ACCEPTING COMMODITY STATUS IS SELLING YOUR BRANDS SHORT

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Marketers are too willing to concede their products have reached commodity status, and that's a major reason advertising effectiveness has suffered mightily.

Here's the problem: When companies treat their brands the same as their competitiors', they no longer focus on attributes of the brand itself as reasons to buy it. Instead, they talk about the people who buy the product, or they make fun of the advertising -- anything to keep from admitting their product purportedly has no real advantage over the next guy's.

So when advertising is forced to get away from concentrating on what makes it most effective and efficient -- tangible and meaningful product benefits -- the result is likely to be disappointing.

It's amazing how sophisticated marketers make this mistake. My contention is they are selling their products short; that their products have advantages that can be exploited by great advertising if only their custodians would look harder for the hidden gems buried deep within the product -- or maybe just under the surface.

Although the agency is only too happy to oblige, the client is clearly the place to lay the lame. After all, if the top guys at Miller Brewing Co. had insisted their agencies dig out and exploit attributes of their beers instead of the weird people who drink their beers, they would be gainfully employed today.

The agencies, of course, were glad to be let off the hook. It's hard work to come up with an advantage that can give a product an edge and convey that advantage in a meaningful and also creative and entertaining way. How much easier to ignore the product altogether and focus on the lifestyles (or lack of same) of the consumers who use the product. That way you can say anything you want, and there's no way to evaluate whether your advertising connects the consumer to the product.

It's easy to go down the road that says most products are the same. You see that most often when companies are floundering; when they've lost confidence in their core brands because they've forgotten what they've stood for over the years.

Kellogg Co. is a sad case in point. Its troubles started when the cereal companies drastically lowered the prices on their products, giving consumers the impression that they were all the same. (Kodak did the same thing with its film.) And maybe that tactic also put the seed in management's mind that their products were not much different from those of Post and General Mills.

When that line of thinking takes hold, management starts looking for non-product-related things to talk about. So now the head marketing guy at Kellogg conceded that, because "the functional benefits are the same" from brand to brand, Kellogg is intent on creating a personality for each brand -- and a relationship with their consumers.

This approach creates confusion among Kellogg's agencies. One account guy told our family newspaper "there's a real focus on pulling the true benefits out of each brand. Kellogg is a great master brand, but the difference comes in understanding each of the [individual cereal] brands."

I don't think he's referring to pulling product advantages out of every brand; by "true benefits" I get the feeling he's referring to a brand's "personality" -- and that can be very difficult to pin down.

It's a conundrum: If the "functional benefits" of a brand are all the same, how can the brand's personality be different and distinct, other than by fabricating it out of whole cloth? A brand's uniqueness comes out of its real and tangible product advantages, a lesson that Levi's and Nike have been slow to learn.

The moral of the story is few consumer products are commodities unless their owners concede that they are. And because so many companies today are making that concession, smart marketers have a terrific new weapon at their disposal.

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