The Ugly Couch, Dirty Words, and the Meaning of Your Brand

Recorded on 2013-09-30

It would be understandable for most people to think “branding” is interchangeable with “logo”, “graphic design”, or “tone of voice” in copy. It’s actually more closely related to “meaning”.

The Ugly Couch

Many of us place an inordinate amount of meaning within inanimate objects. For example, my wife was given her grandmother’s horrendously ugly, inhumanely uncomfortable couch when she passed away. It was a sort of dirty brown tweed that kind of folded into a bed, although there was no way I would offer it as a place for friends to sleep. Unless they really enjoyed sleeping on the types of furniture displayed in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds.

In every possible way and every function it was designed for, it was horrible. But my wife loved it.

We moved that couch to way too many places that weren’t the dump. From her mother’s house to her apartment and finally to our matrimonial home, where it stayed in the basement and was used maybe twice before we needed the space it occupied and it finally made its trip to the dump.

For me it was a simple decision to get rid of an ugly and unnecessary furniture item, but for my poor wife it was a painful separation from something which held immeasurable meaning for her. The ugly couch brought fond memories to her, warm memories of her loving grandparents and all the time she spent with them. It meant enough to her that it deserved a tearful goodbye before it took its last trip. If you showed her a pattern matching the material the couch was made of it would awaken very deep and meaningful positive emotions in her.

Dirty Words

We can also give more-than-deserved meaning to words. A Globe and Mail article reporting on an unfortunate oversight by Coca-Cola shows that even one word taken out of context can unwittingly invoke a negative emotional response, and ultimately affect how people perceive your brand.


A Canadian promotion was meant to encourage consumers to have fun with words from both of our official languages by printing a variety of English and French words under the caps of bottles of vitamin water. The caps were designed to be collected and arranged into humorous sentences, the idea being that anglophones would use French words and francophones would use English ones.

When people found the French words “[you] retard” and “douche” under their caps, they became offended by these words which meant something very different to them in English. In French these words mean “slow” and “shower”; innocuous words safely used in French homes every day by children without fear of having their mouths washed out avec du savon.

Much like the ugly couch held no special meaning to me, some English-speaking citizens may find no offensive meaning in these words. Unfortunately the woman quoted in the article found them especially offensive, because, “she has a younger sister who is developmentally delayed.” She was also quoted as saying that her father has forbidden use of the word “douche” in their home because, at least to him, “It’s equivalent to the ‘N’ word.”

This example isn’t meant to scare you into being overly sensitive to every possible interpretation or emotional response, only to illustrate the power of meaning in something as small as a single word.

The Meaning Behind it All

Logos, graphic design, tone of voice, and more are expertly crafted for a reason: to make sure the right meaning is planted in the minds of those who interact with your brand. Stressing about which shade of blue to go with, the synonym to best fit the sentence, the right tone of voice for that tweet, and which magazine to run an ad in may seem like we’re taking things too far, worrying too much.

When the right people are responsible for the success of your branding efforts, they treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Everything we work with has meaning, and every aspect of your brand deserves great care in ensuring that the right meaning is encouraged in the minds of your audience.