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Commodity Branding

How can you differentiate your brand, when your product looks exactly the same as your competitors?

Fruit and veg are housed in the world’s most sustainable and attractive packaging. You’ll never confuse a bumpy black avocado for a spiky pineapple, but how do you tell one Pink Lady from the next Pink Lady, or your Hass over my Hass? And does it matter?
Traditionally fruit and veg are considered commodities, consumers perceive little difference between products and brands, and prices are standardised. You can grow the tastiest fruit with the most sustainable processes, but unless this is communicated to consumers or buyers as a differentiator, you’ll be forever competing on price alone. While there are many options in the brand building toolkit, products that sit at the more commoditised end of the spectrum usually need to work harder to find their points of difference.
And to answer my question — does it matter? Well, yes it does — farmers around the country have seen prices for their produce continue to drop. This downward pressure on prices is driven by supermarkets with many supplier options — competition is fierce. Enter the power of branding. Having a strong brand can mean better margins, and more negotiating power. It can also open other avenues for selling and marketing your products, both domestically and internationally.
An already increased focus on where our food is grown has been intensified by the COVID pandemic. COVID led to panic buying which put unprecedented pressure on the supply chain and led to shortages of product. In short, Australians are demanding Australian-made more than ever — the resulting behavioural change offers more opportunities for branding, storytelling, and thinking differently. Following are a few examples of commodities that have taken advantage of opportunities, or have been forced to rethink their approach to stay relevant.

Thinking outside the fruit box 

Take water, arguably one of the world’s foremost commodities. Nuances in the taste between different brands is arguable, yet Voss can market itself for $5.10, Mount Franklin $2.15, whilst a glass of tap water will set you back about $0.001. Desire is driven by emotion, and while consumers who purchase the Voss will argue that it tastes (and looks) better, the real reasons for that purchase will be much less rational. Consumers inevitably tend to link certain instincts, emotions, and ultimately loyalty, to specific brands and will reach for the water aligned to these attributes. In a market of more or less identical products, creating an emotional connection with your audience is crucial if you want to stand out from the crowd.
Eggs are another commodity with little difference in taste, but big differences in how they’re marketed. Chicken welfare advocates have been successful in communicating why consumers should be concerned [about where the egg comes from]. Eggs are no longer just eggs — we now have the choice between Cage Free, Free Range, Barn Laid, RSPCA Approved, CSIRO modelled, or Certified Organic, and each claim is reflected in the price. The positioning of brands with these claims really plays to consumers emotions, and we’ll gladly pay more to support companies and causes we believe in. Purchasing the more expensive, free range, organic, RSPCA approved carton makes you feel good, says that you care, and that you’re an animal lover. Eggs, of course, have the added benefit of being packaged in cartons that allow additional messaging to position them, but ultimately there is little perceivable difference in the taste of a free-range egg over a caged egg.
And, so to milk, global dairy prices have fallen around 60% since early 2014, but the severity and unexpected nature of the slashes to milk prices were unprecedented. Driven by a $2 offering by the supermarkets, dairy farmers have had to wear the reduced farm gate revenue. Branded milks (both mass and white labelled) lay claim to a myriad of benefits in order to differentiate themselves from competitors, and in-turn demand a premium price — from high calcium to low fat, Omega-3 to organic or A2 protein to vitamin D. Because milk is sold into a commodity market that is dominated by a handful of large businesses, purchasing for both domestic use and international export, even a strong brand may struggle to demand a premium. However, where you can reap the rewards is bypassing the middleman. Country Valley, in Picton NSW, has invested in and backed its brand by processing its own products. With a strong brand story, based on a passionate family history: “Our milk comes straight from our cows to the plant and then out to our customers”. The business has added value to their raw milk product — asking: "Why sell our milk for next to nothing to a big processor when we could bottle it ourselves and start making farming a viable way of life again?"  Choice suggests — buying milk produced at a dairy that processes its own product is the best way to support Australian dairy farmers. Country Valley may produce on a smaller scale, but has successfully promoted its brand to the local community who takes pride in supporting the business, who in-turn has the benefit of access to some of the best tasting milk and yoghurt in Australia. 

When to compare pineapples and oranges? 

When those oranges and pineapples are produced by the same brand. Dole, is the world’s largest producer of fruit and vegetables, marketing all its produce under the Dole “masterbrand”. Dole invests in, builds and supports its brand globally. Each product is clearly labelled as Dole, be it a fresh or a tinned pineapple, or a ready to eat salad packs. Having invested in and supported its brand Dole has a clear story built around its heritage and quality. The company positions itself as offering “the finest, high-quality products.” And by “Meeting customers’ expectations by consistently providing products that meet the highest standard — the Dole standard. For Dole, anything less is unacceptable”. Its brand is firmly focused on quality, across its broad range of offerings. Instead of developing a developing a multitude of brands for different products, it uses a branded-house portfolio management approach. The benefit here is that consumers recognise the products and understand that they’re driven by quality.
Within Australia we have many large producers, but none with the same consistently branded approach with as much clout as Dole. Costa markets a selection of its categories under the Costa brand (notable are avocados and mushrooms), but also promotes key partnerships and licensing agreements with brands such as Driscoll Berries, several grape variety brands, and tomatoes (Blush). This “house of brand” approach allows flexibility in presenting products in different market niches, with different target audiences. There are strengths in this approach, but also downsides as each brand needs individual investment and support to build impact.

The perfect mixed salad

So, if you’re interested in moving your brand away from a commodity only position, opening new markets and being able to demand a premium price here are a few things to consider:

  • Do you have a key point of difference you can build a story around?
i.e. does it have; a superior taste, an origin story, family history, a quirky name, a bigger size, a smaller size, different ways to eat? Is it grown: in a more sustainable way, organically, at a different time of the year, only in one region? The differentiator doesn’t just have to be your product it can be: your farm, customer service, inventory approach, or delivery speed. Pick the factors that will make your brand strongest, and be bold and confident in communicating it.
  • Does the brand have emotional appeal?

    A good brand goes beyond rational features (big, red apples) and digs deep to find what consumers connect with more emotionally (juicy red apples that have a satisfying crunch). Make the audience feel something when it sees your brand.
  • Is there a unique way to package or deliver the product?

    This is harder to do in grocery channels, but wide open if selling directly to consumers. Can you offer reusable boxes, wooden crates, calico bags or BYO packaging? Can you make an environmental point about not using plastic stickers on fruit? Can you offer 5 & 10 boxes of fruit and veg with other suppliers?
  • Is there an environmental issue that this produce contributes to?

    Having an environmental platform, and a passion for change is good for any brand. Can you grow your products in a way that reduces a problem? Can you articulate the problem and solution, and how you’re solving it? Are you able to contribute to a circular economy? Can your waste be made useful?
  • Do you have to sell in the same way that everybody else is?

    It would be no light undertaking but sidestepping the middleman is an option. What other business models, selling solutions or systems could you implement to change your business and therefore your brand?
  • What is your long-term focus?

    Branding no matter which way you look at it is all about the long game. Strong brands are built with consistency and an eye on the future. They drive ambition and help you make decisions. What does the future look like in 1, 5 or 10 years? Where do you want to take your business?

As passionate brand advocates, and builders of strong brands, we believe that even the most generic of products has the ability to become more than just a commodity. Growers, producers, farmers, and sellers are more than just numbers on a fulfilment sheet — they’re passionate advocates for their products, the industry, and Australian-made. A strong brand will capture this, to share with consumers.