We are all innovators, so come up with something different.

Paul Boag

Companies like to throw around words like innovative, dynamic or trustworthy, but do these words mean anything?

So I was sitting in a kickoff meeting with a client. It was all very impressive, as we were in an enormous boardroom with expensive furniture and a stunning view of the London skyline.

The meeting had gotten onto the subject of branding. I had a couple of exercises that helped me better understand their brand identity, but I thought I would kick off by simply asking them what words they felt described their company.

“We believe we are innovative and adaptable” replied the most senior person in the room, “and our customers tell us that we are friendly and a safe pair of hands.”

Inwardly I sighed to myself. This was not the first time or the last that I would hear words like innovative, adaptable or friendly. In fact I have a bingo list that also includes words like dynamic, trustworthy, and passionate.

Goes without saying

Surely these kinds of words go without saying? Surely if you are in business you need to be adaptable to changing circumstances or passionate about your offering? Surely if you want to ever keep customers you have to be trustworthy and friendly.

Using words like these are the equivalent of saying a restaurant serves food. It is stating the obvious. They don’t inform a design, shape the content of your website or convince a user to pay attention.

Consider the reverse

Of course, people don’t always realise how cliche they are being, because unlike myself, they are not going from company to company hearing the same phrases trotted out again and again.

I therefore suggest that next time you use a word to describe your brand, that you consider its opposite. Ask yourself whether anybody would ever consider being the opposite. If not, then you are stating the blindingly obvious and effectively saying nothing at all.

Think about it for a minute. Can you imagine a company stating boldly that they never innovate, or that they believe in being rude to customers?

As web designers we are no better

But before we as web designers all start laughing at those silly marketing and business types, take a look at your own website. I have just checked my own site and was horrified at what I discovered.

Headscape homepage
So apparently Headscape has some amazing people. That is original, I bet nobody else claims that!

Here are some of the phrases we use on our website and their associated opposites…

  • We think strategically. Would anybody say they don’t? “We just open Photoshop and churn out a template for you?”
  • We work collaboratively. Again, does any web designer purposely exclude the client from the process?
  • We get mobile. Would anybody claim not to?
  • We have amazing people. Who would say “our staff are terrible but they’re cheap so that is good!”

I bet your website is no better. All of these banal platitudes that could apply to any company anywhere.

The solution: Focus on the negative

So how can we overcome this problem? Actually I have already told you the solution – focus on the negative.

If you have looked at the negative opposites of your current branding statements and realised that they are just generic and meaningless, then follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion.

If you can’t easily identify characteristics that make you unique, decide instead what you don’t stand for.

This is actually a tactic I use a lot in sales pitches. I will say to prospective clients things like “if you are looking for a web designer who is going to take the website off of your plate and just deal with it, then don’t hire us” or “if you want a website that is designed to impress you personally then look elsewhere.”

I like these kinds of negative statements for two reasons.

First, they show some principles. They state clearly that you are not for everybody and that you stand for something. They say Headscape is only for companies who want to get stuck in to designing a user experience that appeals to the end user. It says we don’t do flashy design and online brochures.

Second, these statements can then be flipped to become positive attributes. For example Headscape’s refusal to work on projects without client involvement becomes “We teach you to run your own site over the long term.” Alternatively the comment about not producing flashy designs becomes “We build sites that fulfil business objectives and meet user needs, not win awards.”

Yes, there are other companies out there that could say the same thing. Finding a unique selling point is almost always impossible, but you can at least make real statements about your approach, rather than simply state the baseline that any company should meet.

“Businessman standing in front of a chalkboard with web design terms written on it” image courtesy of Bigstock.com