Bad puns, bribes and other branding blunders

Graham Robertson of Beloved Brands recently revealed some reasons why advertising is so damn hard. I won’t give them away, but I will share this:

Advertising is hard for the corporate brand manager who has big ad agencies, market research firms, and millions of dollars at his disposal.

It’s hard for the mid-level marketing manager who knows his consumer and his sales pitch, really, really well.

It’s even hard for the hottest advertising agencies.

So why do so many CFO’s, CEOs, scientists, sales guys, golf pros, engineers and accountants think it’s easy? Why do they take it upon themselves to write headlines, choose photos, and dictate the art direction of print ads, commercials and digital campaigns?


Please, if you’re responsible for the quality of your company’s advertising — and ultimately, the perception of your brand — delegate the advertising.

Effective leaders know when to quit and how to delegate. They recognize their own limitations and they hire well-qualified employees and consultants to fill in the gaps. They are the ones who attract great talent and build sustainable brands. I guarantee you, they’re not doing the ads.

Micromanagers repel talent. And when they try to do their own advertising, their brands languish.

Robertson says the best brand managers do two things: They keep great advertising on the air, and they keep bad ads off! So if you’re in charge, if nothing else, avoid the following at all costs:

Bad Puns

When the real experts sit down to devise concepts for a new ad campaign, puns always come up. It’s a natural part of the creative process. Luckily, most copywriters have enough common sense to throw out the bad puns with all the other quickly conjured ideas.

Unfortunately, those who should NOT be doing the ads — bosses, accountants, engineers and spouses — sometimes force puns upon us.

For instance, zoos have a lot of material for puns and adolescent humor. Words like lemur and baboon are just begging to be played with. Elephant jokes abound, and you should have heard the one about the new “otter” space. (Sorry. See how quickly that can go south!)

Even banks have digressed into the land of punishing puns. Like this ridiculous one for Washington Mutual, when it was still around:

Chicken Checking for a has-been bank.

Chicken Checking for a has-been bank.

Don’t joke around when it comes to money.

Puns are the low hanging fruit of advertising ideas, and should be picked quickly and spit out. Into the trash. A good writer will turn a phrase, craft the line, and have fun with some words, but he won’t give in to the temptation of puns.

I get paid to tell clients what’s on brand, and what’s off brand. I’ve yet to encounter a company where a bad pun would be on brand.

False and misleading claims.

This one should go without saying, and yet just today I read that a local car dealer got fined $28,000 for false advertising. Bait and switch is not a good branding strategy.

Advertising pros can find a true and compelling story in just about any product or service. If they can’t, you better find a different business.


A lot of companies these days want to provide “incentives.” These come in many forms, from deal-of-the-week online coupons to Facebook promotions and new client referral deals.

It’s like the crack cocaine of marketing. People get hooked on that kind of stuff. They’re not loyal, long-term customers, they’re just deal junkies looking for a fix. Next week they’ll be off buying from someone else with a better offer.

Are your prices substantially lower than your competitors? Are you out to build a “value” brand in your category? If so, go right ahead! Run discounts, sales and incentive programs all day long. Attract as many of those deal junkies as you can and be prepared to continuously court a whole new crew of them.

If not, you better spend time reviewing your marketing strategy and devising a new selling proposition. And come up with some better reasons to buy than just price.

Talking about yourself

Delete the words “we” “me” “ours” “I” and “my” from all your marketing communications. If you’re talking about yourself, listeners will tune you out faster than you can say “next station.”

Your insider information does not translate to relevance for the consumer. And cliches like “our friendly courteous staff…” will do absolutely nothing for your bottom line.

All the consumer cares about is “what’s in it for me?” So if you want to get through to customers and make sales, talk about them. Not about you, or your family, or your company, or your company’s processes.

I saw an awful commercial recently for a local golf course (The high-falutin’ kind that charges $75 bucks a round but isn’t as good as the local municipal course.) It was nothing but a family portrait of the pro/owner and his not-so-cute family. “Hey, look at us!”

The spot was based on the ridiculous assumption that “family owned” counts for something among golfers. To me it just means that guy and his family are getting rich by overcharging for a mediocre round of golf.

Talk about flushing money down the drain! Not only will that claim NOT attract golfers, the message will actually REPEL prospects and encourage them to call the neighboring golf course where there aren’t any little rug rats running around.

I guarantee you, that was a do-it-yourself ad. He might as well just give his biggest competitor the money he spent on that commercial.

About the Author

I’m a brand strategist, creative director, copywriter and published author living in the very livable town of Bend, Oregon. I’m also an ad agency veteran and owner of BNBranding. Read more about me »

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