How bad writing can harm a brand’s image (Part 1)

I’ve been told I am more sensitive than most to the incorrect use and careless abuse of words and punctuation marks. This means there must be those who do not experience a visceral tug in their gut when they encounter spelling errors or misplaced commas. It is perhaps a symptom of the extent of my disorder that I find this so hard to believe. Maybe the rest of the world simply moves through life less anxiously than I do, not allowing insignificant details to derail them.

I’ve declared my oversensitivity regarding verbal matters. I must also confess that I have no experience or expertise in either marketing or advertising. So, that’s the disclaimers out of the way.
I am a seasoned consumer, as are you. We interact every day with a plethora of communications from people and companies wanting to sell us something or persuade us to act or think in a certain way. Marketing is the name given to the route they use to communicate their message to us and it has many guises.

Most companies produce hundreds, if not thousands, of words every day. These take many forms including letters, presentations, emails, press releases, agreements, web content, blogs, signs, banners, terms and conditions, invoices, labels, Facebook and Twitter posts, billboards, advertisements and product packaging.

Some of these, such as banners, billboards, advertisements, brochures and packaging, are recognised as traditional marketing material. As such they are presumably prepared by specially trained marketing personnel, hopefully with the aid of copywriters and editors. But the vast majority of writing put out on behalf of a brand is composed by employees in the ordinary course of their job description.

Legal secretaries send emails to clients, pharmaceutical reps make presentations to doctors, junior marketing personnel bang out press release, and whoever is on social media duty that day posts tweets and status updates. A member of the cleaning staff may even scribble a note informing visitors that the floor is wet or that a toilet is out of order.

These communications are not usually considered marketing material and so, are probably not scrutinised by any one other than the author. If they are, it’s almost certainly not with the same attention to detail, nor with a view to ensuring they are aligned with the brand’s image.
And here lies the potential to dilute a brand’s message.

Matthew Stibbe, CEO of Articulate Marketing, maintains that “every time your potential consumer encounters your brand you communicate something about your brand.” Together with a brand style guide, this is the kind of statement that should be included in the Policy Manual of every employer.  Adherence to the brand’s style of communication should become part of the job description of all employees, who should be made to feel like brand ambassadors.

The secretary of a lawyer I know is accustomed to sending letters to longstanding clients with the opening line: “Dear Sir or Madam”. The healthcare expert at a medical scheme conference I once attended wrote “Its time for change” on his slides. (Even if he had spelled correctly that sentence would put me off for its sheer ordinariness and lack of punch.)

These small but significant errors convey to those who observe them some or all of the following qualities:

  • carelessness
  • lack of attention to detailignorancedisrespect for the client or consumerinadequate supervisionlazy disinterestlack of professionalisma culture of mediocritya poor command of written EnglishSome of you will be yawning by the time you read this, if you have even got this far. Many will think I am making a mountain out of a proverbial molehill. Ignore me at your peril; I am not the only consumer who gets put off by these errors.

A straw poll I conducted among my Twitter followers reveals the harmful consequence of these observations. I am not alone in my concern that if they fail to notice or remedy these errors they are likely to be missing other more important details in their service offering. And so the value of their goods and services is called into question.

And don’t just take it from me and my Twitter community, although I did receive confirmatory comments from many plain language experts, including Frances Gordon of Simplified. She also helpfully directed me to an article written by a UK plain language expert, which I think rounds off this column rather well.

Martin Cutts, one of the most experienced plain language editors in the UK, the author of The Oxford Guide to Plain English (OUP) and Research Director of Plain Language Commission (, addressed this topic in Pikestaff, the PLC’s newsletter.

In an article headed Spelling mistakes claimed to cost economy millions in lost sales in the July 2011 edition of Pikestaff, Cutts reports that:

“ in 2002 the Stanford–Makovsky Web Credibility Survey claimed that errors on websites ‘have roughly the same negative impact on a website’s credibility as a company’s legal or financial trouble’. And research by the Royal Mail in 2005 showed that over 70% of customers would not trust a business that has poor communication skills.”

And this is what most marketers don’t take into account. Experts, professionals, service providers, brand leaders, vendors and manufacturers must demonstrate in everything they make, do and say why we should regard their opinions, service offering, brand and products as exceptional.

Cutts refers in his article to a critic of the notion that bad writing is bad for business.  Ed Yong feels that proponents of this theory stand to gain financially from making people believe that writing errors are detrimental to a company’s profits.

While it is undoubtedly true – Cutts admits to benefitting handsomely from pointing out, and then offering his services to correct, errors made on behalf of brands – I don’t believe this negates the theory.  After all, editors and plain language practitioners are entitled to market themselves, aren’t they?


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