Brand Strategy

The one-line difference between branded and commodity products


Commodity products are those generally sold without much qualitative differentiation across the market sector. Price is nearly always a factor – commodity products are generally cheaper than their branded counterparts. However, price isn’t the deciding factor which pushes product into the commodity sector or into the branded sector.

The difference is far more fundamental.

And it is this:

A commodity is a product without a story. A brand is a product with a story.

Toilet tissue is a commodity item. Well, most of it is.

It’s low-priced. It’s widely available. It’s an FMCG shelf filler.

For all intents and purposes, it’s a commodity.

That is until you get to Velvet. They’ve created a story around the number of trees that they replant for each one that they use.

Toilet roll has a story. This makes it a brand.

Even more than that, the story exists outside of the product in the real world.

The story doesn’t need the baby MD to survive. It can live on its own.

Plenty, on the other hand, offer a story inextricably linked to their product (and only that product) by creating the Juan Sheet character (see the Facebook page here).

Their tactic is to provide differentiation within their market category, to fix their product in the minds of the consumer with some randomly strange man in a cape fronting it.

However, what they’re not doing is moving their product into brand territory. You could argue the same for the Andrex puppy and the Charmin bear (which cleverly answered the question – ‘Do bears s**t in the woods?).

They’ve created a brand in Juan Sheet. He’s the brand, not the product. Outside of the product, in the real world, Juan Sheet is irrelevant and pointless. Just like the Andrex puppy or Charmin bear, Juan is a branded creation, not a branded story. Even the Velvet baby is just another bit of cutesy fluff, existing only as a vehicle for the brand story.

There’s no real story there, other than a creation designed to sell more product.

And, in a few years, Juan Sheet will be retired. Will there be a lasting Juan Sheet legacy? And the brand equity that the character has built up (if any) will have to be transferred elsewhere or into the next campaign.

As marketers, we need to make this sort of choice every day (especially if we’re trying to promote FMCG/low value* products). Do we invest the product with the brand, or the promotional vehicle? Where do we build the associations so that we can sell more stuff to more people more often sustainably, profitably and effectively?

The answer will be different for each product and each situation. We can’t all save the world every time someone buys our product.

But perhaps we could co-create a story that holds up in the real world, even if our product isn’t always at arm’s reach.

What sort of world would that look like?

*value – I have deliberately chosen to discuss financial value in this post. There are, of course, lots of other forms of value, including cognitive. Toilet roll, for example, is generally low value financially and cognitively. Food may be low financial value (bag of crisps) but a high cognitive value – e.g. healthy/unhealthy, gluten free, meat free, tasty etc. A car might be relatively high financial value (e.g. £8,000 might be a lot of money for some) but a low cognitive value (“it’s just a way to get from A to B”). Houses are generally high financial and high cognitive value.
And so on.

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