Sex Appeal and Lies May Sell, But Nothing Outlasts a Strong, Authentic Brand

What Catfishing Can Teach You About Branding

Today’s technology provides an arsenal of options for building standout brands that help us reach, grow, earn, and achieve. While consumer perception ultimately defines your brand, the myriad of communication channels combined with instant access to the masses gives businesses unprecedented control over their brand identity and the power to influence public opinion like never before.

However, with great power comes great responsibility – or at least it used to. Now it’s available to anyone with an IP address, sans the responsibility or oversight. When you combine that with the anonymity of the internet and the instant access to people around the world, the result is a cultural phenomenon that demonstrates the power of branding and what can happen when brands go bad.

When Brands Go Bad: There’s a New Fish in Town

Tips to Build a Strong, Authentic Brandcat·fish


  1. a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes


  1. To deceive, swindle, etc., by assuming a false identity or personality online:
    He fell in love with her online before he realized he’d been catfished.

Even if you haven’t seen the documentary that inspired the name, you’ve probably heard the term “catfish” used in the context of online romance. The cultural phenomenon now known as “catfishing” became part of the vernacular following the 2010 debut of a documentary that explored the deceptive world of online relationships and put a name to the disturbing new trend. Nev Schulman, the subject of the documentary, spun the same concept into a hit reality TV show in 2012, which is now in its fifth season. Despite the attention and growing awareness of catfishing, their numbers are increasing.

The Catfish are Coming!

Like an invasive species, the catfish phenomenon has spread beyond the online dating scene where it originated and infiltrated the business world. Unscrupulous brands are now getting in on the action, using the same tactics to dupe customers and prospects.

More and more brands are engaging in “social catfishing” – the practice of making fake social media profiles – to appear more popular than they really are through artificially boosting metrics (such as the number of followers or likes). Writing fake reviews to increase positive sentiment around a brand is another popular social catfishing tactic.

Catfish aren’t rocket scientists or even brilliant con artists, yet somehow they succeed in duping millions of singles into these online relationships despite the growing awareness of the practice. What gives?

I think it goes without saying that catfishing is wrong (on many levels) and the people who engage in it are morally bankrupt, emotionally disturbed, or both. But there’s no denying the fact that it’s effective.

What can we learn from the catfish phenomenon? A lot, it turns out.

4 Core Branding Lessons Catfish Can Teach Us

Lesson 1

Entice with imagery. Catfish know what it takes to entice the object of their desire into that first fateful exchange. Online romance starts with the profile pic, so eye-catching imagery (in the form of sexy selfies featuring someone else’s washboard abs) is just what they need to stand out in a sea of less chiseled suitors.

Branding takeaway: Call it shallow or unfair, but looks matter and your brand is no exception. For businesses trying to compete for consumers’ attention, aesthetics are key to capturing attention. First impressions count and your brand’s visual identity can make the critical difference between a consumer’s decision to learn more about your offering or “swipe right” and move on to one of your competitors. Janky or dull design just won’t do if you want to stand out and pique the interest of prospects. However, it’s important to note that a killer logo is only one component of your visual identity. Your brand’s essence is defined through every visual element, including typography standards, color palette, photographic/illustration style, and visual guidelines.

Lesson 2

Seduce with storytelling. While catfish may initially use sex appeal to lure their love interests, their ability to woo with words is what seals the deal. Catfish are superb storytellers, often creating entire universes (complete with fake jobs as well as fake coworkers, siblings, spouses, children, and friends) around their online identities. Their stories are colorful and their lives are dramatic, with continuous plot twists that capture their online lover’s imagination and draw them in again and again. They are masterful at weaving tales that evoke powerful emotions and resonate with the individual they’re pursuing.

Branding takeaway: Although “brand storytelling” is a popular buzzword in marketing and advertising these days, it’s certainly not a novel concept. On the contrary, it’s a communication form as old as humanity, but remains just as powerful today. Companies have caught onto the fact that stories resonate with people and brands can harness the power of storytelling to connect with customers. While not intended to be used as a selling tool, you can use brand storytelling to differentiate your organization, build relationships with customers over time, and create a foundation for future content development.

Lesson 3

But don’t tell tales. Catfish usually get busted as their stories become increasingly fantastical and difficult for even the most trusting online sweetheart to believe. As the relationship blossoms and the pressure to meet in person mounts,  the gaps in their stories and the never-ending stream of bizarre excuses finally become too implausible for their beloved to ignore. In Catfish the TV Show, the person seeking answers enlists the help of the show’s hosts to discover their beau’s true identity, culminating in a live confrontation where the two meet face-to-face for the first time. In the majority of cases, the catfish turns out to be an entirely different person from the one depicted in their online profile and photos, and the catfish has some “splaining”! to do.

Branding takeaway: Authenticity and consistency are essential to the success of your brand. Remember that consumers come into contact with your brand through a myriad of channels, so your language and tone must be consistent across all of your organization’s communications. When it comes to your brand, inconsistency may create confusion and even breed distrust. Embrace authenticity and build a brand that’s truly you.

Lesson 4

Deliver on your promises. Catfish talk a great game and keep it going for as long as possible, but they eventually reveal themselves as the frauds that they are when they fail to deliver on their many promises. For the person on the receiving end of this deception, who pinned their hopes and dreams on a romance with someone who doesn’t exist and invested a great deal of time (years in some cases) in the relationship, the betrayal is crushing.

Branding takeaway: Your brand is your promise to customers and you need to do whatever it takes to deliver on that promise. Not holding up your end of the bargain will take its toll on your brand, costing you clients, referrals, and respect. Authenticity is another key component of your brand promise, especially in the Wild West of the World Wide Web, a domain teeming with spammy, scammy con artists intent on emptying your grandmother’s bank account. Your customers want to know you are who you say you are and you’re going to deliver what you say you will. Don’t let them down.

For help taking your creative branding and marketing to the next level, drop us a line or call (813) 419-3246 to schedule a consultation.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *