Branding, From Your Mouth to God’s Ear

Companies spend billions of dollars each year trying to to create a positive image for their brand. Alas, there are times when no matter how many fancy campaigns you run, no matter how many experts you consult, a certain image is burned into the public’s mind forever. A new site called Brand Tags tries to distill that image for all to see.

Brand Tags is “a collective experiment in brand perception,” and it works like this: the site loads, a brand shows up, and you’re asked to type one word – the first word that comes to mind when you see the logo. The result is compiled with the rest of the answers and appears in a “tag cloud.” The more frequently a word gets typed by different people, the larger it appears, to some interesting effect. For example, here’s a slice of the tag cloud for Adobe:


As you can see above, opinion is divided. Many people tagged Adobe as “expensive” and “bloatware,” but overall the response indicated that people find Adobe’s products useful, although many wish there were alternatives. Here’s an example of a brand that received very little love on the site, Taco Bell:


Most of the results are hilarious, scathing and true. When I clicked on the tag cloud for MTV, one of the largest tags was “no music,” the rest of the tag cloud peppered with comments such as “outdated” and “obsolete.” One of the biggest tags on Pabst was “hipster,” in close proximity of “redneck.” Continental Airlines is jammed with tags like “crash,” “bad service” and “delays,” while Virgin Atlantic enjoys an overall positive response with tags like “fun,” “trendy” and “sex.” Calvin Klein’s black-and-white Kate Moss campaign from the 90s remains so strong in people’s minds that more tags reference it than any advertising they’ve done since. The American Apparel tag cloud includes the word “pedophile.” Google’s dominating positive perception has a dark undertow; along with a higher-than-usual amount of positive tags such as “useful,” “smart,” “awesome,” “everything” and even “god,” the large tags “big brother” and “world domination” appear ominously in the cloud. Boing Boing enjoys a very positive response; the largest negative tags read “what,” “huh” and “no idea.”

Similar studies of public brand perception have surfaced before, but never in such an elegant, accessible form. Seeing the cold, hard truth can touch a nerve, causing some advertisers to spend billions on attempts to improve their image. In 2003, McDonald’s almost sued Merriam-Webster for including the word McJob in the dictionary (a McJob is defined as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement”). Merriam-Webster’s basic response was “hey, The People are using the word, we’re just cataloging it.” McDonald’s opted not to sue, but instead launched a now-forgotten campaign called McProspects. When learning of the campaign, author Douglas Coupland, who first coined the term McJob in his novel Generation X in 1991, penned a funny response. Did the campaign make any difference? Well, the McDonald’s tag cloud contains no references to McJobs. There are, however, plenty of references to obesity, grease, Super Size Me and McDeath.

To the site’s author, Noah Brier: thank you from the advertising industry for doing millions worth of market research for free. To advertisers: please don’t try to corrupt the site by adding tags that make your brand look more positive. Microsoft, don’t add “crashes” to the Firefox cloud. Greyhound, don’t add “smells nice” to your tag cloud. Who do you think you’re fooling? Coilhouse readers: Enjoy it this site while it lasts, because the advice above will surely be ignored.


9 Responses to “Branding, From Your Mouth to God’s Ear”

  1. Damien Says:

    The potential for personal branding, for research and development of personality and identity, is amazing and scary.

  2. mono Says:

    Hmmm… The tag clouds were pretty interesting at first but after only a few clicks, I’m mainly just seeing the delightful denizens of the internet spewing bile on anything they think they should.

    If I was trying to raise the image of a brand I’d probably just ignore anything said on that site.

  3. thekamisama Says:

    I found that if I really played honest word association with the images, I was coming up with abstractions based on the image of the logo or brand instead of my feeling of the company or services. Then again, most of my replies were the smaller words on the lists. I guess I am not wired for branding as much as other folks are.

  4. q gauti Says:

    the cloud for axe body spray contains a somewhat prominently-stated ‘douche’

  5. Mer Says:


    I particularly love the various misspellings of “diarrhea” on Taco Bell’s tags.

  6. cappy Says:


    As you’ll learn one day in the business world, those “bile spewers” are called customers. Yeah, they’re stupid, but you have to live with it AND cater to their every whim! This site is a treasure trove.

  7. Violaine Says:

    Cappy and Mono: You’re both right. In my opinion, the “bile spewing” does accurately represent the consumer psyche. But most times, advertisers know and don’t do much about it. Their service sucks, they know it sucks, but if the “food” tag us larger than the “crap” tag by a 35% margin, all is well. As many advertisers have learned from McDonald’s, a touchy PR counter-offensive has the potential to make a problem even worse.

    q gauti: I KNOW! What’s most interesting is how much the brand encourages this. Try Googling “Axe” and “sexist.” You’ll learn some interesting things about their advertising campaigns!

  8. Erin Says:

    This website confirms some things that I’ve already known: People hate everything…and they’re so predictable.

  9. Rachel Rad Says:

    this site was actually really interesting because of the random surprise words that many people associated with certain brands.

    i think the american idol & american apparal ones had me laughing the most…