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The 4 stages of branding — Stage 1: Who you are

Branding covers a wide spectrum. From the very basic to the profound. At one end is branding that is nothing more than simply stating who you are. At the other end is the most advanced approach, creating evangelists by establishing the profound difference the organization will make in the world.

There are four stages of branding along this spectrum. The ultimate goal should be to join those rare few who have reached the profoundness of a purpose-driven brand. Knowing the stages of branding helps us make an honest assessment of where we are, and understand what it will take to evolve to the next level. So let’s begin the process by examining the first stage.

Defining who you are is the beginner level of the branding world. It’s primary concern is giving the organization an identity (a name and maybe a mark) that hasn’t been claimed by another company in the vicinity. It does little to differentiate — we recognize that Bob’s Plumbing is different from Joe’s Plumbing, but we don’t know why it’s different beyond the name.

With no focus on real and meaningful differentiation, Stage 1 brands resort to crazy stunts to get attention. This probably explains the entire giant inflatables industry. You know, things like the giant blow up gorilla that used car lots and the such place on their building to lure passersby onto the property. There’s no real benefit to the unsuspecting sucker who wanders onto the lot. It just makes them curious as to why there is a two story primate waving to them from the roof of that building.

This also reminds me of another weird byproduct that affected Stage 1 brands in days gone by. There was a time when the Yellow Pages ruled the way businesses got found. This had such an influence on businesses that they actually chose their name so they would be listed first in the Yellow Pages. That’s how we got a whole lot of companies named AAA (insert type of company). In other words, AAA Plumbing or AAA Catering. By putting ‘AAA’ in the name it virtually guaranteed that you would get the first listing in the Yellow Pages, beating out Quality Plumbing or Delicious Dining Catering.

While this may offer some benefit when it comes to alphabetical listings, it actually hamstrings the brand in the long run. The generic AAA-insert-business-type name does nothing to impart any distinctness. It’s just a generic name. It forfeits a long-term opportunity to create uniqueness for a limited tactical gain.

This is typical of Stage 1 branding. It is utilitarian. It doesn’t help us understand what makes the organization different or if there is a benefit to be derived. Quite simply, the brand really doesn’t have much meaning. As such, it doesn’t tell us much more than the company exists.

In examining Stage 1, we looked at the beginnings of branding. This is the basic level that does little more than defines who you are. In Stage 2, we’ll look at branding that defines what you do.

Dan is the creator of the Big Audacious Meaning. He is a founder at Will & Grail — a brand innovation company, helping organizations find their unique, undeniable and unshakable sense of purpose and create innovative experiences that bring it to life. He regularly shares his insight here on Linkedin and at

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Dan is an expert brand strategist and author of the book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story. He is a founder at Will & Grail.

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