What makes a brand premium? What does premium even mean?
There are two basic types of brands your business can be: a commodity brand and a premium brand.
Commodity brands have very similar value propositions as their competitors, so it’s difficult to differentiate from a myriad of products and services who promise the same thing.
Just look at the smartphone marketplace – every year, companies fight to create products with more features, better performance and nicer design, and the buyers who care about those need to spend days watching reviews and reading specification tables in order to make a decision. And then a new player comes into town – someone who’s 50% cheaper – and suddenly the old players need to try even harder to prove why their product is worth the price.
Commodity brands compete based on perceived quality, price, ubiquity, customer service and other conditions that other brands can try to match, and exceed.
Premium brands have value propositions that are so different from other products or services in the market, that the comparisons don’t make sense. This enables premium brands to charge 10 times or a 100 times more than their competitors, because they offer something that competitors can’t match.
Premium brands compete on perceived value, style, exclusivity, unique customer experience and other conditions that are more difficult to meet by their competitors. By the time other brands catch up, the premium brand has solidified its position as the market leader, and competition has become irrelevant.
Premium brands create loyalty – their buyers would always choose this brand and recommend it to their friends. Commodity brand buyers will switch to a different brand as soon as they spot a better deal.
When is the right time to build a premium brand?
Small businesses that can’t afford to compete with larger companies in their playfield would be wise to aim for a premium brand. Commodity brands need to rely on advertising, discounts, and cutting deals with retailers in order to gain market share. Small business owners usually don’t have the funding to do that. While it may seem like creating a premium brand would be more expensive, it actually doesn’t have to be.
I know it’s counter-intuitive, but think about it: the only way a supermarket chain can keep its prices lower than the farmer’s market is because of volume. If you don’t have that kind of volume of sales, you’re forced to charge more just to stay afloat. You can’t afford to be cheap.
Some people choose to start their business with professional branding, but not everyone has the budget to invest in that, and that’s fine.
But if you’re aiming to be a premium brand in your marketplace and command prices that are higher than your competitors, your brand design needs to match that. If your pricing is not aligned with your brand perception, people won’t trust that your stuff is really worth the price you’re asking. (I wrote more about it in my post Is your business a bargain bin brand?)
In this post, I’ll outline the most important elements of a premium brand, and explain their role in your customer's’ perception of your business.
1. Unique value proposition
In order to earn a premium status and all the benefits that come along with it, your service needs to be very good. Some people can get away with selling crap for a while, but inevitably buyers catch onto it. We're not in the business of selling crap – we're in the business of changing people's lives for the better.
That's all well and good, but it's quite difficult to convince people that your stuff is way better than the other stuff they've already tried, and you don't have much time to do that. You need a compelling story that explains how your services and products are different in a single sentence, or two at most.
This story is called a unique value proposition. Coming up with a really unique value proposition is not easy. (Here’s an article that can help you do that.)
Once you’ve identified what your unique value proposition is, you’re ready for the next step, which is to show how you’re different.
Why it matters
If anyone can come into your marketplace and snatch your value proposition from you, you’ll lose not only the new buyers, but even the clients who have previously bought from you.
Customers remain loyal as long as they’re aware that they can get what they value the most only from you.
2. Unique, recognizable logo design
I’ve written on multiple occasions that having a logo is not necessary when you’re starting out. There are more pressing concerns like clarifying your messaging and audience, and refining your marketing and sales processes – not to mention figuring out if this is the kind of business you want to have in the first place. There’s a lot of tweaking done in the first 2 years, and investing in a logo too early may not be the smartest idea.
As a premium brand though, your imperative is to differentiate from others in your field who offer similar products or services, because by that point, it’s the brand that sells – not just the features and benefits.
Why it matters
Having a recognizable logo subtly reinforces the sense of familiarity people have whenever they interact with any type of content you publish. You can place an unobtrusive icon or a monogram on all your social media graphics, your speaker presentation slides, in the corner of your YouTube videos, your email signature...
As people are sharing your content online, they’re also spreading your brand to their audience, which will then develop this sense of familiarity as they repeatedly see your stuff in their social media feeds as well.
This is even more important for physical products and brick-and-mortar businesses. There are so many touch points that you can use to strengthen your brand: packaging, price tags, gift bags, loyalty cards, shop windows, signage, vehicles and more.
3. Consistent typography and color palette
Typography (fonts) and colors, as well as photography (which I’ll mention later) are the way we portray emotional qualities through visual means. When we speak in person, we use our tone to emphasize certain phrases, and to give our talk an uplifting or a sombre quality. This is difficult to pull off using the written word alone. There’s no way for a person to know what kind of tone we were using when we were writing out text.
Choosing fonts and colors that represent our brand voice and the emotional qualities of our brand is an art in itself.
It’s not that important to choose the color that is “symbolically” linked to your niche, since color symbolism varies from culture to culture, but the color palette must be appropriate for your brand. It’s not just a choice between green or blue, it’s finding that perfect shade of green that captures youthfulness, growth and innovation.
Why it matters
Finding that typeface that has just the right amount of professionalism and spontaneity, and is readable at small sizes as well, is a challenge that most people struggle with, and often make the wrong choices. In turn, their written content has an amateur ring to it, even though the words may be perfect.
The average person is oblivious to the importance of good typography, but they do notice when something is off. They also notice when something is just right.
Colors are one of the most memorable elements of a brand, right after the logo shape. So much so, that people start to call the shade by the brand name, like “Facebook blue” or “Coca-cola red”. (If you’d like to check this hypothesis for yourself, try this fun quiz.)
4. Beautiful photography
I can’t count how many times a business owner said to me “I’d like a simple and elegant website, like Apple.” (It was a running joke in our office at my last agency job.) The deal with Apple’s website is that the thing that makes it so gorgeous are the product photos. Strip away the photos, and you have an empty, bland looking site (which is what the aforementioned business owner would end up with).
Even a mediocre design can shine with the use of the right photos.
Most small business owners use stock photos to feature their intangible services, since professional photography seems out of their budget. I would recommend instead to pay for good quality photos before investing in the graphic design of promo materials (website, brochures etc.).
Photos tell your story and give a sense of the atmosphere and the qualities of your brand. Below is an example of the photos I took for one of my clients, that we later used on her website and social media:
I have yet to see one of her competitors with an equally immersive photography.
Why it matters
Whether you’re presenting products or services, photography is essential. Photos are proof that what you sell really looks the way you say it does. It’s the closest thing your online visitors have to walking into your office or store.
If you want to instantly rise above other companies, hire someone to create better photos for you. (Videos are even more immersive and build even more trust, and if you can invest in that as well, do it.)
5. Consistent graphic styles throughout all the customer touch points
Whether your business is digital or physical, there are many touch points your customer goes through from the moment they first hear about your business, to the moment they receive the service. Are you even aware of what all these touch points are?
If you’re not sure, I recommend that you make a list of all the different steps that your customer takes from the moment they land on your social media channel, to your website, to your newsletter, to your shop, to the payment process and beyond. I explain how to do that in my post Improve your business & brand with a client journey map.
Here’s an example of customer flow for a consultant who offers their services digitally:
All these touch points need to be designed in harmony with each other, as much as possible. Some services do not allow for custom branding (like certain payment processors), but those that do should be customized to match your website.
Why it matters
Mismatched design styles look sloppy, and sloppy has no place in a premium brand.
An even bigger problem with mismatched styles is that they trigger your customer’s fear of the unknown. If they’ve been through a consistent experience until a certain point, and then they, say, receive an email order confirmation that has a completely different color scheme from the one on your site, they might doubt that they’re actually getting legitimate communication from you.
Don’t give your customers a reason to doubt you.
6. Recognizable brand voice
I’ve mentioned earlier how fonts and colors are a visual representation of your voice and tone. This visual representation should match the brand voice that you’ll be using in all your verbal communication with your customers: emails, blog posts, meetings, documentation, public speaking, social media updates etc.
Your brand voice plays a huge part in how your customers perceive you, and you can craft a brand voice to match your desired brand perception.
This brand voice may be similar to your human voice (which is recommended if you’re a solo business owner), or a synthetic voice of the brand that will be used by all your employees when they’re communicating in the brand’s name (copywriters, salespeople, customer service and community managers).
Why it matters
Brand voice is one of the easiest ways to polarize your audience. This means that what you say, and the way you express it will quickly attract your right people, and repel all the “wrong” people. (Which is good, because you only want to work with your right people.)
Your brand voice is also a way you express your core values. A brand with the dominant core values of “ambition” and “freedom” will have a different voice from one whose dominant core values are “compassion” and “creativity”. People who resonate with your core values will be attracted to your brand through your voice.
Brands don’t become “premium” by accident
I’ve been following a lot of small online businesses over the years that grew from a scrappy, DIY bootstraping show into a brand that oozes professionalism from the very first interaction. They’ve all started from nothing, but after a few years of experimenting and finally landing on the thing that will make them successful, one by one they’ve began upgrading their websites and brands and raising the prices of their products and services.
These are the people you’ve heard of. You’d probably like to be in their league, with your book in their “similar books” section on Amazon, showing up on the same podcasts they are, speaking at their events, getting the attention they’re getting, and having a community of your own that’s just as wildly supportive as theirs.
But it doesn’t just happen. Premium brands are intentional. Becoming a premium brand is not just about adding new things, but it’s also about cutting away things that no longer make sense. Refining and clarifying, over and over again.
What’s your next step toward a premium brand?
Have you already settled on a unique value proposition that explains how your business is different from all the others?
Are you ready to raise your prices, or get even more clients at your current price point?
If the answer is yes, I’d love to help you to make the next step, which is to design a brand that looks and feels premium, and makes a lasting impression. If you’d like that too, check out my brand design services and contact me so we can chat about your business goals and needs.