—Brent Carlson-Lee, Founder & Owner of Eli’s Donut Burgers

Imagine a world without brands – when water was water, sand was sand, and cheese curds were cheese curds. To experience such a place, you may think a ride in the DeLorean with Doc Brown is in order, but it turns out you only need a rusted-out Ford pick-up and a map to the county fair.

Rows of trailers are lined with block-letter signs promoting corn dogs, cheese curds, mini donuts and cotton candy. No logos, no points of difference. What you see is what you get…but what value would a brand add anyway? Before delving into that question, it’s worth revisiting the term from a consumer standpoint given its increasing colloquial usage.

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a "name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”

Per Seth Godin, a ”brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”

It’s hard to argue with either of these definitions, but they are unnecessarily complex. Simply put, brands are shortcuts for consumers.

Consider the following situation:

I’m busy. I want the latest technology, but I don’t have the time to research or learn how to use new devices. I know that if Apple were to launch a GPS – however breakthrough it may be – it will be easy to use. My experience with the Apple brand is a shortcut to that conclusion. This is valuable to me as a consumer.

Now back to the county fair…

For a fair-goer deciding which cheese curd stand to visit, what value would a brand bring? Since the determining factor would often be location (i.e. where is the nearest cheese curd stand?) I would argue the value would be minimal absent a unique and meaningful value proposition. This could take one of two forms:

  1. “De-commoditize” the product by delivering a unique attribute such as a gluten-free batter or a grass-fed, local hot dog. Admittedly, these are both niche ideas.
  2. Develop a comprehensive bundle of differentiating characteristics around the commodity product, synthesize it into a cohesive brand identity and communicate it consistently.

The latter is the central theme of “How to Brand Sand” (Kean). The authors argue that success may have as much to do with how the commodity is packaged, delivered and used as it does with product attributes. They also put forth that the burden of proof is on the company to show why this “handful of dirt is better, and worth more to the customer, than that handful.”

Is the cheese curd vendor up to the challenge? I’m not sure, but I do know that when the world comes to an end, I want to be at a county fair…they’re 40 years behind.


[Citation: Kean, Rita, LuAnn Gaskil, Larry Leistritz. "How to Brand Sand." Strategy + Business (1998): Second Quarter 1999, Issue 11]