Six Ways Brands Can Succeed in a Sea of Sameness

In this first of his series, Earl Cox talks about the commodity trap and the six ways brands can succeed in a sea of sameness.

Commodity Trap

The Commodity Trap

The biggest marketing challenge of our time is the relentless commoditization of products and services. From cereal to computers to cars, every category of business is awash in a sea of sameness. For cereal and most everything else in grocery stores, a blur of branded choices along with private label brands commoditize categories. With computers, Samsung, Google, Microsoft, and others are quickly matching everything Apple does. And, even luxury car brands are more the same than different. This situation is pervasive even in professional services like law firms and B2B services like ad agencies.

Brands are “trapped” in such blinding sameness because of intense competition where any real differences are rare. It’s also because there’s very little innovation that supports sustainable brand differentiation. The good old days of a brand having an ownable difference that only they could say are long gone.

So, how are brand marketers to succeed when they’re stuck in a “commodity trap” without a tangible point of difference to hang their hat on? There is hope because insightful, innovative brand strategies can deliver sustainable differentiation.

Here are 6 trap busting ways to succeed, along with some real-world examples.

Define Your Enemy Well

All great stories have tension between a protagonist & an antagonist. Imagine David without Goliath, Batman without the Joker, Heaven without Hell. The protagonist needs an antagonist to stand above and apart.

Brand building is no different. So, let’s spend more time personifying the perfect, dastardly villain. By comparison, your brand will seem more purposeful and even heroic.

Think about it. Apple had Microsoft. Wendy’s had McDonald’s. And today, Airbnb has traditional hotels.

But, the enemy isn’t always a competitor. For example, Chipotle’s enemy is processed food. Dove’s is superficiality. And, for GEICO, circa 1996, the enemy was costly “middle man” insurance agents.

These brands transcended The Commodity Trap by giving us a reason to root for them, not just buy them.

"There is hope because insightful, innovative brand strategies can deliver sustainable differentiation."

If You Can't Be Different, Be More Relevant

Too often marketers’ search for a functional difference leads them down a path of irrelevance, latching on to attributes that might be unique but aren’t important or motivating.

Instead, dig for what people really care about. Flavors of the relevance include shared values, cultural truths, community connections, experience design and purpose branding. Just remember, start with people’s interests and build a bridge from there to your brand.

A great example of this is Nike who understood that people felt bad about falling short of their fitness goals. So, the brand took the high ground of encouraging them to “Just Do It.” This pre-emptive move into uncontested relevance in the athletic footwear category has differentiated Nike for decades in a fundamentally commoditized category.

So, even if your functional attributes are undifferentiated dig for insights that uniquely conveys relevance, and therein lies your difference.

Get There First

“That’s not ownable, anyone can say that” is a typical marketer’s response when brands try to capitalize on human truths.

But human truths are like pieces of land. The brand that gets there first can claim rightful, long-term ownership of it. And any imitators who encroach are quickly banished as “me-too.”

Could any other athletic footwear brand have claimed the “Just Do It” ground? Of course. But, not after Nike claimed it first. And, any snack brand could have claimed “You’re Not Yourself When You’re Hungry,” but Snickers got there first. Taco Bell was first to claim ownership of the 4th Meal. Dove ambitiously planted their flag in the land of Real Beauty.

In all four cases, these brands had an insightful take on the category benefit and the brand was the first to claim it as their own. The next time you hear “that’s not ownable”, interpret it as a challenge not a problem. It may present an unclaimed territory that’s waiting to be conquered. Get there first.

Don't Forget the Right-Brain

Often, brands use facts the appeal to consumers’ rational, left-side of their brains. But, consumers rely more on their emotion-centered right-brain to make snap judgments about the thousands of decisions we’re faced with every day. And this includes decisions about brands and products.

In fact, consumers buy faster and with more conviction with the right side of their brains than with the left. This isn’t conjecture. It’s science. (Source: Journal of Advertising Research

Brands that lodge themselves deep within the right side of the consumer’s brain have the best chance to bust out of a commodity trap. In fact, right-brain emotional benefits can be the foundation for sustainable, motivating differentiation.

For example, “Virginia is for Lovers”, created in 1969 and the most recognized line in the travel industry ever since, lives in the right brain. Virginia has a wide range of left-brain attractions including history, beaches and mountains, but putting the brand into the right-brain in such a surprising and delightful way has helped attract many millions of visitors from around the world.

Another example: Walmart’s “Save Money, Live Better” using the construct that the left-brain benefit (Save Money) results in the right-brain benefit (Live Better).

Clearly, right-brain emotional appeals can be powerful trap busters.

The Best Brands Have Two USPs

Since it was coined by Rosser Reeves in the 1940s, the “Unique Selling Proposition” has been seen as the silver bullet of effective branding. And for many marketers, this is still the goal 80 years later.

While distinctive USPs have become rare, when brands have them, by all means, play that card. Just don’t stop there.

Brands can double down on their impact if they deliver another USP that helps brands differentiate in commoditized markets: a “Unique Selling Personality.” This USP helps build brand affinity and provides a consistent voice. It can also stand alone as the sole basis for meaningful differentiation.

So, let’s put just as much stock in brands’ unique personalities as in their unique propositions.

A great example is GEICO with its “15 Minutes Could Save You 15% or More” unique selling proposition always delivered with a witty, irreverent unique selling personality that busted the car insurance commodity trap wide open.

Also consider the series of Old Spice television commercials, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” starring  Isaiah Amir Mustafa. What a unique and compelling personality that stood alone to help the brand breakout of the men’s cologne commodity trap.

Brand Building is the Art of Ruthless Exclusion

In the spirit of ruthless exclusion, we’ll let Leonardo da Vinci sum up this point…

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

Going back to the 1960 launch of the VW Beetle, the line “Think Small” said it all with simple sophistication.

Previous examples Nike, Dove, Oreo, Snickers, Taco Bell and Virginia, GEICO, Walmart and Old Spice all also practiced the art of ruthless to stand out.

Other example of ultimate sophistication include:

  • “I’m lovin’ it”,
  • “A diamond is forever”,
  • “Think Different” and
  • “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”

In summary, category commoditization can be an Armageddon for brands. And yet, it can also represent an opportunity for brands to disrupt a sea of sameness with insightful, innovative strategies resulting in commodity trap busting differentiation that’s both compelling and sustainable for long-term business growth.

In the spirit of open-architecture, what other trap-busters have you used or can you think of?

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