Perception Problems Can Kill Your Brand

“Brand is a delicate dance between intended meanings sent by the company and perceived meanings elicited through customer responses.”

Giep Franzen and Sandra E. Moriarty

You’ve heard the one about the British car name that means excrement in Swedish, right? The road name in China that would make your Auntie Susan choke on her parsnips over Sunday lunch? Even closer to home than these international delights of language, your perception and that of your audience can be lightyears apart.

And here’s the thing: there’s not just your perception and the one your helpfully singular audience holds. Nuh-uh. Your ‘audience’ is not a one-minded entity. For every tweet you tweet and email you email, there could be a thousand ways to take it.


How to avoid perception problems

1. Put in the work as a trustworthy brand

If you DO manage to make some kind of awful gaffe but you’re usually seen as a good guy, your own customers may very well assume you couldn’t possibly have meant it like that. And beyond your audience, your reputation may allow others to believe you when you beg ignorance/good intentions/language barriers.

Chances are, if you ARE the good guy, you’re not going to screw up too badly anyway.

2. Test it on people

Fancy focus groups may be beyond your budget but if you’re doing what you should in terms of diversity, you’ll be able to ask for opinions around your office. Get the full scale of ages, backgrounds, religious beliefs and political leanings.

It’s not a signoff process – so don’t give me that look. It’s your one chance to test your idea on people who probably won’t report you if you’ve managed to come up with something offensive. I know, getting anything out the door takes forever and adding a step (and collecting feedback!) sounds dreadful. The only thing worse is not asking for opinions and missing the mark in a reputation-ruining way.

I’m not posturing here – I’ve lived it. We did a thing and asked for opinions from an association of [the thing] and yet it still offended the people that association supposedly represented. Lesson learned.

3. Ask your audience

Hey, they know better than anyone if they’re going to be offended, right? And it’s not just about offence; you don’t want your people thinking you’re lame or opportunistic either.

There are several ways to run an idea past your audience:

  • Send a survey to a random selection of customers
  • Do a public poll on Facebook or Twitter – though only for quick, simple things
  • Ask your COMMUNITY COUNCIL that you’ve lovingly built over the last few years (maybe get started on that now?!)
  • Go to other places you know your demographic hangs out, like forums or Facebook pages – but to observe and test the waters, not out yourself as The Man!

4. Only attempt international after some SERIOUS market research

Having written for Canadian and American companies, I can tell you that even working in ENGLISH can cause problems when you hop into another territory.

A tagline you think is clever and edgy could land you in serious hot water if you haven’t checked it with the people on the ground in the country you’re moving into. You can NEVER overestimate how small a detail can translate badly into another culture – religious, racial and historical connotations can kill your expansion dead. Even massive companies have been stung by this and if you’re a small business putting everything into expanding, you don’t want to be taking that chance.

Apathy is as damaging as acrimony so even your logo or company name being seen as a bit lame or embarrassing, rather than offensive, is a deal-breaker.

Accept that your perception is one of thousands

We’ve probably all done or created something we thought was great, only to have it shelved because the person in charge couldn’t see past what THEY thought. The only way to win this fight is to widen the pool of opinion.

But none of us are right – not for every person that’s going to see what you’re selling. Your challenge is to anticipate as many of your audience’s reactions as possible, perception-proofing your brand.

Start perception-proofing your marketing by creating customer personas.