Good Versus Great Brands: The Quest to Branding Greatness


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Good versus great is the difference between making money and being remembered for decades. To recap, the three levels of brands include:

  1. A Brand
  2. A Good Brand
  3. A Great Brand

I use superlatives to differentiate between good and great brands because the distinction of excellence matters. Most of you reading this will have a good brand. In many ways, having a good brand is easy—passionate people who have a good story and leverage their experience to develop a good product will get sales. The challenge is raising your brand to the next level of greatness.

Many good brands fall into this category almost by accident. They develop a product, and it works, and the success of the product carries sales and steady growth. Brands in this position struggle the most because they have spent a lot of money on marketing to maintain brand growth but aren’t seeing the returns to catapult them into the next category of being seen as a great brand.

Getting to the Next Level of Branding.

The transition from good to great is the hardest leap for a brand to make. This is where my Olympic analogy is quite fitting. Qualifying for the Olympics is difficult; to be in the category of the best and to medal is reserved for only a few. The jump from good to great is hard to do, and like the Olympics, getting to the games isn’t in the cards for all who work for it.

It’s important to note that there are factors outside of the four pillars that are relevant to touch on. To recap, the four pillars that make a strong brand include:

  1. Good story
  2. Good product
  3. Good experience, and
  4. Consistency

Luck and novelty can play a role in the transition from good to great. Society likes novelty– we like to reward those who are first, and there’s an element of luck that can occur for those who get there first. From a branding standpoint, novelty rewards the first brand or business of its kind. This is why we celebrate Apple, Tesla, Birkenstock and Ugg. However, luck and novelty are not enough to make a brand great. All four pillars are still required to be considered a great brand–luck can play into who gets to be seen as great first.

Bill Gates credits his early exposure to computers in elementary school as a stroke of luck; the early exposure to computers allowed him to establish Microsoft. The early entrance into the market also allowed Microsoft to innovate before competitors, allowing the brand to constantly be ahead (novelty). It’s important to note that Microsoft is a great brand, not due to luck alone, but luck played a big role in allowing Bill to get to market first.

Branding is a massive term that extends to all industries. Category leaders in some industries that don’t have much variance can often be attributed to luck or novelty. This isn’t to discourage you; most of you reading this aren’t in niche industries that have a ceiling for where your brand can go. Or rather, the ceiling isn’t relevant to where your brand is now– there is lots of space for growth, improvement and market cap for you to take.

The catch is that without good branding, it’s impossible for the customer to learn about the novel product or service, so the two go hand in hand. It’s not enough to be the first to market. The arrogance of feeling like branding isn’t necessary will allow another competitor to fill the space and be positioned as the first–or at least seem like the first to the customer. Branding is a meritocracy, a survival of the fittest. Being the best isn’t always about the quality of the product or story, especially if you’re not leveraging your pillars effectively. If you are going to transition from a good brand to a great brand, you have to be prepared to get out of your own way and do what’s best for the brand. If there is an aspect of novelty or newness to your product, you must lean into it, as this is the best way to level up your brand’s status.

Making the Transition: From Good to Great.

The difference between a good and a great brand is fine-tuning and perfecting the pillars to be perceived as exceptional. A brand can transition from being a good brand to a great brand by having a best-in-class status for at least one pillar.

In branding, the transition from a good brand to a great brand is having at least one of the four pillars transcend from ‘good’ to exceptional status. It’s important to note that great brands are often exceptional in more than one pillar, but a generalization is needed because this is a framework for all brands.

Typically, the pillar seen as exceptional is the pillar best tied to the brand as it’s a differentiator. For example, John Deere is a great brand because it offers excellent consistency by producing top-quality tractors. The brand has been proven for decades, so much so that there is a massive aftermarket for John Deere of people buying and using tractors and lawnmowers from decades prior. One of our clients (@onemileranch) sells direct-to-home ranch-raised meat; they are online influencers who show their daily life on the farm while helping Canadians access better quality meat. While visiting them on the ranch, I was shocked to see them show off their 4020 John Deere tractor from 1964, which they still use daily for their farm work. This was their prize toy, and I didn’t take long to learn why. In the farming community, the John Deere tractors from the 60’s are the creme de la creme. In their community, having one of these tractors is a prize worth showing off like a collectable car. John Deere is a great brand–the ultimate brand loved and revered by the farming community. John Deere is a great brand because it holds exceptional status in all four pillars.

The John Deere Story.

John Deere’s story begins in 1837 in rural Illinois. Deere was a blacksmith and innovator who realized the farmers in his community struggled to farm because of the density of the Midwest’s soil. Deere made his own first-ever self-cleaning steel plow, and it worked fantastically. Deere believed in the product and its potential and began manufacturing inventory to sell. This was quite unusual at the time, as typically, Blacksmiths operated on a made-to-order basis.

Deere’s instincts were right; the plow’s launch to market was a massive success and sold thousands shortly after the brand’s inception. The steel plow transformed farmers’ effectiveness and is seen as a true innovation in agriculture. The Deere brand continued to progress with technology, and in 1918, Deere launched 2 Cylinder tractors. Deere launched with tractors by acquiring a well-known Tractor company out of Iowa called Waterloo Boy. The brand was so strong that Deere transitioned to taking on the Waterloo Boy name. Deere returned to its brand name in 1923, continuing to sell their 2 Cylinder tractors under a different name.

By 1959, the Deere company had sold over 1.25 million 2-cylinder tractors. The brand was respected, but because of the name change, Deere was not yet a ‘great brand.’ The transition from good to great didn’t happen until the 60’s.

In 1959, Deere began selling four—and six-cylinder engines. John Deere’s innovation put them ahead of their competition by offering new, efficient, and reliable products. Deere transcended quickly to become a great brand because their new line of products was simple, durable, and way ahead of the technology that had been on the market prior.

The culmination of the consistent execution of a great product and brand experience paired with the brands’ over a hundred years in the market graduated John Deere to be seen as a great brand. The tractors from the 1960s are still considered today to be the best tractors ever made. Since the 1960s, the brand has maintained its premium status, being seen as a trusted and credible brand.

Today, John Deere is one of the longest-lasting agricultural and tractor companies in the United States and is seen as one of the greatest American brands of all time.

Great brands like John Deere took decades to achieve exceptional status. The brand started with strong execution in all four pillars but was able to perfect its pillars by doing the reps over the decades in the market. John Deere didn’t rush success; the brand focused on consistent execution and providing a great product that customers could trust.

The different brand pillars are like the different moves or elements required to execute a sport. To move from a college athlete to a professional athlete, your ‘good’ pillars must be seen as ‘great.’

To use the Olympic metaphor again, the difference between a college athlete and an Olympic athlete playing the same sport is better execution. If you watch a college pole vaulter versus an Olympic pole vaulter, the difference is in the stats for execution. The college pole vaulter won’t run as fast or jump as high. The category difference also matters; the top 3 college pole vaulters are good but don’t compare statistically to the top 3 Olympic pole vaulters– they are not in the same league (literally). This is the same for the different levels of brands. For college athletes to be great, they need to do the reps, expand who their competitors are and work to improve their skills to get to the next bound.

Often, great brands that grow massive will start to cut corners to save money. They started in the market as being exceptional in all categories but slowly, over time, made budget cuts that only prioritized their key difference. These brands can maintain their great status (for a short period of time) because at least one of the four pillars is so great that the customer feels indebted to the brand. This isn’t a recommended strategy because it will not last, but it is important to highlight for those using this framework to analyze the top brands in your category.

Good Versus Great, More Than Marketing.

Marketing alone can’t create the difference between a good and a great brand. This is why the four pillars are so important for understanding what makes a strong brand versus a great brand.

A great brand is more complicated than what most people give credit for. Becoming a great brand takes time, money, effort and, most importantly, stamina. You can’t rush greatness, and it’s a destination that a lifetime is devoted to. Few brands see greatness in their lifetime; it often takes generations to achieve. The digital age has allowed brands to speedrun their way to greatness because of the reach achieved online and the change in access to capital.

Great is reserved for those who have put in the time and effort, and the community validates its claim for greatness. You can’t state that your brand is great– your brand must be confirmed by position in the market and, effectively, sales. This is where the category of greatness becomes tricky. It takes money to make money, and the best way to do this is to have budgets to spend to keep them there. It’s hard to say you have a better product than Coca-Cola and attempt to enter that category. The reason is that Coca-Cola’s greatness isn’t in the product alone– it’s all four pillars that are untouchable by a new product in the category. This is why time is such an important element in achieving brand greatness. Having a great product or story is not enough– you need consistency in the market, which comes with the time needed to do the reps.

Chew on this for the week and consider where you want your brand to go and if you are accurately benchmarking your brand. If there’s any branding topic you want some insight and wisdom on, send me a line!

Thanks for reading,


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