Thoughts on commodities

Is your product a commodity or is it something special that people will go the extra mile for and pride themselves for having done so?

Electricity surely is a commodity. Salt as well – unless it’s the Amethyst Bamboo 9x. What about the mobile phone? Approximately 4.8 billion people own a mobile phone today. Has it become a commodity? Or the iPhone. Is the iPhone a commodity? It’s been sold roughly 1.5 billion times. Can something at that scale not be a commodity? Well, apparently. At least for some people it’s far from a commodity. It’s a device that millions of people look forward to hearing news from. People don’t do this for commodities.

There’s also the other extreme of 1:1 service. Can individual 1:1 service be a commodity? Can a service which promises a solution to your individual problem be a commodity? Apparently. Because millions of people each week get their individual teeth problems solved with a highly standardised service. In essence, although it‘s your individual problem and noone’s teeth are just like yours, the process to cure them works across quite a range of people and given that everything else is the same, you wouldn’t notice any difference.

Of course, everything else is not the same. The service may be human or robotic. It may be a nice environment or an ugly one. They make you wait an hour or treat you on time. They smile or they don’t. You feel welcome or you don’t. You may feel like there’s nothing more important than you or you may feel like everything’s more important than you.

So, where do you fit into this spectrum? Is your product a commodity? Or is it extraordinary? How about the experience of interacting with you? Do you make them feel special? Is it a 5-star service that you provide?

Keep in mind, though, that a 5-star service in itself can be a commodity as well. The perfectly polished, yet soulless hotel suite that you would exchange in a heartbeat for the warm and welcoming 2-star room of Grandma Elaine’s family operated hotel, is not much more than a premium priced commodity for the rich. Whether your product is a commodity or not has much more to do with how you yourself treat it than with the product itself.

How you communicate your product has a huge impact on how people perceive the product. Is your choice of words bland, boring and interchangeable or do you have a distinct voice that speaks to the hearts of your customers? When you speak to us, do we feel like in this moment nothing’s more important than us? If you’re gone, would we miss the personal tone of your brand story that resonated so well with our own values?

Everything is not the same if you don’t make it the same … if you dare to find your own voice … if you dare to show your passion … if you dare to make a difference.

The moment the lights go down

Today is the first time in months that you go to the movies. You’ve decided that this is a movie that just has to be watched on the big screen of a cinema. You’ve taken your seat. Ads are over. The lights go down. And the film begins. How do you feel?

In his 2007 TED talk, J.J. Abrams, the famous film director, framed it like this:

The moment the lights go down is often the best part.

And he’s totally right. When you start to read a book or go to the movies, the moment before you read the first sentence, the moment before the movie actually starts is a moment of excitement. You’ve decided to invest time and emotion in this. You’re willing to expect that this investment will be worthwhile. Maybe you even visualise how the drama will unfold and anticipate your feelings.

In any case, it’s a moment of excitement. It’s tension. The tension of a great experience we’re about to have. The tension of something profound we’re about to learn. The tension of deep emotions that we’re going to feel. Or at least we hope so – that’s why it’s tension and not certainty.

The thing with most movies and with most books, though, is that they don’t actually deliver on this excitement – which was Abrams’ point. This initial moment of excitement is indeed often the best part, as Abrams rightly observed.

But of course, those fascinating exceptions do exist. Those movies which do surpass that initial tension. By far. These are the movies we come back to. These are the books we admire. Which change our lives. And trigger even bigger tension when we read about the follow-up.

When you consistently deliver on this initial tension of the moment the lights go down, you build trust. And with trust you can build even greater tension the next time.

How to look at things

Objectively your brand may be quite extraordinary. It may be innovative, years ahead even. It may adhere to ethical work practices. It may foster sustainable production. It may be funding social projects. While at the same time delivering the highest production quality.

Someone looking objectively should come to the same conclusion as you do: This is extraordinary.

Looking objectively might not be the point, though. In fact, looking subjectively is. People do look subjectively. They ask things like “How does this fit into how I see the world?” or “Is it useful for me?” or “Does it make me happy?” or “What will my peers think?” …

And they are right. Because they owe you nothing. In particular, they don’t owe you objectivity. They didn’t ask you to make that product. You made it and now you’re asking them to buy it. They will do so if they decide it’s for them. But they will decide from their subjective perspective.

What makes a brand so difficult to grasp and so difficult to communicate is that everyone looks from their own subjective perspective.

How do people look at your brand? What do they see?

3 Decades of Business

There’s this small shop in town. It’s got a writing on the window that says “We make hand-crafted shoes“. Through the window you can spot a counter, a shelf with a few shoes and some tools on it. That’s it. It’s mostly unchanged for 3 decades.

Then, there’s this other shop with lots of stickers that say “Sale”, “Take 3, pay 2”, and “Brand-new collection”. Huge posters decorate the interior. There is upbeat music playing. The place has been constantly changing for 3 decades.

Question: Which one is right? Answer: Both.

Both attach to the values of their customers. They are easily recognised by the people they serve and dismissed by the others. Both feel familiar to their customers. Both have worked well for their owners for 3 decades – even if with quite different standards for success.

So, objectively, none is better than the other. They serve different customers with different needs.

Yet subjectively, both are way better than the other. Because they serve their customers with their specific desires.

There is no right/wrong answer to what story works for you. It’s a spectrum and you get to choose where you stand on that spectrum: Who do you want to be and who do you want to serve?

Different stories attract different customers. A consistent way of communicating your story is one way to show people where you position yourself on this spectrum to attract the customers that fit to who you are.

So, where’s your position? Think about your last talk or your last ad. What did it communicate about your values? Who did it invite to step in?

Shouting is easy

Shouting is easy, getting people to listen is not. Yet, it’s all about being heard and not at all about talking louder. Or talking more. People listen when what you say resonates with them. And that means talking smarter, not harder.

Shouting louder seems like the easy thing to do. More posts, more ads, more promotions, a bigger show, shinier decorations. And it might work.

Or it might not.

What shouting does is provide you with a moment of attention. People look over. But they might just as well move on when they decide it’s not for them.

People will stop to listen when what you say resonates with them.

Instead of pushing hard to make them care about you, the smart thing to do is to care about them. To look at things from their perspective. To try hard to understand what matters to them. So that you can articulate what they feel but what they can’t put in words themselves. And when you do this, you won’t need to shout. They will listen – even when you whisper.

Walking in their shoes

Hope, you are well!

How does it feel to walk in someone else’s shoes?

It’s a question that we don’t ask as often as we should. We might not like what we see. Someone else’s shoes might be uncomfortable because their day isn’t quite as easy as we expected it to be. Or their business isn’t quite as straightforward as we thought it is.

It’s much easier to walk in our own shoes. We are used to wearing them. We know what to expect when we put them on. They feel comfortable.

The virus provides us with a new perspective on this. In a way, most of us are walking in completely new shoes these days. In shoes we’ve never worn before. Unusual ones. Ones we would never have chosen ourselves.

And although it remains hard to imagine what it’s like when someone else is walking in these shoes, we do get an impression of how they might feel. Because this time we’re all wearing the same shoes. It’s as uncertain for us as it is for them. It’s as uncomfortable for them as it is for us.

This has led us to see others with different eyes. We can now see them struggling just like us. We can now see their fears and desires as we share the same fears and desires. And we can now see how it’s ok to change minds from one day to the next. To shift priorities. To be less than perfect.

This is one thing we should strive to keep after this is over. To see others, not just look at them. To acknowledge their fears and desires, not dismiss them. And to treat them in a way we ourselves would like to be treated when walking in their shoes: with respect, patience, and understanding.

Take care.

Reflections

Hope, you are well.

So much is turned upside down these days. Businesses all over the world are struggling to understand what the current situation means for them. Those who can have already begun to adapt their offerings to serve new needs around a physically distanced, anxious society.

On short notice, the virus forces us to reflect fundamental questions: Is this still the offering that serves our customers in their new needs? Can we use our employees’ strengths in new ways? Can we apply what we did in the past to create new services for the present and future? What is it that our customers need urgently?

The virus forces us to reflect our values. Where yesterday wealth and growth were important, today health and safety are. Where yesterday individualisation was important, today connection is. None of us knows what will be important tomorrow. But now is the time to start thinking about it.

The virus forces us to reflect who we are and who we want to be, especially how we want to treat others. Where in the past we’ve seen greed and hard selling, today we’re seeing businesses all over the world being helpful, being generous, and communicating with empathy. People will notice.

As we get more used to the changing conditions, these reflections will help us regain our strength even if in vastly different ways than before.

Take care.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz