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7 Ways to Damage a Brand (and What to Do Instead)

Building a strong brand is hard, time-consuming work. It's surprisingly easy, though, to weaken one.
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Brand-building is hard, time-consuming work. To build a strong brand, you must create products and services that customers love, and then devise an easily recognizable brand image that epitomizes and reinforces that emotion.

By contrast, it's surprisingly easy to damage a brand. Here are the most common branding missteps, along with my advice for avoiding them.

1. Heap praise on your own brand.

Imagine you're at a party. A guy introduces himself like this: "I'm the smartest, best-dressed, and most handsome man in the room." You think he's a jackass, right?

It's no different when companies claim to be "best-in-class, innovative, and industry-leading." People wonder why you feel it necessary to toot your own horn.

Do this instead: Give your customers a megaphone so that they can do the praising.

2. Overpromise, then underdeliver.

Nothing frustrates customers more than being promised something and then not getting it. For example, if you guarantee 24/7 service, your customers better not get a busy signal.

Similarly, if you announce a product with features that your customers really want, those features better well be in the product.

Do this instead: Underpromise, then overdeliver.

3. Skimp on customer support.

You know what customers hate? Companies that hide their customer support number. Then, when you finally find the number and call, you get put on hold.

While you're on hold, they play annoying music interspersed with peppy suggestions to access the website for do-it-yourself support and insisting--despite all evidence to the contrary--that "your call is important to us."

Then, finally, after being on hold for 10 or 20 minutes, you're connected to a human being who unfortunately can barely speak your language and isn't knowledgeable enough to fix your problem.

Companies do these incredibly annoying things because they're trying to minimize the cost of support. What they don't understand is that for most people the experience with customer support is what defines the brand.

Do this instead: Hire and train the best customer support people you can find and in numbers large enough so that customers get through quickly. Sound expensive? Well, yeah, but here's an idea: Try releasing higher quality products that require less support. Remember: Customers call support because something is wrong with the product. Otherwise, they wouldn't pick up the phone.

4. Launch too many brands.

If having one brand is good, then having 50 brands must be 50 times better, right?  Wrong.

The more brands you have, the harder it is to make any of them stand out. It took 30 years for GM to figure this out and get rid of its superfluous brands (like Saturn).

Do this instead: Have one corporate brand and, if you're big enough, one or two sub-brands. Only launch multiple brands if you're trying to reach completely different markets.

5. Attack another brand.

When I went to see the new Captain America film a few months ago, the theater played a Burger King commercial before the movie.

It wasn't supposed to be a Burger King commercial, though. It was supposed to position some other fast food joint as a better alternative to Burger King.

All I can remember is the Burger King part. In fact, while I'm writing this, I'm getting hungry for a Whopper. (Absolutely true.)

Here's the thing: When you attack somebody else's brand, you're only making that brand stronger at your expense.

Do this instead: Never mention a competitor by name in your advertising.

6. Using the CEO as the brand image.

This is a no-win scenario. Consider: If your CEO is dull, ugly, or annoying on camera, using him or her as a spokesperson makes your brand look dull, ugly, and annoying.

But even if your CEO is charming and photogenic (think Steve Jobs), when that CEO leaves, your brand takes a hit. (Just like Apple did when Jobs passed away.)

This dynamic plays itself out in small companies all the time. If a startup is intimately tied to the personality and image of the founder, the startup's brand is often seriously damaged when the founder leaves or is replaced.

Do this instead: Build your brand on customer experience rather than on the CEO's personality.

7. Rebranding to fix a product problem.

I'm not a huge fan of rebranding. It's expensive and usually the difference between the old and new brand image is a big shrug.

Sometimes companies rebrand because customers perceive the brand negatively. This is always the result of either 1) poor product quality or 2) bad customer service.

You cannot cover up either of those two problems by sticking a new brand on them. Rebranding simply calls more attention to the problems.

Do this instead: Take the money you would have spent rebranding and use it to make better products and provide better service. When your customers notice, your brand will regain its luster.

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IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Jul 11, 2014

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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