This branding mistake is costing freelancers & agencies tons of clients

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Years ago I remember studying a direct mail letter from the amazing copywriter, Gary Halbert.

The letter performed well, but on a hunch, Gary changed one small detail. The results of the letter instantly grew by quite a lot.

The strange thing is Gary didn’t change any of the words, like the headline, details of the offer, anything else you’d typically test in a direct mail letter, or any piece of direct response copy.

The only thing he changed was the phone number.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

In the first version of the letter the phone number was a 1-800 number. But Gary, being very insightful into human nature, had a hunch that it made people feel like the company was very “far away” and “too big” – thus making them feel uncomfortable, leading to fewer sales.

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So he got a local number with a local area code for each area that he mailed the letter to, and sent it back out.

This alone boosted results like crazy.

See, every little detail, including the area code of your phone number, combine to build your brand.

In Gary’s letter, he built rapport with the reader and made them feel very familiar, but then at the end, he hit them with a 1-800 number. It didn’t fit with the rest of the brand Gary created throughout the letter.

As a freelancer, this is just as critical for you to think about and truly consider on every level of your business.

I’m going to talk about the most common, basic, client-repelling branding mistake I see freelancers and agencies make…

Then I’m going to provoke you to analyze your entire brand from top to bottom to see where else you could improve.

Ready? Then let’s dive in.

A Rose by Any Other Name

The most common mistake I see would be, hands down, the name of your company.

I typically see two kinds of names when it comes to freelancers and small agencies: The first kind is simply your own name. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and I think that that’s a strong path to take if you know how to brand yourself well.

In the second option, however, freelancers or small agencies will choose a name that they think is “cool” and represents their brand.

This is where I see the mistakes.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen names like “We Love Pixels” or “I Love Design.”

While there’s nothing objectively wrong with those names, when you’re trying to construct a brand, you have to remember that the person the brand is truly for is the customer.

While you might love design – that’s not an inherent benefit for the customer or any sort of tangible promise of results they can attach themselves to.

And while you may love pixels and be obsessed with them – again, that’s not in itself a benefit for the customer.

Without realizing it, just in your name, you’re already creating a self-centered image that’s influencing the rest of your interactions with any potential client. And it could be turning them away.

They might not consciously think bad thoughts about it – but some part of them has concerns because of it, and those concerns could cause them to look elsewhere.

So if you’re going to name your company something creative (which is a great way to go, don’t get me wrong), make sure you think about how it will impact the customer. Think about what they’ll perceive from it instead of just what you like.

Of course you want something that you also like – but get thinking in the direction of “What will inspire the customer?” instead of simply what resonates with you.

Of course there are exceptions to this, for example, Google, which means absolutely nothing to anybody, but to pull off an exception you have to have an exceptional level of understanding for how to construct a product and brand which Google has.

Or you have to not care whether or not you get clients.

There are some rare souls out there who truly don’t fret over things like that which keep the rest of us up at night.

Choosing a Name That Lands You Clients

When our agency started Reliable, our HTML and WordPress development service that helps other Freelancers and agencies code their designs, we chose the name “Reliable” because it’s so self-explanatory.

You know from the start what you get from the service.

The name sets the tone for all future interactions and expectations.

From the moment our customers hear our name they build an impression of us around that name.

We’re not the first ones to pick a customer-driven name though.

Here are some more great company names to think about that create a great experience from the start:

Esurance. You know right from the start that you’ll be able to pick your insurance and handle pretty much everything online. Most of us have had the unpleasurable experience of dealing with insurance salesman over the phone, so this name brings relief knowing you won’t have to do that. You know exactly what to expect

1-800 Flowers. Their approach is the opposite. In their name alone, they’re creating the impression that you can simply pick up the phone and have flowers delivered anywhere you’d like. It feels so easy, just from hearing the name. In the past, flower deliveries meant driving out to a florist, sorting through a bunch of varieties and bouquets, then filling out paperwork.

Fuel Cafe. This is a Cafe near me in Portland that serves healthy breakfast foods. From the name alone you get the impression that they understand food is fuel for our body and they’re going to give you food that helps do just that. Not just junk.

Whole Foods. From the name alone you got the impression that their focus is not on unhealthy processed foods, but on wholesome foods that help you live a wholesome life.

But your name doesn’t have to be so straightforward and concrete. You can get more creative and abstract with it.

Here are some companies that did just that:

Reebok. The word Reebok is a misspelling of an Afrikaans word that means antelope. The idea is that their shoes give you the speed and fluidity of an antelope.

Apple. Steve Jobs revealed that the name Apple came about after he visited and apple farm. His whole goal was to make computers less intimidating and more approachable for people. To truly make a personal computer. The name apple he felt was fun approachable and full of joy.

Kodak. George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, chose its name because he wanted a name that resembles nothing else was Punchy and short and felt easy. there any from the start was to make photography more accessible and easier for the average person. When they started, photography was only for professionals who had a lot of training and technological capability.

Once you fully grasp the importance of your name – it’s time to apply that thinking to everything.

Look at all of your branding and marketing from top to bottom with this question in mind, “What benefit is this communicating to my customers?”

If the answer is ever “none” – think about how you could change that element so that it contains a powerful answer instead.

I can tell you, for example, that there is no part of the Reliable website that we didn’t carefully weigh or consider. 

Even things as simple as our email address and phone number were heavily weighed.

We chose “hello [at] reliablepsd.com” to stay with our friendly vibe, instead of something more generic like “info [at] reliablepsd.com.”

While we have a few offices in different countries, our home base is in Portland, which is why we chose a Portland number. We feel Portland and the vibe of the Pacific Northwest is a big part of our company’s culture.

But don’t stop there. Keep going until you literally dissect it all:

Analyze your color palette. What message are your colors communicating to clients?

Next, look at your copy. What benefits are the words on your website communicating to clients?

Next, look at how your copy is laid out and your typography. Tons of negative space communicates one thing vs. things being closer together. Serif fonts grant one impression, while sans serif fonts give another.

Dissect everything.

In fact, I’ve got some homework for you: Right now, look at your marketing and tell me 3 things you’re going to improve in the comments.

Because no matter how great you are — even if you’re Google — you have room for growth. Without a doubt that goes for me as well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and your 3 things to improve because awareness is the most important first step. See you in the comments 😉

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About David Tendrich

David Tendrich is the co-head of creative agency Unexpected Ways, as well as the co-founder of Reliable PSD: the first-ever PSD to HTML & PSD to Wordpress service run by designers, for designers. He co-runs his companies from Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife and biz partner, Lou Levit.

 

More about David’s business: David is co-founder of Reliable PSD – what happened when a group of designers got fed up with PSD to Code companies… and created their own. Check them out, and see why freelancers & agencies are head over heels for this amazing new service.

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Comments

  1. Great article. I will now go and add Hello to my email address instead of contact. 🙂

    Have an amazing day and keep up the great work 🙂

  2. Excellent article, way to lead by example too guys 🙂 As an aside, have you built your own site using Reliable?

  3. Awesome! I love this article!

    I was already re branding, but one thing I really wanted to change was to add some warmth to my site. It’s so white and lacks the personality of my company. I’m adding some more color, more warm as opposed to some of the bright neons I used. I changed my number to a local one and I believe the brand promise my name provides is spot on. Can’t wait to launch this baby!

    • Hey, Lizette!

      Thanks for your comment. Very cool on the changes, would love to see your site when it’s done.

      “I believe the brand promise my name provides is spot on.”

      Have you gotten feedback from your customers about it? The phrase “I believe” is a scary one to my marketer’s ears 😀

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve been considering re-branding my whole entire brand. For one I want to change the name to something cooler, with less bravado, and more explanation as to who I primarily service. I just changed the messaging a bit to speak more informal and 1to1. And I really think I’m going to change the whole name of the company. I’ve been playing between something including my name or something symbolic. This is HARD!!!

    • It is hard 😉 And it should be. That means you’re probably doing it right.

      We debate over just about everything we do brand-related. Even when we have clarity about what to do next, it’s never easy to execute, and never without a lot of iterations.

      Would love to see what you come up with when you’re finished if you’d like to share 😀

  5. Great advice! I’ve been working on a rebrand from emostudios to Evergreen Design Studio and have already incorporated many of your tips. Making the site for prospective clients instead of myself or other designers has been a challenge in that I’ve had to put A LOT more work in to it. My old site was a grid portfolio – it looked cool, but served no other purpose.
    I’m a digital nomad, but I did just sign up for a Skype number with the area code of my home town. I had a hard time deciding whether to go with that area code or maybe one from the West Coast which imo is way cooler than my hometown lol. I like the suggestion to get multiple numbers. I’m soooo close to launch weee! – I’ll see if I can work in any more tips, thanks!

    • Something much cooler than a west coast area code is traveling around the world 😉

      Maybe you can work that into your brand?

      “…it looked cool, but served no other purpose.”

      YES. That sums up so much of what I see out there.

      The fact you can even look back and say that is a huge milestone.

      Major props, and congrats.

  6. Such an amazing post…
    I will be working on my name for a start before diving into my color palette and my font choice.

    I have a question though, I’m working under the freelancing name “designstarkNG” the NG stands for Nigeria… I believe in thinking differently and simplicity in print designs. After reading this article I have a feeling that the name needs to be changed to suite my audience so to speak. Kindly advice me on what to do.

    • Thanks, Felix!

      I’d follow your gut on this one.

      The name “designstarkNG” doesn’t communicate anything of what you said in thinking differently or simplicity in design.

      (At least not to me)

      If that’s something your clients / market value a lot too, I’d try to come up with a name that somehow communicates that.

      Even something like “Simplicity” would be cool 😀

      Best of luck,
      David

  7. Thank you for another amazing post David. I get so much inspiration from your articles. I’m going to add more colour to my site and change my language to be all about the benefits for the client.

  8. Very timely!

    I have been brainstorming about my brand/logo and almost leaning towards just using my name. This is helpful.

    I have intentionally wanted to be camouflaged in the generic-ness of my name and the word itself with my current brand name: “charityworks” wherein I added “art & design” just later on.

    However, as someone commented, people might get an impression that might put me at a disadvantage. I realized how it could be counterproductive for me.

    Thanks!

    – Charity Calderon, charityworks | art & design

    • Hey, Charity,

      Glad you found it helpful 🙂

      Maybe you could ask your customers what they think?

      That always helps inspire me and generate a ton of great ideas.

      I think for your case though people could get the impression that you only work with charities.

      If I just saw the name “Charity Works” I’d think it was some kind of service that helps charities.

      An unfortunate side-effect of having a punny name 😀 (Though a nice name)

      On the other hand, if you do just work with charities / non-profits… maybe it’s a great fit 🙂 Or a great start.

      What were you thinking of changing it to?

      Best,
      David

  9. Hey David thank you so much for sharing! I am undergoing through my own rebranding process. 3 years ago I decided to be an independent freelance. I had no idea where to start at that point. So my strategy was to use my own name for 2 main reasons:

    1. Since I was starting my freelance business I was truly open to offer my services to the public but also considered reaching out creative agencies. Using my own name will allow me to stay connected with my previous network (related to my former employer’s industry sector). And using my name will position myself as an opportunity rather than a competitive threat for a creative firm.

    2. On the financial side, using a trade names instead of your name will translate into additional start up costs such as business name registration fees, higher banking fees and higher business license costs.

    However I have to say that my name “Aldo Garza” wasn’t the most appealing name to my audiences . I live in the suburbs of Vancouver Canada (West coast vibe) where organic is cool, gluten free is cool and local is super cool! -so a foreign non -catchy- name… I think NOT COOL At all! .

    So I finally came up with a name that conveys the value proposition and the intrinsic nature of my business. Something that my clients can actually feel like is part of their organization. My value proposition states something along these lines : ‘every organization requires creative talent to strategize, create and communicate VALUE. In collaboration with your team, we think, nurse ideas, and deliver champion solutions. In alignment with your Vision of success. it’s like having your own branding department.

    Name: The B®anding Department

    • Hey, you’re not too far away! We’re over in Portland 😀

      I’m gluten free myself, but that’s because of health issues 🙂

      It’s unfortunate that sometimes we have to dance around racism and other prejudices in business… and in life.

      Sorry you are facing that.

      With that said, I actually think design is one field where it could play to your advantage.

      People like more “exotic” sounding names when picking an artist. Just look at the names of the most renowned designers in history.

      Not a “John Smith” amongst them 😉

      HOWEVER…

      “The Branding Department” is a freakin’ brilliant.

      Way to go on that. Major props.

      I would recommend simplifying your value proposition though.

      Rather than things like “in collaboration with your team” and “champion soutions” and other corporatey sounding things – maybe you could make that feel more real and visceral with a phrase like:

      “We get down in the trenches with you.” (Collaboration)

      “We don’t stop working until you start growing.” (Champion Solutions)

      You want someone to FEEL your message – not just understand it.

      You mentioned:

      “… additional start up costs such as business name registration fees, higher banking fees and higher business license costs.”

      Not quite sure what you mean by that. We’ve never faced any of that.

      Even if you use your own name, you have to “business-ify” yourself somehow via an LLC or something similar and that does come with fees.

      But the costs are no different if you use your name or another name.

      (At least in my experience – definitely consult your accountant)

      Congrats again on the awesome name, and thanks so much for your comment.

      Best,
      David

  10. Hmmm! All this advice from a company called “reliable” and they didn’t even proof read their own article. Thanks for the advice “not so”!

  11. (For what it’s worth, “wildsbokke” is a lot different than “reebok.”)

  12. Ato Ferdinand says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your reliable ideas, suggestions and pieces of advice.
    in fact you and your group are not being selfish at all.

    Our business name is AllSign Systems with “Signage Solutions And More” being our slogan. We provide indoor and outdoor signage and anything graphics.

    What do you see about us.

    Best regards

  13. This is such a great article with wonderful advice.

    I have been toying with the idea of a rebrand myself, starting with my name.

    I have had some success on Etsy but have been quite unsuccessful on my own site which has been a real bummer.
    I think my name is detrimental to me. My nickname is Rizzo and I have been working under the artist name “Rizzofied” for years, so when it came to my site and shop I went with Rizzofied Designs.
    But it’s something people don’t understand, and in my country especially, no one knows how to say it.

    I run a Facebook page with few likes so far, and thought it to be a cool idea if I came up with a few options for the new name and then running a competition on my page to select one. One random participant would win some of the products I sell in my shop. Great way to spread the word and gain more followers & customers, while also getting input about what my target market thinks would be a good name. Do you agree?

  14. No more replies from David??