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How To Totally Tank Your Brand Without Ever Leaving Your Website

By December 4, 2013February 1st, 2018Website Design & Marketing
How To Totally Tank Your Brand Without Ever Leaving Your Website

Make mistakes much? Don’t we all!

The nice thing about mistakes is the “learning from them” part. The not-so-nice thing is that there are about a million billion trillion octillion (yes, exact number…) of them that can be avoided if only you had just a teensy bit of information to apply to the situation.

That goes for representing your brand on your website. You can either learn the hard way – or you can take some fundamental advice and avoid the whole mess.

Unless you’re mindful of the basics, your website can reflect poorly on your brand, create a confusing experience for your customers, undermine your credibility and quite possibly lose you business.

Want to do it wrong? Here’s how! (Plus some alternatives, too.)

Use Clipart

Is your brand generic and lazy? Do you want to subtly tell customers that you’re either so broke that you can’t afford a graphic or that you just don’t care a fig about the image you portray? Then go ahead and use clipart!

Otherwise, if you can’t afford a custom design then skip the “design” part and stick to using layout, color and typography to create interest.

If you’re using WordPress, get a theme. There are about a skwillion free and low-cost themes that come completely designed, sans clipart.

I touched on this recently when I talked about recognizing when your website needs a redesign.

I cannot stress enough how unprofessional it is to use generic, free, lazy clipart on your website.

Repeat after me: Clipart does not belong on my business website. I will use custom graphics or none at all.

Use Generic Stock Photos

Do you want people to think you’re just a tired-and-typical brand? Do you want to blend into the noise like just one more guy-in-a-white-shirt? Then use generic stock photos!

Otherwise, if you really, really, really, REALLY need to use photos (and absolutely cannot get a single, decent custom photo) then spend some time finding a few that not every person on the planet can recognize as the first thing that shows up on page one of any generic stock business search.

I also touched on this one here, in a rant about photos.

Using generic photos on your website is like showing up to the party wearing the same dress as six other people. Tired. Uncreative. A real snicker-fest.

Repeat after me: I will never use a photo of a generic person smiling into the camera with his arms folded across his chest or a customer service rep smiling at the computer with a headset on her head.

Don’t Write Good

Do you want to portray the image that you’re lazy, untrustworthy or incompetent? Are you building a bottom-of-the-barrel brand without even the time, resources or concern for something as simple as knowing the difference between “to” and “too”? Then go ahead and write badly!

Writing badly includes everything from typos to poor grammar. Poor writing is distracting at best, a deal-killer at worst. And I’m only talking about logistics here – this is the most basic of the basics, before we even get to things like writing “good” content. Whatever your content, it should be 100% error-free.

Spellcheck is a good start but there’s no substitute for a proofreader. Sometimes you’re too close to something to recognize mistakes. Trust me, I know! Typos make their way into my blog posts and that’s after six readings. It’s embarrassing every time.

Repeat after me: I will never publish content on my business site without waiting a day and then rereading it. When at all possible, I will hire a professional proofreader.

Make Sure It Doesn’t Match Any Of Your Other Marketing Materials

Do you want to create a schizophrenic brand that nobody can recognize? Do you want to confuse customers so that they leave your website or decide you can’t be trusted? Then go ahead and mix it up!

Otherwise, make sure that your website is consistent with all of your marketing materials in style, content and tone. That means you could drop your business card into a stack of a hundred and someone could pick it out based on looking at your website. It means you could put up a billboard in Times Square tomorrow and when people visit your website it will be instantly recognizable as the same company.

Your brand is, in part, a visual representation of your company. You can’t create a brand if your visual cues are scatted from one end of the rainbow to the other end of the font list.

Interesting tidbit: before children develop language and reading abilities, they learn to recognize symbols. You could put a mute infant in a car and drive by six McDonald’s and that kid will recognize those arches every time. Do you think they’d be able to do that if one restaurant had arches and one had bubbles and one was red and one blue?

Repeat after me: If any of my marketing materials are mismatched I will throw them out right now and create a consistent brand image that even a two-year-old can recognize.

Put Lipstick On A Pig

Do you want to (continue to) confuse customers? Do you want to disappoint and send visitors elsewhere looking for what they need? Then obsess about your design!

A beautiful site does not mean an effective one. I’ve seen some pretty bland-looking sites meet their functions perfectly. And some gorgeous ones miss the mark altogether.

You can’t hide crummy content, insufficient value and a poor experience under brilliant graphics. Oh sure, you can try – but once people get over their “ooh-shiny” moment, they’re going to notice that your product descriptions stink, that there’s no incentive for them to do business with you and that they’ve got more questions than you’ve provided answers.

Repeat after me: Content and value reflect my brand more than award-winning design. I will keep it simple and effective.

Go Nuts With Formatting

Do you want to (keep on keeping on) confusing customers? Do you want to prevent your visitors from reading anything on your site, buying or contacting you? Then enjoy the formatting toolbar!

We wrote about this one, too.

Part of the problem arises with the loose interpretation of the word “design”. Ask a designer and he will tell you that a boxed, white page with a 27-point Georgia font is stunningly designed. Most regular people don’t think something is designed unless it’s got colors and photos and graphics and lots of pretty stuff to look at.

Somewhere in the middle there is a practical solution. And somewhere in the middle is usually where people get lost with the formatting toolbar, trying out colors and font sizes and word art in an attempt to “design” their site.

This is especially true if you’ve got a WordPress site where the formatting toolbar sort of mocks you if the only button you ever click is “bold”. And quadruply-crippling if you’ve discovered one of those amazing plugins that extends the formatting toolbar with about a skadillion additional options with shortcodes for buttons, boxes, accordions, tabs, highlights, pullquotes…

Kind of makes you woozy just thinking about it, like I used to feel about a brand new box of Crayola 64s.

But all this formatting and “design” only serves to confuse your brand image. It clutters the visual experience. It muddies the tone and style. It doesn’t say much about who you are except a guy with a toolbar.

Repeat after me: My website is not an art project. I will resist assimilation into the Borg… er, toolbar.

Talk Like A CEO

Do you want people to think you spent last weekend high and way too amused by the Gobbledygook Generator? Do you want your brand to sound corporate, stuffy and detached from reality? Then go ahead and use CEO-speak!

That includes utterly defanged words like synergy, paradigm and leverage. I read someone’s bio recently and it was three paragraphs of how he wanted to service and leverage and differentiate… and by the end I had no idea what he actually did.

Your web copy has to speak to your customers. It’s not a term paper. It’s not an essay. It’s certainly not someone’s version of a corporate mission statement. Loosen the tie and talk to people in language they understand.

Repeat after me: I am not a robot. I will humanize my brand by speaking to my customers as if they’re sitting across the table.

Go All Blah Blah Blah On Your About Page

Do you want to bore your visitors to death? Do you want them to feel detached from and disinterested in your brand? Then make your about page all about you!

I know, it sounds like a contradiction. Your about page is supposed to be about you.

But not really.

Your about page, when done well, pretends to be about you while it makes your customers think it’s really about them.

Yes, we covered the topic of writing a good about page, too.

Yes, you get to “tell your story” on your about page. But that story has to tie into what your customers want and need somehow. If it doesn’t, they won’t identify with your brand and will more likely feel disconnected – as if you’re talking at them instead of with them.

Use your about page to do your brand a favor and showcase your culture, your personality, your staff, your values – and why those things matter to your customer.

Repeat after me: My customer is the center by which all suns rise and set. I will include my customers in my story and make my brand matter in their lives.

Leave Out The Benefits

Do you want people to be impressed but never quite buy? Are you secretly working for the competition? Then skip the benefits!

It’s surprising how many companies still confuse features with benefits.

A feature is: this alarm clock has 273 settings in 14 languages with 900 sounds and even works underwater. (Impressive, no?)

A benefit is: you will never miss an appointment again, even if you’re scuba diving in Majorca. (And now I care!)

Part of your brand is the promise you make to customers – why are your products or services worthwhile and meaningful to them? What’s the reason for doing business with you and not Other Arbitrary Brand With Similar Products Or Services?

The only way to convey that promise and that meaning is to put it in terms your customers understand, and this goes right back to the previous point: all suns rise and set around your customer.

If you look at your website and it is not immediately and glaringly obvious what value you provide and why it matters to your customer then you really might as well be working for the competition.

Repeat after me: I will make a list of my product’s or service’s features and convert them into benefits by asking, “Why does this matter?” I will plaster those benefits on every page of my site.

Forget To Say What You Do

Do you want a bounce rate higher than a circus performer? Is the sole purpose of your website to generate cool traffic graphs for the CEO? Then skip saying what you do!

But if you actually want to make a sale or generate a lead, what you do needs to be abundantly clear within three seconds of anyone landing on your website.

Try this: ask ten people who have never been to your website to visit it and tell you what they think you do. Give them five seconds to figure it out. If even one of them can’t, it might be time to reconsider. More than one? You’ve got a problem.

It’s consistently shocking to me how many websites never articulate what the company does. If you can’t even get clear on that, then how clear can you possibly be on your brand and what it promises, what it represents and why it matters?

You’ve probably been told to work on your 30-second pitch – the one where you corner someone in an elevator and have about six floors to explain yourself and convince them why it matters.

Well, think of your website more like your 3-second pitch. If you can’t state what you do in a single sentence and make that sentence stand out at first glance, you’re losing opportunities every day.

Repeat after me: I will spend a long time completing the following statement: My company provides ______(product or service)  so that ______(benefit to customer). Even after I’ve spent what feels like half of my life on this exercise, I will do it a little longer.

Your Website: Brand Central Or Brand Nightmare?

Your website is your home base for marketing. It’s often the first place people will look for more information about you and it will quite possibly be their first impression of you.

If it reflects your brand in a cohesive, consistent and meaningful way then you’ve got a powerful ally. So watch out for these common pitfalls and go fix any that are messing with your brand mojo.

If you need help – by way of a marketing analysis or a roadmap to better branding – email me here and let’s talk!

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series of posts. This month, our carnies tame the topic of website mistakes – from content to design to marketing – so it doesn’t look like your business just hopped off the clown bus. Read the rest of the Word Carnival posts here for more great advice from some of the smartest business owners and entrepreneurs you’ll meet.

Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • You know I totally agree with you 98% of the time. This is one of those times I need to say, UM…there ARE ways to use clip art and stock images without looking like a dufus. Mainly thus: PICK A THEME. As long as you use your graphics with a purpose and keep things stylistically the same, you won’t look like an amateur. The problem comes in when people use all different kinds of clip art or all different kinds of generic stock photos. On MY site, I keep things flowing by using food-related images. These are mostly the very low cost stock images (sometimes even free ones) but because there’s a theme, they don’t feel out of place or as if things were just thrown together. The same goes with clip art. IF your only option is free/low cost clip art, then use images by the same artist. Drawn in the same style. So they look like they GO TOGETHER. If the images are relevant, and you keep to your theme, you can definitely pull it off. Most people don’t think about their images this way, tho. And that’s where they get into trouble.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I think we are probably thinking about clipart differently and maybe I wasn’t clear about what I meant.. I don’t think it’s bad to use stock photos or even clipart in the context of a blog post. I was thinking more along the lines of people who use clipart as a design element on their business site, you know the “guy speeding with briefcase in hand” in their banner next to their company name instead of a logo.

      A lot does have to do with style. Even good stock photos can look bad if they’re completely mismatched. And honestly, I can’t think of a single case when “free clipart” is someone’s only option. A great stock photo can cost a buck. Even some pretty nice ones are free. But those Microsoft-esque clippy things that people drop into their Word docs… I object!

  • Melanie Kissell says:

    Repeat after me: Carol Lynn’s post ROCKS! 🙂

    Oy. I’ve witnessed the entire gamut of “Brand Nightmare” across the interwebz. I’ve even landed on sites having no one’s name attached! No photo. No clue who owns the site. Nada. Zip. Zilch. And believe me, I’m one who doesn’t give up easily in my quest. I’ll never understand why “Joe Anonymous” thinks that’s a great idea. 🙁

    I’m glad you and Tea continued the conversation about using clipart. I’ve seen it done very nicely … and I’ve seen the jumbled up messes, as well. I’m with you. With the vast array of [image] resources available and the minimum cost involved, there’s really no excuse to attach cheesy clipart to your branding.

    Totally cool post — leaned in on every syllable!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I know exaaaaactly what you mean about those strangely anonymous sites. Makes you wonder why the heck there’s a site in the first place. I find those a lot when I’m researching for our weekly roundup. It’s so weird how some people don’t attach any social profiles, photos, nothing.

      Also I think you made the perfect disclaimer for the clipart conversation… do not use CHEESY clipart. I rend to separate “blog” and “site” in my brain which I know is a meaningless distinction for lots of people but on a blog post it’s sort of fair game. But a lawyer or dentist with clipart on their home page? Cheese.

  • Molly McCowan says:

    I love the part about avoiding “CEO-speak.” I have rewritten many a website that sounded like it was generated by suit-wearing robots because the site owner finally figured out that this kind of jargon-y, stiff writing was failing to convert site visitors into customers. Making your readers feel like you’re an approachable human being is a *huge* part of the game!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Yes! I think it’s a leftover from school days where we had to write formally and hope there wasn’t much red ink. Nobody ever taught us to blog and write an about page in school. Maybe the next generation!

  • Ok my…I am guilty of a few things here and feel like oops, I need to make a change on a few photos….THANK YOU…I do need to update my site now that I finally love the design of it, I need to change some images on pages tooo….I truly love your advice as always!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Photos can be sooo hard sometimes, especially if you’re looking for conceptual photos. There are a few on this site that I wouldn’t admit to buying…. working on getting rid of them all 🙂

  • I once had a weeklong argument over sales page copy with the chief sales officer at a client, during which we discussed the topic of “magic words” – in particular this chief sales officer wanted to use the phrasing that hadn’t come directly from the client’s mouth. Instead, his guy wanted to “jargon” it up.

    In fact, the entire industry was filled with jargon. So in effect, the chief sales officer was attempting to move us closer to the center, and away from the thing that really differentiated us from the competition.

    In contrast, I made every attempt to put the sales page copy into the customer’s native language. Failing that, as close to plain English is possible.

    Come to think of it, almost everything that you’ve outlined here was a problem for this particular client. I think I tuned it out to focus on just one problem at a time – but there’s only so much you can do when working with the business equivalent of a T-Rex wearing a plaid suit.

    Great post, Carol!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Nick, I think you need to quit your job and just start WRITING about your job. You have a story for every word in the English language. All I have to do is say “YELLOW!” and you will think of this one time, with a client…

      I’ve been there, though. You spend all this time writing copy that makes sense and they just want to throw the lingo in. ARGH! Sometimes you have to give them what they want and get paid. Nobody put “Chief Arguer” in my bio.

      • Boy oh boy, if only you could get paid doing something like that (haha). Even so, I’d eventually run out of stories, because 99% of my clients are wonderful to work with even if they occasionally wonk out on something.

        I do tend to keep detailed notes on friction with clients so I can do better next time to avoid it or sooth it if it’s unavoidable.

        I’ve actually thought about starting up a “chief arguer” service as it were. I absolutely loathe being mean, but I’m exceptionally good at it when I need to be – particularly in writing. My hallmark is making the target laugh while telling them to bite me in writing.

        • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

          Sometimes being mean can be fun 🙂 It just depends on how hard someone has pushed you into a corner!

  • OMG, this should be a must-read for web design clients, Carol Lynn. There’s so much good stuff here I don’t even know what to pick out, but I think my favorite points are about using clipart and having branding a two year old can recognize.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      So many people I’ve known have this mish-mash of branding, colors everywhere, all sorts of styles and graphics. It’s so weird. It’s like everyone suddenly feels the need to tap into their inner five-year-old-artist. But recognition is so important!

  • Frederic Gonzalo says:

    Awesome post, Carol Lynn. I particularly like the point about avoiding to speak like CEO, which is to say: avoid jargon! I see this mistake way too often, and it’s very true: people forget who the customer is and what they want to read… and it’s not a sales pitch with gobbledygook speech!
    All other points are pretty dead on, too. Great job on this post 😉

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Yes, that jargon will kill you every time! I can’t even get through one sentence before my eyes glaze over. Thanks, I’m glad you liked this!

  • SandyMcD says:

    You are so eloquent but compassionate too. I hear the smile even when you’re delivering an ‘Aunt Katie I will recite’, lecture that should burn the ears of most business owners who have ever owned a website and for many got it SO wrong!

    Brand consistency is a key message for most I think, something that everyone gets in principle but few manage in reality.

    And as for jargon. That hoary old chestnut. What is it with some folk that they simply must talk in acronyms which only a few could possibly understand as an increasingly redundant dialect. Why was it ever allowed in the first place? Obfuscation perhaps!

    Thanks for a great read and a must come back to post. Love your stuff.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I think you’re right about obfuscation, Sandy. Back in the day, when we were impressed with advertising and big exec-types, it was a lot easier to use big, important words and we would nod along and think wow, this guy know what he’s talking about! But once the internet was born and we could start doing some research on our own (and the competition opened up wide), we weren’t so impressed anymore. Isn’t there some saying about how if you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance then baffle ’em with BS? Yup, sounds about right!

  • Nicole Fende says:

    Oh Carol Lynn this post was SO full of awesomeness! It’s like special Christmas morning blog present. Octillion? The Borg? Gobbeldy Gook Translator?

    Now I must confess I DO need to work a bit on the art project / brand consistency one. I love visuals, have a couple graphic designers for different projects, and will even play in Photoshop (don’t worry those are deliberately supposed to look Photoshopped, it’s part of the charm).

    I’ll put down the duct tape, glitter, and my five year old’s crayons.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Hm, well I feel like an exception should be made for glitter…

      I’m really bad at “design” which is why I don’t do it. Please never ask me if a color looks good or a font is right. I can write about it but when it comes to doing it, I trust my designer every time!

  • Katherine Kotaw says:

    Hi Carol Lynn!

    I absolutely agree with every single one of your points! I was seriously bobbing my head up and down in agreement the entire time I was reading this post.

    Visual content is a critical aspect of branding. I cringe every time I see those awful generic stock photos plastered all over websites. What does it say about your brand if your website is nearly identical to your competition’s?

    As a writer, I absolutely believe in the power of words. But as a marketing and branding strategist, I also know that visual content is the gatekeeper to written content. Like you say, if a website looks bad, no one is going to stick around long enough to read the content. So even if a website is filled with brilliant words, they are going to go unread if the platform is aesthetically challenged.

    I love all of your tips for website improvement! Simplicity and clean design are often overlooked. I totally agree with you that it’s better to have a well-formatted, easy-to-navigate website with a clean layout than an ornate one decorated with clip art and dime-a-dozen stock photos. Because not everyone can afford professional, custom design — and that’s OK. Thank you for the reminder that we can all improve upon what we have no matter what resources are available to us.

    Love, love, love this post!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Hi Katherine! Thanks for stopping by and reading, I know how busy you are (and if I were you I’d still be recovering from the site outage…. ugh).

      It’s true about the power of words… but I bet a lot of people don’t think that those words can also be part design! Think of the fonts we use and the sizes and spacing and all that… it’s amazing what we can do visually with text. (Or how we can mess it up).

      Simple and straightforward is always my favorite option!