Can you brand sand? (Opinion)

by Talk Business & Politics ([email protected]) 224 views 

The Morton salt girl turned 100 a couple years ago. One of America’s most iconic brand images and a denizen of the Advertising Week Walk of Fame, she got an updated ’do and some new shoes for her birthday.

Sporting a box of free-flowing salt in a rainstorm, she illustrates the company’s adage, “when it rains it pours.” Never mind the weird rationale of a little girl spilling salt in a downpour or the outdated notion that salt that doesn’t cake in humid weather is special – the salt girl underscores the fact that even the basest commodity can be branded, differentiated in such a way as to command a price premium and carve a unique position in the market.

Morton introduced the girl (oddly, she doesn’t have a name and apparently never will) in 1914. In an interesting example of how the creative industry often proceeds, she was a backup idea in an advertising campaign presented by the N.W. Ayer agency. One executive, however, immediately seized on the single image that telegraphed the new non-caking salt’s unique selling proposition. Typically, it took a few iterations of the push-me-pull-you between agency and client to arrive at the simple, compelling and memorable tagline we all know now.

Of course, today there is no end of highly specialized and carefully branded salts available to the discerning cook. Dead Sea, Pink Himalayan, White Truffle – few would accuse salt of being a commodity. But there are still plenty of other commodities – sand, grain, petroleum, chemicals – products that are normally sold by the railcar, barge load or tanker. They’re often manufacturing or industrial components, indistinguishable other than by price. Can you brand them? Can you brand sand?

Sure! Just like Morton did salt. It’s useful to note that branding commodities is not simply slapping an image and a tagline on the product. The salt girl tells the story of a functional differentiator – Morton’s the anti-caking innovation.

We can all learn from it.

First, develop intense customer insight. What are their drivers, needs, uses and particularities? Understand their personality profiles as well as their business motivations. Some of them are “incorrigibles” – they’ll never buy except on price. Others are value-buyers and potentials who’ll consider factors other than price alone in their buying decisions. Understand how your product creates value for these people and their businesses, and lean into that space.

Next, develop some functional differentiation in the product and service delivery that truly separates you from the competition. Understanding your customers’ needs and uses must drive this differentiation. Morton’s added magnesium carbonate to prevent caking. There are many ways to differentiate. There’s technical and engineering support that helps the customer utilize the product better and deliver better results. There’s convenience, repackaging the product with ancillary ingredients in premeasured doses for instance, that cuts manufacturing or labor costs. There’s service and delivery differentiation, ‘round-the-clock support or on-call technicians ready to parachute in and resolve problems.

Can you brand sand? The Sandman in central Arkansas does it. Providing truckloads of the grainy stuff to contractors, fracking operations and concrete plants is just the beginning of his business. On that, he builds custom sandblasting and industrial painting operations, prepping and painting equipment for the oil and gas industry, the military and industry. Play Sand does it with a specially graded, washed sand that’s screened for children’s sand boxes.

Sure, you can brand sand. Just like plumbing, dentistry, accounting, cheeseburgers, coffee, computers and chicken. The same principles apply – and have for a century. 

Martin Thoma is a Little Rock-based author, speaker and blogger on how to live your brand. The opinions expressed are those of the author.