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The Whiteboard: Learning from the worst examples of branding: Anybody wanna ride the trolley?

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Every morning, on my way to work, I pass a small, yellow sign tacked to a telephone pole. It simply reads: “Affordable Health Insurance” with a phone number — all handwritten in some kind of permanent ink. (I hesitate to even suggest a pen or marker brand name in association with this sign.)

It is quite possibly the worst example of branding I can imagine. Who would call this number expecting anything less than a scam?

On a local basis, horrifically bad branding takes place all too often. I have never forgotten an area funeral home that for years had a large sailboat parked in its lot. While this appeared to boast of perhaps a little too much success, naming the boat "The Grim Reaper" was over the top for a service as serious as this one.

I have received multiple mailings from printing companies promising "quality printing services" where the mailer was crooked, smudged, offsetting on the page in front of it or rife with spelling and grammar mistakes.

Occasionally I attempt to respond in a helpful way and point out the errors.

Once, when I received an email from a regional retailer for which I'm a customer, I pointed out to the sender that "anniversary" was misspelled in the subject line. "Thanks," the sender wrote back. "I seen it too the second it went out." Sigh.

Warning: My next example is true. Seriously. I ain't lyin'. Wish I were.

In the Seattle metro area is a section known as South Lake Union. The powers that be decided to build a trolley, which had its supporters and detractors. Then they decided to name it the South Lake Union Trolley, which — you are probably waaaay ahead of me — forms a rather unfortunate acronym.

What to do? Why not take it even further?

Which is exactly what they did by coming up with the slogan — emblazoned on T-shirts, fliers and posters — encouraging locals to "Ride the S.L.U.T." (Seriously, Google it, if you dare, and then wash your hands and clear your browser's cookies.)

And they have a Facebook page. It has 249 likes since it launched in 2010. Who is the target audience for this sophomoric brand name and promotion? Hold on, I think I just answered my own question.

But local brand lunacy is one thing, national is another.

President Obama's signature legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, has been nicknamed Obamacare by both supporters and detractors. And while I personally believe that providing a system of health care coverage for everyone is the right idea, this has turned into the worst way to sell it. If there was one great fear about Obamacare, it was that government would find a way to screw it up, and it got off to a horrendous start with a mega-size website that mega-crashed on its mega-servers.

At about that time, the president's promise that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it" also was undercut by a relative few, but loudly trumpeted, cancellations of policies that providers terminated rather than meet the terms of the new legislation.

Of course, if Obamacare were a for-profit brand trying to compete in the private sector, it would likely be dead on arrival. The next two years will prove whether it can improve its tarnished and politically charged image. But, for all the effort that was put into building and passing the legislation, you would think that somebody, somewhere, would have said, "Make sure that website is working before we launch it, dude." Like maybe the guy whose name is on it.

If there is a lesson in these extreme examples of bad branding that goes beyond the obvious ones of avoiding grossly bad judgment and junior high humor, it may be this: Even a little bit of a false note can go a long way toward hurting your brand.

Kenneth Cole sparked a huge backlash in 2011 by joking that the riots in Cairo were about its spring collection sale. Motrin got it thrown back in its Facebook when it suggested in a short video that its product solved an annoying back pain problem for moms carrying their infants in strap-on baby carriers.

That both of those brands took their missteps on social media is no coincidence, given the tendency of that medium to reflect the personality of the individual who does the posting rather than the broader image of the brand.

But be careful, because what one funeral director or marketing manager or Web developer thinks is funny, good quality or acceptable performance may end up being an example of what not to do.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via

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