Brand Safety: How Poor Word Choice Can Hurt

By Melissa Duko, May 16, 2017

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.


Source: MemeSuper

Words can not physically hurt you, but they can hurt psychologically. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, right?

Words can also hurt your brand’s reputation. Word choice is critical to your brand safety. Speak, tweet, or post the wrong words and your audience will call you out.

Usually it’s something that can be forgiven like that time Justin Bieber hoped Anne Frank would’ve been a “belieber.” Other times, it requires busting out your crisis communication plan.  

Here are a few examples of how the wrong words can damage credibility, alienate a target audience, and cost money.

Destabilize vs Stabilize

By now it’s safe to say Sean Spicer has had the most verbal blunders of any White House Press Secretary. Sure, these mistakes provide great fodder for SNL, but they’re doing a number on his credibility. And in turn, it’s hurting President Trump’s credibility, too.

Related Post:  How to Bounce Back From Fake News

While there are many Spicer gaffes to choose from, here’s a prime example of using the wrong word with regards to an already volatile topic. While holding a press conference about Syria, Spicer said “destabilize” instead of “stabilize.” Ouch.

Spicer example.png

Source: Business Insider

Unfortunately, there’s no way to spin that mistake. Naturally Twitter jumped on it, and Spicer once again was trending for a negative reason.

Complementary vs Complimentary

Choosing the wrong word not only is a grammar crime, it’s also a costly mistake. For example, there’s a huge difference between complementary and complimentary. Complementary refers to things that go well together (e.g. peanut butter and chocolate). Meanwhile complimentary is when something is free.


Source: Imgflip

If you tweet “These sets of complimentary curtains...” guess what: you’re telling everyone those curtains are free. Uh oh. Now, there’s a good chance most people won’t notice, but if a grammarist spots it, well, game on.

Related Post: 4 Grammar Crimes You Need to Stop Committing Immediately

Don’t give your curtains away for free. Make sure you’re using the right words, or hire an editor to double-check before you hit share.  

People vs Pepper

Book publisher Penguin found out the hard way what happens when you choose technology over human skill when proofreading.

Related Post: 3 Surprising Ways Advertising Can Devastate Your Brand

A horrific word misprint required 7,000 copies of “The Pasta Bible” to be destroyed, costing $20,000. In the cookbook, a tagliatelle recipe required salt and freshly ground black pepper. However, the misprint replaced pepper with people.    

Pasta Misprint Example.png

Source: The Guardian

The inadvertent racist wording alienated the publisher’s audience, rightfully so. Here, a spell-check program assumed “people” was correct, instead of catching the error. Another example of why human editors are still needed.

Cute vs Elegant  

The type of wording you use should always reflect your target audience. Let’s say you’re a high-end brand. Here, you’ll want to use formal wording to resonate with your upscale clients.

However, perhaps someone on your social team tweets: “Cute bracelets 50% off.” Uh oh. What do you think your wealthy cliente would think? Cheap plastic bracelets, right?  


Source: Printwand

But if you tweet “Elegant bracelets 50% off,” your audience will be more inclined to expect they’re getting a great deal on a high-end piece of jewelry. Again, word choice matters.

Final Thoughts: Word Placement Matters, Too

Even when you get your wording correct, always be cognizant of where your wording is placed, too. The ads and content surrounding your brand (online and in print) can negatively impact what you’re trying to convey.

Here, a brand’s Father’s Day ad is placed directly below a PSA for domestic violence. Yikes. Talk about poor taste, and it may not even be the brand’s fault. If it’s online it could be a case of programmatic, or if print, the designer laying out the page.


Source: Unbounce   

Nevertheless, remember your choice of words matter. So, choose wisely before you use them.   

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Melissa Duko

Melissa Duko

Melissa Duko is the Senior Editor for Anura. She brings to her role more than a decade of journalism and editing experience. A graduate of the University of Delaware, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, concentration business and technical writing, minor Art History. She also has a Master of Science in professional writing for the public and private sector from Towson University. She isn’t afraid to admit that her love for Starbucks is at gold member status. (Since 2011!) More Articles by Melissa Duko