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The 7 Deadly Sins of Branding

5 Dec


hillmanGuest Contributor: Matt Hillman, Creative Director

You have a great product, great service, great people, great materials—and your brand still sucks. Competitors in the building products marketplace keep racking up sales while you struggle to get by. It feels like you’re trying to scramble up a muddy hill, expending time and resources with little-to-nothing to show for it. How does this happen?

Over the years, despite the emergence of game-changers like mobile devices, social media, and other innovations, most of the issues around branding still seem to fall into seven distinct areas—consider them the 7 Deadly Sins of Branding, and any one of them can sink your brand.

Wrong Message

Too many marketers rely on what they already know to build their messages. This echo-chamber effect reinforces what’s familiar and “safe” and can actually keep you from gaining the ah-ha moments you need. Think of it as trying to steer your car down the highway while looking only in the rear view mirror, more about where you’ve been than where you’re headed. Instead, you need to be continually surveying your customers—and your prospects!—for the fresh insights needed to build a message that’s relevant today, not just yesterday.

Wrong Audience

This might seem like a near-impossibility, but it can happen. Marketing your brand to the wrong audience is most often the result of marketing and sales teams not communicating effectively, with marketing working toward where sales should happen and sales focused on where they can happen. Having a clear, agreed-upon marketing plan is essential to having your brand pointed in the right direction. Yes, these are fundamentals that should be self-evident, but all it takes is for your brand to be strong with architects but being marketed to builders instead, and your brand isn’t going anywhere.

Wrong Tactics

One of the best cautionary tales comes from experience marketing to building products dealers. When offered the option to select their preferred method of receiving marketing communications, what do you think topped the list? Email? Direct? Text? How about…fax. That’s right, in our world of high-speed connectivity and mobile devices, the lowly fax was the leading way dealers wanted to receive information. Why? Because it fits how most small- to mid-sized dealers operate, with the fax machine right next to the main bulletin board. Again, surveying your audience will provide the insights to get the right tactics in play and to avoid wasting effort on the wrong ones.

Wrong Voice

If you’ve followed social media the past few years, you’ve probably heard of (or witnessed) the notorious sass of Wendy’s social media accounts. While some might think this was a bold or daring move, it’s actually highly calculated, the result of Wendy’s assessment of what brand voice would resonate best with their target. Where other fast food companies played the usual safe game, Wendy’s connected with their audience with a salty dialogue that not only aligned with the brand but helped share it more broadly online. Again, research was the key to cracking the code and connecting with customers.


One way to think of branding is simply a single message delivered consistently and aligned with customer experience. And yet, time and again we see brands shift their message as if chasing sales trends, or worse, repeatedly reinventing the message to push an idea that doesn’t match the customer experience. If your name is One Day Printing and service takes two days, that’s a brand problem. Similarly, if you say your customer service is superior and then leave customers on hold for minutes at a time, that’s a brand problem. Determining what your brand is—and isn’t!—and sticking to that is critical to developing a strong brand over time, and over time is exactly how brands happen.

All About The Product

The brands that see the greatest strength in the marketplace are the ones that offer more than just a product or service—they build relationships with those who select and purchase them. Through content offerings, customer experience design, website functionality, social media strategies, sponsorships, and other interaction-based methods, the strongest brands take on a personality well beyond something being sold to buyers. These brands can have conversations with the public, growing and evolving through the choices made in messaging and positioning—all without changing what’s being produced or delivered.

No Differentiator

In the film Field of Dreams, we hear the iconic line: “Build it and they will come.” Unfortunately, all too many companies have followed this same advice when developing their brand—and have paid a heavy price for it. It is not enough to simply be available for purchase, there has to be a reason your target would take notice, have interest, and be willing to abandon their current relationship to gain one with your brand. And just as it is with products or services, your brand needs a unique selling proposition, too, something to make it different from the others. Is it more innovative, less complicated, focused on quality, easier to do business with? Identifying what sets your brand apart—and staying true to that differentiation—is critical to finding an audience that appreciates it. Trying to be all things to all audiences or simply showing up isn’t enough to get noticed.

Name + Logo = Brand

“We have a brand,” the marketing manager will say, pointing at a logo. “It’s right there.” Actually, no. The worn-down vehicle with your logo on it: that’s your brand. The customer left waiting hours for a delivery with no updates: that’s your brand. The defensive response to a highly critical customer review on Yelp: that’s your brand. The product that arrived dented: that’s your brand. Identity is all about a name and logo; brand, however, is about expectations and experiences. The strongest brands find success in designing and crafting the brand experience for customers, both new and current, and making sure everything aligns with that design. If it doesn’t align, it’s analyzed, adjusted or removed—why spend time and effort on something that only undermines your long-term efforts?

If you recognize any of these 7 Deadly Sins associated with your brand, have hope: Every one of them is escapable and repairable with honesty and effort. The common element to all of these brand issues is to take nothing for granted: conduct research and be willing to accept that your buyer isn’t who you think and may not think of your brand the way you do. But with focus and time, virtually any brand can find its own salvation.

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Trust but Verify

25 Oct

Questions about the Facts

Several weeks ago, a train in Hoboken, NJ crashed and quickly made national news.

The first alert I received from CNBC said, “Major train accident causes ‘mass casualties’ in Hoboken, NJ: WNBC.”

Just 25 minutes later, I received a second CNBC alert. This one read: “1 dead, more than 100 people injured in Hoboken train accident: WNBC, citing source.”

CNBC is a reputable news organization, especially among financial audiences and business leaders. I’d wager their writers are journalists with ample experience.

Tragically, one person did die in the Hoboken crash. But the first email from CNBC was based on information from WNBC that at first glance, appears to have been incorrect.

President Ronald Reagan used a Russian proverb when interacting with the country’s officials, “Trust but verify.” Meaning, I’m going to accept what you say at face value but I’m also going to confirm the accuracy with another source.

WNBC, and ultimately CNBC, likely reported exactly what a transit official shared in what had to have been a chaotic environment. But our digital 24-hour news cycle puts a premium on speed – often at the expense of quality.

After all, if CNBC was a print outlet, this error would have been less likely. CNBC would have had time to verify that one person – not many – had lost their life.

There were nearly 212,500 students enrolled in college journalism programs in 2012.

There were 305 million blog accounts on Tumblr in July 2016, up from 17.5 million in 2011. That’s just Tumblr – not WordPress or other platforms.

Why does that matter?

Trained journalists of today and tomorrow have to meet specific standards. Stories are edited and fact checked. And, the threat of getting news wrong haunts most reporters – even if it’s just misspelling a name.

On the flipside, bloggers may or may not be officially trained. Objectivity and accuracy isn’t mandated like it is for reporters at credible news organizations.

That doesn’t mean bloggers aren’t good writers. It also doesn’t mean that bloggers are okay being loose with facts. I assume most want to do good work.

But it does mean that anyone can call themselves a blogger. And, not everyone can claim to be a trained journalist.

Bloggers aren’t held to the same journalistic standards. And, they don’t have the same repercussions as traditional reporters for inaccurate reporting.

As we enter the final weeks of a presidential election fueled by hysteria, hyperbole and even panic, it only seems appropriate to reference the Gipper’s line.

Consider the source. Consider the outlet. Don’t just accept what you read online and regurgitate it as truth.

Trust but verify. Before you share, like, retweet – or repeat.

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The Agency Meet Market

22 Sep

Get to Know Your Creatives

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hillman Guest Contributor: 
Matt Hillman, Creative Director

When you think about your agency relationship, it’s likely your account exec is who comes to mind—and rightfully so. Day in and day out that’s who services your business; it’s who you call when you have a need, an issue or a compliment. They solve your problems. For many companies, the account service person is the agency.

But behind your normal point of contact lies an arsenal of agency talent you may rarely meet. Sure, they’re a name you hear, an addressee on an email, a hand you shake during an agency tour, but their contributions may be hidden behind phrases like “the team” or “work their magic” or “back at the shop,” and as a result, you don’t actually know what they do for you.

So here’s a primer on the core roles of the creative department and what they bring to the table for you and your business:

Message – Knowing what to say, how to say it, and to whom is the function of the copywriter. These are people who use words much like a chef uses ingredients—continually sniffing out the right one, routinely trying new combinations, and never resting until the flavor is just right. Most have trained in English, journalism or communications and language is their hobby. With a sometimes fanatical appreciation for nuance, changing a word is no small matter. Trust them to understand your audience and what motivates them to notice, to care, and to buy.

Design – Regardless of the title—graphic designer or art director—those who compose visuals are all artists at heart. They are deliberate with the interplay of space, form, and color, using the elements to create visual messages. Behind the sometimes eccentric veneer is someone who has studied serious concepts like alignment, proximity, repetition, and white space. While they may style themselves strangely, their designs always value order and are thoughtful and measured. Trust them to understand the latest trends and how the eye moves through a layout.

Direction – Beyond simply making sure that message and design are working in tandem, the creative director is ultimately responsible for the vision that the writer and designer deliver to. Relying on inputs from the client (via account service) and the creative brief, the creative director is like a conductor of an orchestra; they ensure that all the musicians work in harmony. They interpret, shift, and adjust individual elements to delight (and sometimes surprise!) the audience. Trust them to contextualize every project from a higher “campaign” perspective to build the brand.

When working as they should, these three creative roles produce magic. Every brand campaign, print ad, 30-second spot, billboard or promotion you remember…all of them came from this triad of talent working together to deliver for their clients.

Sure, creative types are “different.” But that’s exactly what you want. They don’t see the world like most people, don’t arrive at the same conclusions, and rarely enjoy being on the bandwagon—and it’s a good thing they don’t. Because getting noticed and getting sales requires standing out, and that’s what your creative team lives for.




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