Branding the “Unbrandable”

by Aug 18, 2016

Our marketplace is full of products that are pretty darn similar, yet they have differentiated themselves by virtue of a strong brand (think Pepsi vs. Coke, Sprite vs. 7up or the hundreds of micro beers sold under their own distinctive labels).

Of course, simply creating a brand isn’t enough to guarantee success, but combine that with differentiation in packaging, subtle formulation variations, or even distribution and you’re well on your way to making a me-too item seem distinct.

It’s a little harder in a category like produce. But it’s been done, and successfully, too. Back in 1986, the California Raisin Advisory Board created the well-known California Raisins. (If you’re over 40, I just put an ear worm in your head.) That’s one of the most wildly successful branding ideas ever, for what was basically a commodity. You can add here Idaho Potatoes, Real California Milk, and even Purdue Chickens. Again, these are commodity products. I’m not sure I could tell you the difference in taste between an Idaho potato and one from another state, but I know the story of the volcanic ash in the soil, and I believe it. The point of differentiation is presented as distinctly unique and conceivably true, therefore I buy them if I see them. I might even pay a small premium, since the overall cost is low.

Another fairly recent example comes from the great state of Alabama. Jimmy Rane took another commodity – lumber – and created YellaWood®. He built the brand using serial western-style commercials starring “Yella Fella.” A recent Forbes article notes that the ads are memorable because they are bizarre, and because, well, who on earth actually advertises pressure-treated pine? At a net worth of $610 million, Jimmy Rane is the richest man in Alabama, thanks in part to branding a commodity.

And so it is with electrons. Electric utilities, which had no real reason to invest in branding a few years ago, are now in a rush to do so. They’re trying to increase engagement and generate satisfaction and loyalty in a category that has, historically, been made up of monopolies with no concern about competition. But consumers are beginning to ask questions about how those electrons are generated and to demand that they be generated in a more sustainable fashion. And there are already utilities like Green Mountain Energy who are putting a stake in the ground and claiming “pollution free” energy as part of their brand image.

Obviously, large investor-owned utilities in regulated states have less to worry about than their counterparts in deregulated states. But the electric industry is changing, and home service encroachers offering bundled packages with smart thermostats are at the gates. Developing and nurturing a brand is important to customer satisfaction (think J.D. Power scores) and long-term survival.

I’m not suggesting a western-themed serial with a yellow-clad cowboy, but it’s time to start thinking about what your customers care about and building a band based on that. And it’s time for utilities to abandon the safe, middle-of-the-road brand promises they’ve historically made, which aren’t really differentiated or all that believable – “trusted energy advisor,” anyone?

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About the Author

Jim Lyza

Jim is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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