Secrets to Branding a Commodity

Elevating YOUR Business, Product, or Service from Ordinary to “Brand” Status

By definition, a commodity is a product or category that consumers don’t believe in paying more for. Why? Because “they’re all the same.” Gasoline is a commodity. Most consumers search out the lowest price, or gas station convenience, but rarely do they pay more for “brand name” gas.

Other commodities include items like produce or eggs. Until Eggland’s Best gave us a convincing reason to pay a bit more for EB eggs, an egg was…well…just an egg.

But back to gas, or in this example, propane gas. Now THAT’S a commodity. Propane is propane. If Brand A costs $13 and Brand B costs $15, most consumers would buy the $13 tank of propane to connect to their gas grill.

Then Blue Rhino Came Along

In 1994 Billy Prim decided he wanted to build a brand in the propane tank exchange space; elevating it from a no-name commodity. He liked what Owens Corning did with fiberglass insulation by transforming the pink stuff with the help of the Pink Panther. On a photo safari trip in South Africa that year, Billy zoomed his camera in on a rhino. “It’s a natural!” he told his wife. “He’s tough, sturdy, and looks like a tank.” And the propane flame, he said, would make a perfect rhino horn. Adding the color blue—the color of a propane flame—brought it all together.

To tip in their brand—and elevate their target audience—Blue Rhino recently unveiled a new ad campaign: The Blue Rhino Man. Their thinking? The grill is the domain of its master. And the sacred duty of keeping the fire is not to be taken lightly. There’s method and superstition and art and science involved in every backyard cookout. There’s a proper place to buy the steak. A proper way to season it. And a proper way to fuel the fire that will sear it. The serious griller knows that perfection is in the details.

What Blue Rhino Did Right

When branding a commodity, the objective is to persuade your target audience to choose your brand—to ask for it by name, to seek it out.

They started by developing a logo of, what else, a blue rhino with a flame in place of the rhino’s horn. This visual stays with us, and makes it easy to recall the brand name. Branding maven Laura Ries calls this the “visual hammer.”

Blue Rhino made some smart decisions about brand extensions—what other lines of business to go into—that are believable, authentic, and support the brand promise of “tough and dependable.”

And the company still loves rhinos. Blue Rhino is a sponsor of the American Association of Zookeepers’ Bowling for Rhinos, an annual bowl-a-thon that raises money for rhino conservation giving them a patina of a caring company with a social conscious.

The most successful brands—commodity or otherwise—will be those that deliver functional value as well as intangible value—an implied guarantee of a product that consumers ask for by name.

Because when confronted with two choices of perceived equal benefit, the consumer will always choose the brand that feels right. And by consistently delivering on the brand promise, remaining relevant, and staying authentic, brands can transcend commodity status and become the preferred choice.

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