds or Less

“My grandfather actually invented Cliff Notes. It was in 1952, and he was . . . well, to make a long story short.” – Steven Wright

Remember when Andy Warhol said everyone would get15 minutes of fame? In today’s rush-rush world, we don’t have that long to get people’s attention. We have about 15 seconds.

If we can’t quickly explain our brand in a way that people get it and want it, they will move on. That’s why it’s crucial to “Cliff Note” your brand’s story into a concise, compelling Elevator Speech that captures interest in your offering in15 seconds or less.

Sound like an impossible dream? Not if you link your unfamiliar brand to something with which people are familiar and fond. The secret is not to try to explain your brand. The more you try to explain what your brand does, the more confused potential customers will become. Instead, ask yourself, “What is my brand like . . . that my target audience already knows and likes?’

I learned the power of this concept while in Denver for a speaking engagement with my teen-aged sons. We had a night free, so we went downstairs to the hotel concierge and asked if he had any suggestions for a fun night out.

He took one look at Tom and Andrew and said, “You’ve got to go to D & B’s.”

We were from Maui at the time and had no idea what he was talking about. We asked, “What’s D & B’s.”

The concierge did NOT try to explain what D & B’s was. Imagine if he had said, “Well, it’s kind of like a restaurant, but it’s also a sports bar and they’ve got video games and TV’s, and sometimes guys go there to watch football or play pool. But families go there too to play carnival games, kind of like an indoor amusement park.”

We would have looked at him in consternation and said, “Huh?” It’s just TMI (Too Much Information.) The longer he talked, the more baffled we would have become.

Instead, he thought about it for a moment, smiled and said simply, “It’s like a Chuck E. Cheese for adults.”

Perfect. Eight words and we knew exactly what it was and wanted to go there. By comparing D & B’s (something new) to Chuck E. Cheese (something we knew), he “told and sold” their brand in one succinct sentence. They should have put him on commission.

How do you introduce your brand? Remember, don’t explain it. Ask yourself, “What is my brand like . . . that these potential customers like?” If you compare your idea, company, product or service to something with which they’re familiar and fond, the light will go on in their eyes and their eyebrows will rise. That’s they way to win buy-in.

© 2008 – 2015, Sam Horn. All rights reserved.