Editor’s note: Martin Thoma is an author, speaker and blogger on how to live your brand. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s).
The Morton salt girl turned 100 a couple years ago. One of the most iconic brand images in the history of U.S. consumer products and a denizen of the Advertising Week Walk of Fame, she got an updated ‘do and some new shoes for her birthday.
Sporting her package of Morton salt in a rainstorm, the salt flowing freely behind, 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 Never mind the weird rationale of a little girl spilling salt in a downpour or the outdated notion that salt that doesn’t cake up in humid weather is special — the salt girl underscores the fact that even the basest commodity can be branded: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 — nobody 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 components of a manufacturing or industrial process, indifferentiable other than by price. Can you brand them? Can you brand sand?
Sure you can.
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. Morton’s salt girl tells a story of a functional differentiator — the anti-caking agent that allowed the salt to flow freely even in the dampest environments.
The Booz Allen consulting firm published an informative treatise on branding and marketing commodities nearly 20 years ago. Booz describes critical steps on the path to success that — not coincidentally — are essentially the same for products and services that are not commodities. 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 consider factors other than price alone in their buying decision. You must understand how your product creates value for these people and their businesses and you must 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. This might be done like Morton’s adding magnesium carbonate to prevent caking. But there are many ways to differentiate beyond the product attributes themselves. There’s technical and engineering support — the product and industry intelligence 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. Dow Chemical was successful with a pioneering 24-hour response guarantee.
Finally, package, promote and leverage your unique and differentiated value proposition. Bundle several discrete differences together to create a “killer app” for your commodity. And now pursue brand names, trademarks, taglines and ads — what’s commonly considered “branding” — to drive home all the hard-won differences you’ve baked into your commodity product.
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.