Smiley, happy people are killing your brand.

Technology has made it easier than ever to create. Sites like Canva make it dead simple to lay out a social media graphic, ad, or just about anything we might need. Stock photo sites put beautiful imagery at our fingertips. Some of it, absolutely free to use.

You can take some marginally interesting statement about your brand, slap it over a beautiful picture of smiley, happy people and call it a day.

And we do. Over and over. To the point where we see the same stock photo of smiley, happy people hawking teeth whitening one week and a colonoscopy clinic the next.

Great concepts make brands memorable and desirable. But great concepts take some thought. And that thought takes some time.

The ease and speed of our tools make it too easy to jump to execution before we have a great concept. And without a great concept, we grab whatever may vaguely illustrate the positive outcome of engaging with our brand. Thus, we end up with smiley, happy people. And a brand message that is monumentally forgettable.

Here’s the scary part. This is happening at an ever-increasing pace. Our screens are awash with these smiley, happy legions sending brands off into oblivion.

We have to be critical when it comes to our messaging. Are we truly creating something that is distinctive and has meaning? Or are we cranking out another execution so we can check it off the list? Here are a few ideas to help drive more creative thinking into our work.

  • Go all Luddite — a Luddite is a person opposed to new technology or ways of working. Here’s how I’ve used this with creative teams I’ve managed. Make everyone take a hiatus from the computer. No searching photo sites. No playing with any of the digital design tools. You’re restricted to paper and a pencil. And your brain. And dialogue with your fellow creatives. It always amazes me how this unlocks creativity by forcing us to use our imagination. And recognizing that technology can be a crutch that can make us lazy thinkers.
  • Use the cover-up test — got an execution you’re feeling pretty good about? Cover up the words. Does the visual communicate your message? Or is it just decoration? Go one step further. Is the visual distinctive to your brand? Or could anyone use it to the same effect? If it seems generic, then it’s time to go back and work a little harder at creating something that is more compelling and memorable.
  • The simplest form — do you have a nice execution or a big idea? An execution is a one-off. A big idea is a concept that can be expressed across all different mediums in all different forms. Here’s how to test your idea. Mock it up in the simplest form where it could appear. In the old days, we would use billboard as our test medium. Because with billboard, we only had 5 to 7 words and the attention span of about three seconds (the amount of time a driver had to view the board driving by on the highway at 55 miles per hour). If our idea worked here and worked well, we knew we had something that could translate across mediums. In today’s world, I might suggest seeing how your idea translates to a 320 x 50 pixel mobile banner. Does it hold up in this small size and in an environment where the user will scroll quickly by it? Is it still compelling and memorable? If not, you need to work on your idea.

These are just a few of the techniques you can use to build stronger ideas for your brand and bring them to life in ways that are distinctive, compelling, and memorable. In doing so, we’ll replace all those happy, smiley people out there with something meaningful. Something that will help your brand thrive by creating a little surprise and delight for those you hope to serve.

Dan is an expert brand strategist and author of the book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story. He is a founder at Will & Grail — a brand innovation company, helping organizations find their unique, undeniable and unshakable sense of purpose and create innovative experiences that bring it to life.

Originally published at on February 6, 2020.

Dan is an expert brand strategist and author of the book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story. He is a founder at Will & Grail.

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