Is your business a bargain bin brand?

Published by Nela Dunato on in Branding, Business

Is your business a bargain bin brand?

Is your business a bargain bin brand?

Have you ever tried to analyze your brand objectively? And if so, what have you found?

Analyzing and creating brands is something I do for a living, so naturally, I’m doing it whenever I visit someone’s website or look at their brochures.

I have to say that a lot of the brands I see are pretty disappointing (some of them even stoop so low as to use Comic Sans), but what bugs me the most is seeing businesses that are trying to sell premium services, yet their brands are distinctly budget.

I wonder why haven’t they found a decent designer to create a logo and marketing materials that will actually resonate with the message they’re trying to convey?

Why haven’t they thought that investing the amount they could make back with just a few more sales, in order to raise the bar for their business, would be a good idea?

And the only answer I could think of is that they don’t know. They have no idea what their brand actually means for their bottom line. Nobody told them how people respond to design, and about the power of the first impression.

Nobody warned them.

So I’ve decided to do it – to write what I want business owners to know, and hope that with this knowledge, you’ll be equipped to make a decision that’s best for you and your business (whether that means working with a brand designer or not).

I warn you, it will push some buttons. I rarely “sell” good design this hard – and yet, I have to speak my mind because it’s something that’s been bugging me for a long time.

I’ll provide some insight into buyer psychology from a design standpoint, and I hope it will help you in evaluating your own brand.

Be mindful of the story your brand is telling

If your brand is broadcasting one thing, and your prices state another, it’s creating a discord that your clients can feel.

Did you know you could buy fine Croatian wine in a plastic bottle directly from the wine cellar for a fraction of the price of what it goes by in the stores? It’s the same freaking wine. Yet, when you factor in a tall glass bottle with a classy label, and the cut that the store takes, they have every right to demand premium wine prices.

If you tried to sell the wine in a plastic (or a carton container) at the same price as the glass bottles go for, you’d be laughed out of town. Nobody would buy it because they wouldn’t believe you that the wine is actually any good. (By the way, scientists did a study on the placebo effects of pricing and labeling, and it showed that for the majority of participants, the same wine with a higher price tag tastes better. It’s not just that they said it tastes better, brain MRI scans showed that their pleasure centers responded more strongly to more expensive wine.)

As consumers, we demand certain standards of quality for certain price points. We not only expect the contents to be good, but we also expect the production quality to be at the same level. That’s the effect that being immersed in our marketing culture since birth has had on us.

We came to expect that the packaging reflects the quality of the contents inside.

If we take something in cheap and flimsy packaging from the shelf and see a 3-figure sticker on it, we flinch because there’s a mismatch between what is promised (low quality) and what is asked for (premium price).

I’ve experienced this discord first-hand as a customer many times, but I’ll mention just one example. A few years ago, I was in a free strategy call with a coach that was a very pleasant, kind and gracious person, and I truly wish her all the best.

However, everything about her brand was obviously DIY. Her website design, her headshots, and her documents were crafted with great care, but they were clearly not designed professionally, and they didn’t tell a coherent story.

When she presented her offers and stated the prices, I was taken aback by surprise, and not of the good kind. Her brand didn’t prepare me for those prices. I expected half as much for 1:1 work judging by the DIY “vibe”, and at least one offering at a lower price point like an ebook or an audio course.

Because that’s the story her brand was telling me.

I can only speculate that this story was misaligned with the actual value of her work, because I didn’t stick around for long enough to check. But I would bet money that if she invested in a premium brand that her work was really about, she would have no problem filling her VIP days, and this investment would have paid off in less than a month.

Granted, I’m way more sensitive to design than the average person, but that was precisely why I was able to make this observation. The average person wouldn’t have realized why they felt something was strange about the price.

People do judge a book by its cover

We like to save time and effort by categorizing things quickly. We use visual cues to judge whether something is worth our time and money.

For whatever evolutionary reason, people consider conventionally “beautiful” strangers as kinder and more trustworthy than “less beautiful” people.

The same can be extended to objects and brands. Genetically modified, large and shiny red apples sell way better than organic misshapen green ones. Things in a nice box sell better than things in a blank cardboard box.

All things being equal, we’d rather pick up the beautiful thing than the thing we have some aesthetic concerns about. And sometimes things don’t have to be equal. Sometimes we’d rather take the pricier thing just because it feels nicer.

Even the most spiritual among us have a great sense of appreciation for aesthetics.

We also feel self-conscious about things people might associate us with. A lot of our purchases are about our sense of identity. We don’t want to buy something that we don’t feel is aligned with our perception of self, and the image we are outwardly projecting.

I’m not dismissing the DIY design route completely – there’s a time and place for DIY, and that’s mainly when you’re validating your idea, getting your first clients and figuring out how to navigate the marketplace. I would never work with a small business owner who can barely afford my services if they don’t stand a chance of making back the cost in a reasonable timeframe.

(I sometimes do work with new business owners, and I’ll tell you a little secret about most of them – they have a job with decent pay, so they can afford making these investments.)

As you’re starting out, your top priority is to get your products or services off the ground, market like crazy and collect people’s results and testimonials.

Also, if you’re a business-to-consumer type, the standards that are expected of you in the beginning are generally lower than if you’re a business-to-business type. B2B folks would be better off with a professional design right out the gate, while B2C can get by with a nice free WordPress theme and home printed business cards until they can afford the real deal.

That said…

Sometimes being cheap is not a viable choice

As a solo business owner that’s creating original work, you can’t afford to charge low prices. If you charge so low that you have to put in crazy hours just to make ends meet, that’s unsustainable, and you’ll burn out and lose the passion for your creative work. (I’ve been there…)

I have many friends who charge very little for their work, and it breaks my heart. Few of them can make it their full-time job because it just doesn’t pay enough, even though the work itself is gorgeous and of very high quality.

If you want to make a living selling your jewelry, paintings, hats, coaching or healing work, you’ll be forced to raise your prices just to stay in business.

Start by calculating the base prices for your work, ones that allow you to make a comfortable living without stressing about whether you’ll be able to pay rent. Then, as you’ve validated that there is a demand for what you sell, and you’d like to step off the hamster wheel so you can focus on mindfully growing your business, make a commitment to go premium.

Can anyone charge a premium?

No, not anyone can. In order to charge premium prices, you need to offer something people cannot get elsewhere. (I discuss this topic in more detail in my post What is a unique value proposition & how to create one.)

I talk about artisan crafts a lot because it’s a good example of goods that can be perceived both as a commodity and as a luxury.

When created in a factory, bought in large quantities from Alibaba and re-sold on Etsy, it’s a commodity we expect to get for cheap. When it’s crafted by an artist with a unique vision and style, superior craftsmanship and attention to detail, we’re talking about a one-of-a-kind item that you simply cannot find anywhere else.

There is also the issue of positioning yourself to cater to your ideal clients. When you connect with your right people, they don’t want to buy something only because they like or need the thing, they want it because it comes from you.

With enough demand from your buyers, you can rise to a position where no matter how much you charge, there will always be people who will be ready to buy it.

People who perform services can also rise to this level, given that they clearly articulate how what they do is unique and different from all the similar service providers out there.

There are more designers out there than anyone can count, but if you position yourself as the go-to designer for a specific niche and offer a very specific value, your earning potential rises drastically.

So, do you have what it takes to raise your prices?

Here’s a checklist you can use to gauge whether you’re ready to raise your prices, or whether you need to work on some points before you do that:

  1. You already have clients at your current prices (ie. there is demand for your work)
  2. The production quality and the value you provide warrant higher prices
  3. Your brand speaks the “premium” language – your design and copywriting are compelling and professional, there are no glaring spelling mistakes, and your design is consistent and attractive

If any of these are missing, work on them – in this order.

You don’t want to create a premium brand for something that is low quality, because your buyers would feel deceived. When you’re confident that the prices you want to charge are in line with the quality and value of your work, then you should step up and create a brand that reflects that.

What’s your brand like?

I’ve designed a quiz called “What stage is your brand in?” that can help you answer that question, and give you tailored advice based on where you’re currently at.

This is what someone who took the quiz told me about it:

“The advice in the results was amazing wow thank you!
Normally a quiz is fun but a time waster. I felt this gave me TONS of value for my time truly!”

Sounds good? Go take the quiz. It’s free, and doesn’t require you to register or sign up in any way.

If you’re ready re-brand so you can charge higher prices with confidence, I’d be very happy to help you do that. If you want to hand off all your design worries to a pro and relax, my full brand design package is for you.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon or Jackson's Art Supplies. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

8 responses to “Is your business a bargain bin brand?”

  1. LOVED reading this! I know I judge a book by its cover and a business by its brand, although branding is still on my to-do list. I read a similar post about the high cost of bad design which makes me question sites like Fiverr a bit more. Additionally, the work we do is valuable, and our brand should reflect that. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Ooh, Nela, I’ll take you up on the mini review. My site is absolutely DIY with some help from a designer – interested to hear your feedback! I know I’m not really selling anything directly on this site, but I plan to in the future.

  3. @Angela: Thank you!
    I wish I could find that post! I’ll try googling for it.

    Oh, don’t get me started on Fiver… :) A person who can afford to create $5-$20 logos probably takes less than an hour to make one (otherwise it doesn’t make financial sense to them if it’s their full time work).

    Do people *really* want something that was just cranked out quickly? I doubt it…

  4. Dear Beth, I’m so happy you’re in! :)

    Here are my thoughts, knowing what I know about your writing voice (which I absolutely love).

    – The colors and typography in the header is very good – bold and punchy, like your humor. I suppose this was done by the designer?

    – The header photo doesn’t speak the same language to me. If you can get someone to take your photo sitting in a staged cubicle, rolling your eyes and looking hella bored, that would be more like your style.
    Until you can do that, finding a similar stock photo will do. Or any other photo that has that humorous touch.
    Your posts are witty and use stock photos in a brilliant way, you should prepare people for that with your header!

    – The button on the opt-in forms isn’t very good from a usability standpoint – small in size so it may be challenging to click on a phone, and doesn’t look button-ish.
    Definitely add a written call to action – using verbs is better from a conversion standpoint. Obviously, that’s not required – I have buttons with no verbs if I feel it suits my voice better. I’m sure you’re able to figure out something clever!
    (I’d suggest a yellow button with a black arrow.)

    – While we’re on the topic of call to action buttons, the “Subscribe” button on the About page and blog posts could be also changed to a different text – could be the same you decide to use on other buttons.

    – In general, I’d suggest more padding across the page. The newsletter signup bar and the posts under it look a bit crammed together, so try to give them all more space to breathe. Then, each post can stand out individually instead of fighting for attention.

    – Headings are pretty small compared to paragraph text, and in huge contrast with the header image. I’d find a middle ground here, something more “bold and punchy” (could be literally “bold” text).
    I tried size 36px bold for main page/post heading and it looks much better.
    For the second level headings, I’d suggest a size 28px.

    If I could sum up my review, I’d say “play your strengths even stronger”. You’re a great and funny writer, highlight it where you can.
    A great example of this is – the design is really simple, their graphics aren’t always good (the Growth Guidebook looks cheap and ugly), but they make their words pull twice the weight.

    I hope this was helpful and not too nit-picky!
    I explain things best using real examples, that’s why I focused on those details, but I hope you’ll be able to extrapolate that for any other part of your marketing.

    If you have more questions, feel free to ask :)

  5. Hi Nela – Thanks for that! I copied the whole review into Evernote and will start making the changes this fall. Some of the things you mentioned I had already wondered about – so great to get that confirmation from a designer’s standpoint. And some of the things weren’t on my radar at all, but I can see how those changes would help. Thanks for taking the time!

  6. Great post Nela. I agree 100% that the brand needs to match the audience and price. I have had the opposite problem at times. Clients go too far the other way, presenting images of high end homes and styling in stunningly designed websites when their target market are battlers with little money. This is not for financial aspirational sites, but for trades and repairs. The design needs to match the end audience.

  7. Thanks, Ingrid!
    Yes, absolutely – when we see a brand that uses luxurious visuals, people assume the prices will be high and it may scare them off if they’re on a budget.
    Knowing your audience is key when it comes to choosing how to brand and market your business.

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