Three Levels to Branding

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After working with hundreds of brands of all sizes, I have realized that brands should not be assessed or judged equally. I often see businesses comparing themselves to brands that don’t make sense to compare to. Branding is like the blank tile in Scrabble; it’s powerful and can mean many different things but is often misused. Brands generally fall into three categories, and understanding their differences is crucial. Accurately knowing where your brand falls will help you tailor your strategy and set benchmarks that make sense for your business.

Below are the three categories of branding:

  1. A Brand
  • A brand that needs work (established or one that lacks a focus on branding)
  • A new brand that’s doing good things but is still new in the market
  • A brand that has existed for some time with stagnant growth. It has a small following but isn’t growing at the rate the brand should. Often, the brand needs professional expertise and strategy at this stage, as well as a new visual identity.
  1. A Good Brand
  • An established brand that’s loved and adored but is struggling to break through to become a great brand.
  • Often requires a change in strategy or direction in order to achieve the tipping point to greatness
  • An established brand that’s still too young to make it to the podium of greatness
  • A newer brand that is doing well but is too young to be considered great
  1. A Great Brand
  • The mecca of brands, a household name and category leader that has reigned for at least a decade
  • Started 10+ years before it was seen as a great brand
  • Leverages the four pillars of a good brand with more than one of the pillars maintaining exceptional status
  • The four core pillars of a brand include:
  1. Good product
  2. Good story
  3. Good experience, and most importantly,
  4. CONSISTENCY.

Understanding the different levels of branding is crucial to setting realistic goals and making informed decisions for your business.

Many business owners rely on inaccurate benchmarks to assess their brand’s potential or success. The three tiers of branding are significant because they face different challenges, have varying customer relationships, and operate in the market for different lengths of time.

It’s important to distinguish between the brand categories as the variance is massive. If you’ve been running your business for a few years without any digital presence or active focus on branding, then you only have a brand. Graduating to a good brand requires time, resources and reasonable success. A great brand is the true mecca of branding. It’s what passionate business owners and hopeful marketers aim to achieve. Understanding what makes a brand great is also probably why you are here. Building a great brand is a lifetime achievement, similar to winning an Olympic medal. Many work for it, few make it to the top, and in the end, only 3 get rewarded. Also, like the Olympics, there’s tons of competition and pressure, and it takes relentless effort to achieve. You also can’t enter the Olympics as a novice athlete– you have to put in the reps and qualify over years of dedication to be acknowledged as a serious athlete.

From Good to Great.

It’s important to differentiate between a good and a great brand because most people don’t consider the ladder of success to benchmark themselves accordingly. The biggest issue I have seen in branding is companies aiming to achieve unrealistic goals because they are not aware of their ladder of potential.

In understanding this framework, it’s important to note that ‘a brand’ can’t jump straight to becoming a ‘great brand.’ There’s a period of being known as a good brand before the tipping point occurs. The point of greatness is often achieved without celebration. Greatness comes with time and expertise, where the community ubiquitously sees the brand as great.

Many people confuse good brands with great brands. Good brands can still be successful and well-known, but that doesn’t mean they’re great. I work with brands that are objectively successful and known in certain circles but would be sooner categorized as ‘good’ instead of ‘great.’ Great is the outlier; it’s the best of the best, and it has done the work and the reps (consistently) to achieve top status.

Time, money, and effort are needed to make a brand great. Great brands take decades. Good brands take years, and ‘a brand’ can be categorized as time wasted or work being invested. Good brands are categorized as sites for improvement because they are either misdirected, ill-informed or new to the market and must earn their stripes. Any new brand grows and evolves. No great brand stays the exact same as when it was first launched. The evolution that the brand and offering undergoes is the process of becoming great. It can’t be rushed; to be great is to become obsessive and invest in your craft, which only comes with time.

I worked with a major fast-food chain in the same category as Chipotle. The brand had been around for less than 8 years and had almost no brand recognition in the market. They saw their biggest competitor as Chipotle. This benchmarking made no sense. They were looking for branding help because they had A Brand. Success for them would be graduating to a Good Brand, not a Great Brand. Comparing themselves to a brand mecca like Chipotle made no sense. This client had a large footprint in sales, but their digital marketing and branding were rudimentary at best. For Chipotle to even enter the conversation, the brand would need a massive facelift, a complete change in strategy, and a grip on their franchise partners to stop going rogue and creating their own marketing in Microsoft Paint. They would also need another 10 years in the market and probably an acquisition from a massive company that has transformed a fast-food chain into a behemoth.

Benchmarking like this happens all the time. It’s easy to stare at the brand at the top in bright lights and see them as the competition to beat. Thinking like this sets your marketing team up to fail and a quick trip to burnout. Benchmarking accurately can cause irrational spending or decision-making that doesn’t align with what’s possible.

The categorization of brands is important as it guides the direction and strategy towards reasonable and achievable goals.

Great brands aren’t built in a day and can’t be rushed. Branding is a marathon, not a sprint; remember that it takes time to build anything great. Time is an important factor and variable in your branding journey. Cutting corners is where brands make mistakes. Short-term profits hurt long-term relationships, and branding is about the long game.

Another core tenet of achieving a great brand is consistency, which means the customer can rely on the brand. Great branding is where the concept of the absence of anxiety becomes important. It takes years for a brand to become a ‘safe’ choice. A brand can only become the default after multiple purchases and reinforcing touchpoints. Consistency of the message occurs once the message is repeated to the point that it is engrained in the customer’s mind. It takes repetition and consistency in experience and execution to be considered reliable and best in class. Four Seasons has earned its brand reverence after millions of repeated experiences from customers who share and spread its brand excellence. You can’t manufacture greatness; you can only earn a superlative like ‘great’ by being great over time.

Cultural confirmation is also an important aspect. A brand can only be great if the community mutually agrees. Greatness in branding isn’t achieved through self-proclamation. Great brands are earned and rewarded for the work they put in.

Great Brands Are Never New: A DJI Case Study.

I exclusively buy DJI products for my personal content creation. I did my own research to decide what to buy, but my purchasing decision was swayed by the media people in my company and the experts around me. I’ve seen through multiple touchpoints that people I respect use DJI. While researching, I encountered additional indicators such as ‘best seller’ labels, high review counts, and prominent placement of DJI products within relevant categories, reinforcing my confidence in the brand. The online verification and my personal experiences created a sense of trust and credibility towards DJI, making me feel confident and satisfied with my investment because I know I am investing in a great brand.

After purchase, I am reinforced that I made a good brand decision when I pull out my mic or other gadgets, and my media team or contractors say almost instantly that they ‘love DJI’ almost unprompted. This experience with the product and the community creates personal buy-in for me, and I become part of the conversation. DJI has become the only brand I recommend to clients when getting into content creation. It’s also a brand I frequently compliment or discuss when other creators or contractors pull out their DJI products.

Note how the brand position would change if I bought DJI and had a different experience. The experts around me began to say they had a bad experience or the product had lost its quality. If the brand started to deteriorate, it would lose its status. When this happens, and I need to buy again, I may start to decide to use someone else; a sense of anxiety would creep in when deciding whether or not to trust the brand, and I may choose to go with someone else.

Another important aspect to consider with the DJI case study is how a brand you may or may not have heard of (or at least know alot about) could be considered great. DJI is a perfect example of a brand that may feel new to us but is an established category leader. In the case of DJI, the company was founded in 2006 by Frank Wang in his university dorm room in Hong Kong. DJI became a strong player in the early personal drone market and earned itself a strong reputation for having reliable and affordable products. Before DJI, the personal drone space was owned by US companies. DJI began releasing quality products that were improving at a rate that the original players couldn’t touch. Every DJI product launched was great, and the brand earned a loyal following. Once the brand established itself as a good brand for creators, DJI started to diversify, creating a range of reliable products perfectly tailored to their target. DJI analyzed their core client and continued giving them the products they needed to create content conveniently. DJI’s growth was calculated; DJI earned the reputation and relationships it fostered by consistently executing at the highest level for the last 2 decades. In short, DJI did the reps. You can’t cut corners to form a great brand.

I chose the DJI brand as a case study to illustrate that the category of great brands is not reserved for giants like Walt Disney. These OG brands are great, but there are also a lot of great brands that feel new but aren’t. Looking at brands in a vacuum for where they are today is a losing strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all all approach to greatness. You have to do the work to get to the highest level of branding success.

Chew on these three tiers this week and reflect on where your brand stands and how you are benchmarking it. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and achieving a great brand takes time, but the reps you are doing now do matter, as they will determine whether you will represent your category in the brand Olympics.

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