Catching up with Ketchup

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So, by this point I’m sure that many of you have seen the news.  McDonald’s is going away from Heinz, and looking to replace the ketchup brand with new suppliers in their stores worldwide.  Why?  Because Heinz’s new President comes from rival Burger King.  I guess that’s fair enough.

I was really upset about this, until it turned out that most McDonald’s stores in the US don’t even use Heinz ketchup.  I always assumed McDonald’s was using Heinz, but it turns out that their ketchup comes from a variety of suppliers, blended to their own special recipe.  Sort of like everything else you get at McDonald’s (especially the McNuggets).

Now I am very particular about my ketchup. I can tell the difference between Heinz (the gold standard) and imitators like Hunt’s.  Don’t even get me started on the grocery-store and private-label brands (although to be honest, some of them are close enough to Heinz to be acceptable – but the ones that are not are terrible).  [Side note:  If you’re really interested in ketchup, read this article from The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell (reprinted in his book “What the Dog Said”).  Unlike mustard which comes in dozens of varieties, it turns out that ketchup has pretty much one preferred flavor profile.  I found it fascinating.  But then again, I love ketchup.] 

This is all interesting news, but what’s it have to do with anything?  I’m glad you asked.  Most of the things we use every day are commodities.  Pens, toilet paper, bottled water, copy paper, salad dressing, milk.  Think about it – how often do you select a particular brand rather than the generic equivalent?  For me, I can count them on one hand:  Heinz, Charmin, Apple, Coke, Bush’s Baked Beans.  That may be it (and to be honest, I’ll take a Pepsi or RC Cola every once in a while). 

Which is what makes defining a brand so interesting – the amount of time and resources that goes into developing a brand is often wasted on consumers who could really care less.   While I may appreciate the difference between catsup and ketchup, not everyone does (in fact, most people don’t).  So, how can you make them care?  Get smart, for starters.  Find that single product attribute that is going to help you differentiate yourself from the others in your consideration set.  Devote the necessary resources on research and surveys, talk to people close to your brand and people who swear by the competition.  Look closely at your brand, product or service and figure out what makes it different – and if you can’t come up with anything, then trust a smart creative person to invent a “reason why”.  And then lean on that one attribute heavily across all of your marketing.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about ketchup, computers or a city – consumers don’t want a list of reasons why, they want one good reason why.

This is one of the reasons I love watching MadMen.  Once upon a time, you chose a cigarette because the tobacco was “toasted”, a ketchup because of “anticipation” or a slide projector because “it let you travel around and around and back home again.”  Brands are more complicated these days, but that doesn’t mean that a good ad man still can’t find a way to make yours unique.

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