You’re not a commodity brand. Now prove it.

This is the manuscript of a brand speech Marc delivered on being commodity brand, March 9th at a financial managers’ conference in British Columbia, Canada.

Our world has grown incredibly small.

Remember geographically putting a fence around your business? Gone. Now, if you want to set up shop, you can do it anywhere in the world. From your laptop.

Linda Kozlowski, head of operations for Etsy, pointed out there are only three things you need to go global from day 1 – even if your business is selling chickens in brassieres. (Yes, this is a real business, it’s on Etsy, and it’s global.)

What are the three things?

  1. Data – Where are all your potential customers, and what are they looking for?
  2. Technology – How do you build a platform to get your stuff to them? Like, a website?
  3. Payments – How can you get their money?

Data, a website, and a payment system. It’s that simple.

Free brand audit ad

Of course, because it’s that simple, every other person who does what you do, anywhere in the world, can do it, too.

There’s no such thing as ‘your territory’ for selling anymore. Even if you’re making a local product, the world is your market. And the world is marketing in your back yard.

There is no such thing as ‘your territory’ anymore. The earth is your territory, but it’s theirs too.

Which makes it a bit hard to stand out.

You may be the best financial manager in your town, but are you the best in the world? And if you’re not the best, how is anyone going to remember you? People can only remember #1. If you’re second best, you don’t exist.

The good news is there’s a solution. A way for you to profile yourself as #1. It’s called a brand.

Today, I want to talk to you about how brands work. And I want to touch on three very important things you need to build that #1 brand. They are:

  1. Expertise
  2. Importance to your customer, and
  3. Communication

Finally, I want to show you how to wrap it all together with a Unique Selling Proposition (USP). A tool I use all the time to help my clients build brands that build business.

But first…

What are brands?

Most people think they’re logos, colours, or maybe a jingle on a radio ad.

Brands are much more than that. They’re a symbol of the promise I make to you. And the expectation you have of me.

The history of commodity brands

Brands have been around thousands of years.

From the day we dropped from the trees and looked around our scary world, brands were there to make things simpler. They were like shorthand.

Even then, how we painted our face, what sort of bones or feathers we wore as jewellery, even actual burn marks or tattoos we branded ourselves with – they were promises to people around us – this is who I am, this is my tribe, this is how I behave. And they were expectations – from your tattoos, I know that you’re a friend, and you’ll share food.

Nature was masterful at branding. With colours, shapes, and sounds, she provided plenty of promises.

Tiger = I promise to eat you.

Rabbit = I promise to taste good.

Fire = I promise to cook your rabbit, and burn your hand.

This was a big deal. It meant we didn’t have to walk up to tigers again and again, to see what they were all about. Very handy.

As our society developed, we developed ever more complex symbols to help make life simple, and clear. Roman eagles, Masonic icons, swastikas, Namaste icons, Persian lions. The list is infinite.

If the symbols worked, they stuck.

These symbols had incredible power.

Let’s take the crusader’s white tunic with a red cross. From 100 yards, without saying hello or even seeing his face, you knew what you could expect from him.

As time went on, brands became closely connected with business.

This violin is a Stradivarius. Today, it’s worth about $1.7 million. But even in 1700, when Antonio Stradivari made it, it was a big deal.

Want to know a dirty little brand secret?

Neither acoustic analysis, or blind listening tests have ever, ever determined a difference in the sound between Stradivarius and other high quality violins.

The value of a Stradivarius is brand value.

A lot has changed since the days of Stradivarius.

Mass production, for example.

Antonio Stradivari made 960 violins. Apple sells that many iPhones in 2 minutes.

The more you study brands, the more you learn a fundamental truth: A successful brand doesn’t need to involve a better product.

But one thing is truer than ever. A successful brand doesn’t need to involve a better product.

Lucky Strike cigarettes toasted their tobacco. Every other cigarette toasted their tobacco. But Lucky Strike said so, and it became their brand.

Marlboro went one further. They didn’t even talk about a product difference. They just said cowboys smoked their brand. And rode that pony all the way to the bank.

Just a hunch, but I believe you probably would like to be more of a Stradivarius, less of a Marlboro. More of a finely crafted instrument, an expert brand.

So how do you become that?

The components of an expert brand

This is a heart surgeon. He’s a highly trained expert.

This is a financial advisor. He’s a highly trained expert.

Both provide a valuable service. But there are a few big differences. The heart surgeon doesn’t go looking for clients. The financial advisor does. The heart surgeon charges top dollar. The financial advisor doesn’t.


Three reasons:

  • First, chances are the surgeon has declared a very specific expertise. I am not a GP. I am a surgeon. Or even better, I am the only triple bypass surgeon in the Pacific Northwest. You want a triple bypass; I’m the only game in town.
  • Second, the surgeon surrounds himself with other, complementary experts. Brain surgeons, cancer specialists. People he learns from, people who learn from him. Being seen in this company elevates his standing in our eyes.
  • Finally, the surgeon publishes. Like a scientist, a surgeon does research. And to maintain his esteemed position, he stays in the public eye, keynoting at conferences, writing papers, being interviewed.

To the first point, how many of you have declared a very specific expertise?

Have you declared an area of personal expertise? Because that’s the first step in creating your expert brand.

It’s hard, isn’t it? Because the second you do it, you feel you’re excluding 99% of the potential clients out there. And that’s true. But think of it this way – if you get just 1%, and these folks really, really need you, and will pay top dollar to get you, is that better than getting 99% of the people who don’t really see any big benefit in you, fight every charge, and will leave you at the drop of a hat?

How many of you surround yourselves with other declared experts?

Think tanks? Organizations that are pushing the limits? This is not a networking group, where you’re all just trying to send each other referrals. It’s a brain trust, where you push one another. How many of you?

Finally, how many of you publish?

Again, I’m not talking about putting out passive aggressive sales pitches disguised as blog posts. How many of you put content into the world, on a regular basis, that actually makes the world better for people? It’s hard.

But that’s what experts do.

Hyper-specialization: the antidote to becoming a commodity brand

OK, you’re saying. You got me. I want to be that hyper-specialized expert. I want to declare my expertise. But I’m a general financial planner. How do I do it?

Let me show you a neat trick, guaranteed to produce your expertise, right in front of your eyes.

I’m going to use the example of tires. Bear with me.

When cars were first invented, somebody was clever and figured out how to make tires. That person could perfectly, legitimately claim to make the best tires in the world. He made the only tires in the world.

Now we know that cars became a pretty successful thing. And naturally enough, our tire manufacturer made out like a bandit. So what happened?

Another guy started making tires.

Now let’s say the new guy, having studied our original tire manufacturer, incorporated some new technology. Now his tires were indisputably the best tires in the world.

So did the first guy just pack up and go home? No. He took a look at what people needed. He saw that trucks had been invented. So he invented a truck tire. And voila, he could claim to make the best truck tire in the world.

If another company is producing the same product as you, it’s time to start hyper-specializing by looking at new usages, new audiences, and new attributes.

Now let’s say the same thing happens again. This time, five other manufacturers start making truck tires. Give up? No way. Our genius decided to specialize even further.

He decided to make the longest wearing truck tire. Or the best off road truck tire. Or the safest truck tire. Or the luxury truck tire. Or the cheapest truck tire.  And when he’d picked his niche, he told the world.

Sure he wouldn’t capture the entire truck tire market. But he won a hardcore audience, who would buy his tires no matter what, because they knew they were custom designed for them.

No haggling. No chasing. No negotiations.

Can you do that? Can you start with financial advisor, and keep adding modifiers until you get to a place you can rightfully call your expert zone?

But is your speciality important to me?

There’s one final critical piece involved in creating your expert brand. Finding out if what you’re creating actually matters.

Today, thanks to the internet, brands are a full-fledged dialogue. Ads don’t get the message out. Consumer reviews do. Bloggers do. Customer service does. Where you rank on Google matters, and we the people determine where you rank.

This may sound scary, but it’s actually awesome.

Before, you didn’t really know if people liked what you were doing. You just lost sales. Today, you can track how long they’re on your site, how many of the right people read each one of your posts, what price point works best for your audience.

Of course, asking people what they want, is hard. It shows your vulnerability. Being vulnerable, and being open to change, stands out like a sore thumb in the business world.

The fear of looking stupid and vulnerable is greater in us than the fear of nearly anything else.

To most of us, there is one thing worse than the fear of death. That’s the fear of looking stupid.

Most companies are so afraid of looking less dignified that they prefer to build a brand that looks proud, stiff, and inhuman, like a stuffed shirt.

So instead, we do anything to cover up any sort of weakness. That way we won’t stick out or get noticed.

In a pre-internet world, this just created brands that looked like Disneyland – perfect, in a kind of plastic way.

In a world of reviews, bloggers, internet transparency, trying to look perfect is a very, very dangerous strategy.

The Unique Selling Proposition

So we’ve talked about becoming an expert brand. Declaring your expertise, surrounding yourself with experts, and publishing.

We’ve talked about how to get to that expertise. Starting with your profession, then adding modifiers until you arrive at a place where you are absolutely the only game in town.

We’ve talked about aligning your expertise with what people want.

Now what?

Now, you create a unique selling proposition. I’ll give you the broad strokes here.

A unique selling proposition is:

  • What you do best in the world
  • That’s important to your clients
  • That you can prove you’re best at.

Answer this question:

I am absolutely the best at ______________ because I offer ____________, ___________ and ______________, and this is super important to my clients because ____________.

Hard, isn’t it?

I’ll give you some examples.

EHarmony is the #1 dating site for folks aiming for serious relationships. That’s because they have a 29 point questionnaire that digs deeper into my real priorities. That’s important to me because hookup sites are just depressing, and I want to move forward!


Nike is the #1 choice for elite athletic shoes, because it’s worn by more sports stars than any other brand. That’s important to me, because I need the inspiration.


John Smith is the #1 knee surgeon in Victoria, because he does twice as many knee surgeries as any other doctor. That’s important to me because, well, it’s my knees!

My expert brand vow

I teach marketing at university. And I know the difference between me standing up here talking and you nodding your heads, and real learning.

To really learn, you have to commit to doing it. Turning it into a habit. So I have a set of promises for you to make to yourself.

If you want to move from commodity brand to expert brand, you need to vow that you’ll see it through.

First, promise that you will think of yourself as an expert, not a supplier. You will not let yourself get into situations where you’re bidding against others, where the lowest price wins. You are a surgeon.

Second, promise that if you aren’t the expert you want to be…yet, you will make every effort to become that expert. You will attend every seminar, read every book, and speak with every acknowledged expert in the field until you become that expert. What’s more, you will publish – whether it’s blog posts or podcasts or speeches or books – ideas that clearly demonstrate your expertise. These will not be passive aggressive sales pieces. They will provide value!

Third, you are going to narrow your focus. You will not be a GP. You’ll be a heart surgeon.

Fourth, you are going to diagnose before you prescribe. You are going to listen to what people want, before you create any kind of solution. Dialogue, not monologue.

Fifth, you are not going to sell. You are an expert. Experts don’t sell, pitch, or do any of that nonsense.

Sixth, you will work hard to create, and keep creating your unique selling proposition, or USP. This never ends.


So there you have it. The tools, the USP, the vow that will take you from being a commodity brand to being an expert brand.

Now, the trick is in execution.

I have a workbook that can help you. It’s called the BrandDIY.

But even that won’t take you to the finish line. For that, you need to depend on yourself.

Getting it right is all about getting to work, and making this a practice, not just a neat thing to do.

Sure it takes a bit of effort. But it beats being a commodity any day.

Enjoy this story? Here are a few more you’ll like:


Building your own brand? Start with my book BrandDIY to get it right the first time. 

To get my insights straight to your inbox, sign up for my newsletter below.

And please, don’t forget to share this story!



Add Comment