Avoiding the commoditization of your brand
By Nicole Hannel
“If you build it, he will come.” It’s these words that Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, hears in the 1989 film, “Field of Dreams.” The voice implores him to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield, and in time, the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the Chicago White Sox team arrive to play ball.
When it comes to branding, we tend to think the same rule applies. Build it, and they will come. The right buyers from the right demographic. Those potential clients we’re looking to close. But here’s the thing – in today’s digital world, it’s easy for brands to get lost in the noise. Simply building one isn’t enough. In a time when information can be accessed by anyone with a smart phone, commoditization becomes the biggest risk to new and seasoned brands alike. It occurs when there is no perceived value of product or service apart from the next brand, and with the ability to make immediate comparisons between competitors, buyers are more cautious to jump at the first option. Kristin Keen, account director at Hinge, a marketing agency based in Reston, Va., believes the most significant driving force behind commoditization is a lack of differentiation. “As the pool of competition grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for brands to differentiate themselves,” she says. “Increased competition creates a buyer’s market, and greater choice puts more pressure on the need to compare apples to apples.”
With a wide pool of options available, buyers immediately look to compare product and price. David Reimherr, founder and CEO of Magnificent Marketing (www.magnificent.com) in Austin, Texas, insists that facing the risk of becoming a commoditized brand has been a pervasive and ongoing problem. “Unless you have a one-of-a-kind idea, everyone falls into the potential risk of becoming a commodity, especially with the online world.”
Unfortunately, those one-of-a-kind ideas seem fewer and far between these days, and most of us are working in a marketplace with enough competitors to go around. So, if great products and prices won’t necessarily save you, how does a brand avoid commoditization and stand out?
The first step, and you may have guessed it, is content. Nearly a decade ago, Reimherr came to this same conclusion, eventually finding that the power of content will attract the right audience. “I learned that if you’re able to develop a content plan, you start to become a trusted source. It’s about reciprocity.” Reimherr believes that if a brand delivers something relevant and valuable, buyers will lean forward. In other words, as he says, “I buy the first drink, you buy the second.” That kind of trust, however, isn’t established after the first attempt. It is built through consistency of effort.
If steady, value-added content is king then distribution certainly is queen. Just as having a basic logo does not define a brand, content won’t hit the mark if nobody gets a chance to digest it.
So, how do we create a relentless distribution engine?
Social media is a good start, but be aware that even among social avenues, brands offer different value for various industries. In the fashion world, for example, Reimherr says Snapchat and Instagram are leading the pack. They provide the perfect opportunity for consumers to connect directly with the products.
For the B2B world, Facebook and LinkedIn provide the perfect one-two punch. LinkedIn doesn’t have as much traffic, but the clicks are 10 times more valuable, and Facebook still provides the best targeting measures, with features like geography and even behavioral patterns. “But whatever you do, don’t push that boost button. It has to be done right,” Reimherr says.
As much as the distribution of content to the target market is critical, intentionally moving a brand away from the commoditization trend also requires a shift in the organization’s thinking. And that starts with the employees.
If one of her clients is experiencing commoditization, Hinge’s Keen says her first instinct is to analyze the people internally, because it’s easy for complacency to invade the day-to-day operations. In fact, employee perception of the brand is a powerful variable in overall differentiation.
Keen says many companies are surprised when they discover that not even the people within their organizations fully understand the value their brand offers. “You have a far bigger issue if they think the only value you offer is the delivery of a quality product or competitive pricing.”
What successful content marketing emphasizes in today’s world is that it’s not just about your product anymore. It’s about education, thought leadership, and authentic engagement between buyer and provider. If the people within your organization don’t know what you offer when it comes to those things, they aren’t properly representing your brand.
Keen believes that in order for employees to become brand ambassadors, it is critical to provide them with the proper skills, tools and resources. That includes what she calls a “positioning statement” – internal language that incorporates your key differentiators and represents the “DNA” of your brand, a concise and memorable elevator pitch, and a “messaging architecture” document consisting of common client objections and counterpoints that can be used as a framework for client dialogues and employee training. “Empower your employees by letting them know that the organization doesn’t exist without them. Internal buy-in is critical to the success of your external messaging.”
Another red flag is misalignment between internal and external messaging. This is why it’s critical to get everyone involved. Reimherr says to focus on the alignment of sales and marketing when it comes to internal tactics. “Marketing includes sales, so talk to your clients. What brought them to you in the first place? Once you have that information, go to the sales department. Get everyone together.”
Misalignment leads to staleness.
Is stagnation something you’re facing? Take another look at the inside. As for external messaging, Reimherr says we want our outside perception to match our inside reality. “If they’re aligned, it builds trust.”
THE EMOTION FACTOR
While trust may be the real antidote to becoming just another one in the crowd, it is not easy to build. Clearly, brand loyalty — a marketer’s definition of trust — is a delicate asset. It taps in to emotion, and in today’s landscape of ROI and analytics, that’s not something most marketers want to talk about.
Data provides relevant insight, but Reimherr believes that buying decisions are mostly emotional and that emotional connection needs to be a high priority on the branding executive’s list. “Ninety percent of the process is emotional connection,” he says, “And then you tie that in to meet the buyer’s needs rather than discount them.”
One way to do that is to be transparent about your underlying passions and causes. Buyers, particularly in the Millennial generation, don’t want “brands,” they want real. They want behind-the-scenes. “For example, if you’re a spiritual company,” Reimherr offers, “Throw it out there. You’ll catch the right people.”
That kind of transparency not only fosters the type of brand loyalty that keeps customers coming back, but it also has the potential to create long-term ambassadors. And that’s what every brand should strive for – customers who advocate on their behalf. Those kinds of authentic relationships are the ones that differentiate companies from the noise and keep brands up-to-date with the ebbs and flows of a dynamic market.
Most importantly, to avoid commoditization, you must deliver on your promises. Unfortunately, that simple tip gets forgotten more often than not. The basis for trust, loyalty and authentic connection rests in your fundamental ability to stick to your word.
We need to start asking ourselves if our brands have more to offer than just a great product. Do we deliver what we say when we say it? Or are our brands just a dime a dozen?