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Brands and Commodities. Does anyone know the difference? Does anyone really care?

18 Nov

It started with a simple question from Marco the administrator: “Hi. Can you describe, in one sentence or less :-), the difference between a brand and a commodity?”

:-), indeed.

What has ensued in one of my LinkedIn groups is one of the most active and sometimes contentious discussions I’ve seen. It’s like the discussions you sometimes see at a party between two people sitting in the corner over who’s the best heavy metal band or how to make the best chicken salad or whatever. The discussion ranges far and wide, folks drop into the discussion and drop out, multiple cocktails are consumed, there’s no final answer. But when the evening’s over, and the host is picking up the empty glasses and beer bottles, the two who started the discussion are still going at it in the corner.

Personally, I think the answer to the initial question about commodities and brands is a simple one: Commodities are just stuff; brands are commodities that we believe are more than just stuff. End of discussion. Let’s move on to the next topic. (Note: Apologies for the semi-colon to Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Sorry, Mr. Vonnegut, I needed it to fulfill the one sentence rule.)

But everyone in the discussion group, from Bangor to Bangalore, is all in a dither over this question. “For tangible products: Every brand can be a commodity, every commodity may/may not be a brand…….” says Anuj Kumar.

“A commodity is a tangible item which have its own Brand Identity,” adds Chirag Kumar Gupta (The Brand Boy).

Laurence Bernstein retorts: “A commodity is a type of product or service that has and can have no intrinsic difference from other similar products. When a commodity is imbued with an extrinsic differentiator that changes its relative value, it becomes a brand.” Imbued with an extrinsic differentiator? Jeez!

And on and on. For a while the discussion veered onto a little sidetrack about branded potatoes, though Ines Grgurević asserts that “a potato with a story doesn’t make it a potato brand.” Ashok Lulla got a little out of line, provoking a warning from Marco to get it together or he’d be kicked off the island. But mostly, it has been collegial, with plenty of verbal backslapping, a very lively debate, 518 comments-worth as of this posting.

But while many of the comments have been interesting, and a few very smart, indeed, what really interests me is why all us brand nerds can’t just let it go. My answer to the question about commodities and brands: magic. Something happens between the computer and the Apple, between the cup of coffee and the Starbucks that just seems bigger than the sum of its parts. We erstwhile Brandinis, engaged in trying to make that magic happen, can’t help dissecting and deconstructing, trying to figure out what exactly makes the alchemy between company, product, customer, analysis and creativity tick. Because when the formula’s right, the magic works, and the rabbit you pull out of the hat can be golden.

So, keep up the fight, Anuj. Giddyup, Brand Boy. Laurence, Ashok, Ines and all the Brandinis worldwide, carry on. We’ll figure it out.