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Does Your “Brand” Help or Hurt You?

Every company, every public personality and every freelancer has a brand. It’s who we are and how we want to be perceived. How far can you push your brand and will people believe it, trust it and love it, or end up hating it? The answer is life and death for your career.

Good Branding

Personally, I’ve screwed up with my own branding and lived to tell the tale. When I was laid off from my long-time corporate position, I figured I could freelance and service the big clients I had connected with at my old position. A few phone calls and emails started my freelancing but as these corporations started dumping extra work on the designers left inhouse, essentially saving money but stressing the remaining creatives, I had to look elsewhere for clients. That meant branding a freelance presence.

As a sick, inside joke, I decided on The Afterlife as my name and all branding was based on a Beetlejuice-type world of coffins and 18th century gravestone skulls with wings. My business card was die cut as an old six-sided coffin, my picture was Photoshopped with wings and a halo and my peers thought it was a brilliant commentary of being let go from a corporate position. The unfortunate part was that clients didn’t get it.

Would you be shocked to learn that 87% of art school seniors use skull motifs in their brand, for their anticipated graduation and inevitably entry into the professional world of design? So would I, but even though I made up those figures, it sure seems like that many when I review senior portfolios at art schools around the country.

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

When my designer friends heard I was going to rebrand myself, they asked why I would abandon such a cool brand. “Because it didn’t work. Skulls don’t sell to McDonald’s or Disney/Pixar,” I replied. That’s when the stories of their failed brands started to come up.

“I tried Hollow Point Design with a bullet as the visual. Naturally, it went nowhere,” one friend told me.

Another friend had been trying to gain clients with the name, Dead Dog Design. Too many animal lovers out there that would be offended.

Yet another friend used MGlaser Design, hoping he would pick up some of Milton Glaser’s clients who searched out “Glaser design.” All he ended up getting was a letter from Glaser’s attorney.

Bad Branding Galore!

If you think having skulls in your brand is a bad choice, check out some of these naming weiners… I mean, winners!


“Glearch”? I gather they thought if fun, happy Google could fly, why not Glearch? Because it’s usually the sound people make as they die?


They say sex sells, but in some innocent cases (obviously some are not so innocent), you might want to either legally change your name, or focus the brand name on something else. One would think just going through high school would convince someone with the name Butts to change it upon their 18th birthday.

Brand the Real You… But Not Too Real!

I remember when Apple started up. After Microsoft and HP grabbed the computer market, suddenly there was a computer system named after a piece of fruit. They said it would never work. It didn’t… oh, yes… it did! How could anything named Google end up ruling the internet?

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

There’s a difference in being innovative and being… weird. Skull equals scary! Apple equals good for you! A name that’s short, easy to remember, and can find a great domain extension (remember that .design is a new gTLD domain extension!) is always the way to go. Business cards should not be coffin-shaped, even if you’re a mortician. The greatest brands are friendly, strong and build a warm trust.

Be What You Love!

Be fresh retro, far out, existential, conservative, or tear the grid system apart… just don’t have a logo of a knife stabbing a grid. Freelance design is getting tougher for individuals and small studios. Find a niche you want to conquer because it’s what you want to do (I specialize in licensed character merchandise and print/digital products) and make the different players know you. If your brand can be recalled by prospective clients, they will have a silly little tick of trust in you, more than some other designer who has a ridiculous brand (although totally ridiculous can work, but only once in a generation or two) or one that’s ineffective.

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

Not sure of what you want? A/B test two or three different branded business cards and test people’s reactions when they receive one. Do they look at it, front and back for a few seconds? Do they talk about your brand positively? Do they continue talking to you? These are just a few hints in judging people’s reaction to your brand. The look of horror, dropping your card, and wiping their hands with sanitizer immediately is another sign to look for.

More examples of good and bad branding:


Have you ever had a big fail with your own branding? Have you realized that a client’s branding is a fail but they wouldn’t listen? How important do you think branding is for both yourself and your clients? Please share your opinions and experiences with us in the comments section below.

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