Premium Mediocre Branding

Whether it’s your Instagram, your brand, or how you express yourself IRL, being different is important. If you’re not distinct, you fall prey to others telling your story for you. Worse, the trendy borrowed story could go out of style!

Every brand wants to be different but doesn't take the time to differentiate itself. Buyers want to learn more about you(the brand) and build trust before they buy your services or products. It’s critical that they easily recognize your brand and not confuse it for someone else’s.

A shoestring budget often leaves decision-makers in a pickle — how do we differentiate in the cheapest way possible? And this brings us to our most common solution today, premium mediocre branding.

It’s easy to say you want a cool, unique, and elevated brand. Illustrations are in. Let’s pick out some stock illustrations. It’s what everyone else is doing, so we should do the same.

There’s a huge market for this. It’s easy. It’s cheap. And it sells the illusion that we’re here with a purpose. Because if we have a good-looking brand, we must also: have a “compelling” story, be mission-driven, know our customers well, and be passionate. Basically, have our shit together.

That only works for so long. Premium mediocre branding doesn’t tell your story. It tells someone else’s in a slightly “improved” kind of way. You may know this by another name: "The same but different." Your narrative exists whether you like it or not. The best approach is to own it.

Challenges with Premium Mediocre branding

  • Lack of authenticity. People know when a story is fabricated. The truth will eventually come out just as it has for many corporations in the past. How many Warby Parker and Casper clones have you stumbled upon? Blue logo anyone?
  • It creates consumer confusion. Not a good look. The purpose of branding is to identify the source of a product/service. For consumers to continue buying a brand, it needs to be easily recognized by them without any confusion.
  • Not scalable. Developing distinct brand qualities creates better support structures for communication at scale. If the roots are your brand are borrowed, the tree that grows from them will be borrowed, too.

Actual Premium Branding

A good example of trumping premium mediocre branding is the new Mailchimp identity. As the sea of email marketing software expands, Mailchimp found its new differentiator.

Humor, originality, and self-expression underpin their new story. As they move from email marketing provider to the entire marketing suite for small businesses, this new look reflects their message and values.

We want to show our customers that being yourself is good for business by providing the tools and confidence to take risks, especially as their businesses evolve.” And to do that, they had to turn inward to tell their own story and be identifiable in the market.

Danish-born Glerups make slippers out of merino wool — they’re awesome. Their story is simple and true. In 1993, Nanny felted boots from wool that came from her own Gotland sheep. Everyone loved them. She started a small hobby production. The company now distributes worldwide.

What You Can Do About It

The only way to beat premium mediocre branding is to offer a new experience. Invent your own story and tell it in a unique way. Genuine emotion that resonates with your brand gets you away from the mediocre.

The core of branding is your story. The only way to tell it is by not borrowing from anyone but yourself.

Inspiration for this story came directly from Jason Kottke and Venkaesh Rao.


Apr 10, 2019


Steve Berry

What's going on here?

Design happens everywhere. We look at it and give you our critique.

By thinking critically about the design that exists around us - evaluating what works, what doesn’t and why - we can apply new perspectives and rigor to our work designing applications and systems and communicate more effectively through design.

Our observations range from big corporate rebrands to local business street fliers. With each, we’ve taken the time to break down the designs and offer our point of view via a ranking system modeled after the Robert Parker wine rating system.

The Rating System

Unsatisfactory: Does not achieve design or communication goals.
Satisfactory: Just enough, sufficient, fine or “sure.”
Good: It’s good.
Very Good: Better than most but not exceptional.
Exceptional: Unusually good, rare, outstanding.

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