Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Of Brands and Commodities

June 1, 2009

My main job at my web agency is pretty simple. It’s to say no. I’m the guy in charge of turning away many of the clients and the projects that we receive calls and emails about. Nathan, our first hire at Unit Interactive, has remarked that on his first day at work he heard me on the phone turn down 3 potential clients who called that day. He was wondering if he’d still have a job the following week! At his previous agency they just didn’t do that; they didn’t turn away projects. By my assessment, everyone at my agency still has a job specifically because I turn down so many projects.

What I’m doing in all of this is working to protect our brand. In fact I’m working to ensure we have a brand. If I accepted every project or every client who wanted to employ us, our product would be nothing more than a commodity. I’d be a (very unhappy) vendor simply selling stuff to customers. But my partner and I are not vendors. Our staff are not vendors. They’re professionals. It’s my job and my partner’s job to ensure they get to work like professionals and be involved only in professional dealings. If we fail to ensure that situation, our folks won’t be working with us for very long. They’ll leave for a saner environment and it’ll be our fault. What’s more, our brand would be worthless.

My agency could probably be successful selling design and development as commodities without discrimination to anyone who wanted to pay us. But that’s not what we’re interested in doing. By purposefully excluding many potential clients we are defining and staying true to our brand and ensuring what I believe will be greater success built upon that brand. Turning down money to make money; sounds like a dodgy strategy, but it’s more powerful than you might think. And it’s required if you want to build a brand.

But what is a brand and how does it factor into success? Do you have a brand? Do you want your personal brand or your agency’s brand to be definitive or do you merely want to generate income selling design and development as commodities? Both avenues can lead to success, but which one describes your path? Let’s examine some of the factors that define the differences. You can decide which is best for you.

Not every brand is really a brand

A brand is a brand by how it promises something distinct and by how that distinction produces specific outcomes and fulfills the promise. There are a lot of so-called brands in the world that aren’t really brands at all. These companies might be valuable, but their brands are worthless and serve no purpose. Some good examples are companies like Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, Valero, and countless others like them.

Oil companies that don't have brands

These are all recognizable logos, but so what? These companies pretend to be brands, but as far as consumers perceive all of these companies do the same thing and, more importantly, they all mean the same thing in the marketplace. You will get exactly the same product and the same customer experience at any of these companies’ stores, so in the overwhelming majority of cases the only question in consumers’ minds when seeking out the products these companies offer is, “how much does it cost?” Not brands, these are just vendors with recognizable logos, selling a commodity. They have, though, garnered a lot of success, right?

A company’s success is not dependent upon having a brand. In a very basic sense, all Chevron has to do in order to be successful in the market is to have a gas station on a certain number of street corners across the US and they will make lots of money and, so long as they don’t screw up too badly and they always have product to sell, they will be very successful. Commodities are easy for consumers to understand. They’re not threatening and they don’t require consumer thought or much discrimination. The only things that matter are wide availability, easy access, a minimum level of quality, and a competitive price; availability and price likely being more than 90% of the equation.

Turning down money to make money; sounds like a dodgy strategy, but it’s more powerful than you might think.

A web agency or freelancer can work in this way, too. Design and development services can be provided and even marketed as commodities. Doing so makes it easy for the majority of consumers to understand and be comfortable with the idea of the involved transaction …if not the realities of the involved transaction (yeah, see, there’s a catch). Being a commodity-type agency or freelancer unburdens the enterprise of constraints and ensures the greatest number of potential clients and the widest range of potential projects. And, of course, the greatest number of inane scenarios and mammoth headaches (but no worries—what you lose in values and qualitative scuffles you’ll make up in volume!).

In such cases, as with gasoline vendors, the primary concern of potential clients will be “how much does it cost?” or perhaps something absurd like, “how many comps do I get for that price?” This concern for cost or quantity of design options is generally so encompassing as to relieve the vendor from several otherwise relevant responsibilities with respect to professionalism, quality, design effectiveness, and customer service/experience. This emancipation from responsibility is in fact a common reason for many designers and agencies to go the design-as-commodity route.

The much-belabored feud between professionals and hacks not withstanding, those limited by skill, unacquainted with values, or bereft of acumen are permitted their place in the industry, provided they don’t pretend to sell anything more than a generic commodity. It is upon this point that arguments are worthy and clear distinction needs be made.

Exclusion

Note, however, that this course described above prevents an agency or a freelancer from creating, building, or preserving a brand. A brand, like anything else designed, is effective and relevant only within constraints. A commodity has no constraints; it is a generic product for the everyman. A brand by its very nature promises something not generic at all, as well as a certain exclusivity. Quite literally, a brand is defined by the people, things, or ideas it excludes.

For instance, coffee is a common commodity. A coffee shop by any name is just a vendor selling that commodity. Starbucks, however, has successfully convinced consumers that in a Starbucks they’ll get something more than just a cup of coffee when they purchase a cup of coffee. Starbucks excludes anyone who is simply looking for a cuppa joe at a fair price. But they also promise a superior quality of coffee. The Starbucks brand survives because those desiring more than just a plain cup of coffee are willing to pay a premium for satisfaction of that desire. There are few things in this world more powerful than human desire. On a very basic level we are selfish, needy, and covetous; we want. The most successful, exclusive brands survive by exploiting these definitive human traits.

Another prime example is Apple. In marketing Mac computers, Apple purposefully excludes a huge number of potential consumers. And they’re successful because of this. You see, a Mac is just as good at being a business machine as is a PC. But Apple puts little effort into pursuing that huge market. The fact is a computer is a commodity. The really big money is to be made in selling to everyone, but a real brand cannot do that. Apple understands this better than most. [As for Mac vs. PC, the debate is without merit. A computer is a computer is a computer. Anyone who says different is selling something. Hmm, what a delicious irony.]

The really big money is to be made in selling to everyone, but a real brand cannot do that.

So to craft and maintain a web agency’s brand or your own personal brand you have to exclude lots of potential customers. This can be done by price, by project type …really by any number or combination of qualitative criteria. But you’ve got to make some measure of your exclusivity and discrimination clear so that people can discern it from a distance. These are the qualities of your brand that can be marketed or simply articulated by the public-facing instruments of your company (like the website).

To be really effective in crafting your brand it’s not enough to stand for some things and to exclude some things. Beyond that, it is best to articulate why your brand excludes what it excludes. Doing so allows people to determine if they identify with your brand beyond the qualitative measures of the product or service you’re describing. This articulation hints at the culture, lifestyle, quality, philosophy, standards, or social dimension that your brand offers and that your customers and potential customers are associating themselves with when they seek out or acquire your products and services.

Other aspects of your brand’s exclusivity might only be made clear when a potential client tries to engage you. Still others are best discerned in the course of an ongoing project with your agency. These qualities can be hinted at in marketing, but are not very effective marketing components because they require first-hand contact or reliable word-of-mouth to be firmly established. So it is required of you to clearly define certain things in your initial conversations with potential clients. Make clear your standards and your requirements, things that your potential client must accept before working with you. In this way you will turn-off many potential clients, but you will more firmly cement the most appropriate and compatible relationships.

Purposefully excluding a large percentage of your potential clients is a scary proposition. This is especially true if you really need a new project to bring in some cash. On the surface it doesn’t seem to make sense. But it is required if you want to build a brand. This can be harder than you might think, for since design and development do exist as commodities many people will assume they exist only as commodities. You will therefore likely receive overtures from all kinds of people for all kinds or projects that are not a good fit for your brand. But if you say “yes” to every project offered your agency, you don’t have a brand.

For web professionals, brand stewardship in action starts at the front door. When someone knocks, you’d better find out if they meet your brand’s standards before you let them in the door. If they don’t, politely send them packing. The alternative is to take up with clients or projects that are not consistent with your brand, thereby negating, damaging, or destroying it. By my estimation, too many web agencies are too comfortable with this practice. Are you sure you want to be one of them? Perhaps you are, but either way you should understand precisely what it is you’re doing.

Yes, you can be a successful web professional (less emphasis on “professional”) or have a successful agency without a brand; selling design and development as commodities. This is a fairly easy path to take and, but for the inevitable and ongoing ridiculous projects you’ll have to endure, it presents the most assured path to generating income (if not profit). If, however, you have the courage to turn away a goodly percentage of your potential customers, you might try building a brand.

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