Avoiding the ‘Commodity Trap’

Remember when James Cameron’s “Avatar” took the cinema world by storm late in 2009? It’s hard not to—the film generated a level of buzz that hasn’t been matched since. By most measures the film was an enormous success. It won nine Academy Awards. It scored big at the box office, surpassing “Titanic” as the highest-grossing film of all time. Critics and moviegoers alike raved about the special effects, calling them revolutionary.

Though most were left wonderstruck by the visual pyrotechnics, critics and film buffs were much less taken by the storyline itself. Some claimed the plot too closely resembled that of previous Hollywood blockbusters, like “FernGully,” “Pocahontas” or “Dances With Wolves.” One NPR commentator said the storyline seemed like a jumble of several past movie scripts, as though they’d been mixed in a blender.

Suddenly, the critical narrative around Avatar was that its story had some obvious flaws—that despite unmatched commercial success, it maybe didn’t deserve mention in the same breath as other classics of its genre (think Star Wars or Lord of the Rings). In the eyes of the skeptics, it followed too many conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster. The story didn’t break new ground. It wasn’t different enough.

For this group of critics, it might be said that Avatar fell into Hollywood’s version of the ‘commodity trap.’

A similar commodity trap exists in the B2B space, and it’s ready to ensnare your company if your messaging and sales conversations fail to elevate you above your competitors. Like jaded movie critics, your prospects won’t be impressed by the same old thing. They won’t be provoked to break from their status quo.

One surefire way companies fall into the commodity trap is by positioning themselves as problem-solvers—rather than problem finders—of their prospects’ identified needs. This is what Lisa Cummings, VP of Learning Products at Corporate Visions, calls “same-same messaging.”

“Good intentions go bad when companies focus on differentiation like ‘best in class’ or ‘flexible’ or ‘scalable’,” Cummings says. “Those qualities are good, yet they don’t do anything to get your customer to act because it’s the same thing everyone else is saying.”

When companies fall into “same-same messaging,” it reinforces your prospects’ notion that your solution is simply a commodity in a market of virtually interchangeable offerings. When that happens, the conversation gravitates toward one thing—lowering the price.

When all things seem equal, the prospect goes with the least expensive vendor, and the competition becomes the proverbial race to the bottom, Cummings said, where “the finish line trophy goes to the one with the lowest margins.”

Salespeople, Cummings adds, must be prepared to articulate value proposition. Part of that means knowing which questions to ask during the various phases of the buying cycle. Before getting tangled up in the debate about Why Your company offers the best solution for your customer, Cummings believes companies must first get the prospect to say ‘yes’ to another question: Why should I change?

“If you bring some memorable insights that help them see their world is changing, you can help them predict a potentially painful future,” Cummings said. “When they feel the pain coming, they’ll urgently want to change.’

She added that if you’ve successfully aligned them to a new buying vision while helping them say yes to change, you’re “naturally aligning them with your solution.”

The key to steering clear of the commodity trap, then, is to create messaging and execute conversations that avoid positioning yourself at parity with competitors. You can’t afford to validate a prospect’s notion that you’re selling to the same set of needs with a similar solution. Because you don’t want to give them a script they’ve already seen.

Tim Riesterer

Tim Riesterer

Chief Strategy Officer

Tim Riesterer has dedicated his career to improving the conversations marketers and salespeople have with prospects and customers. His books, “Customer Message Management”, “Conversations that Win the Complex Sale”, “Three Value Conversations”, and "The Expansion Sale", focus on improving market-ready messages and tools that marketers and salespeople can use to win more deals. As chief strategy and research officer for Corporate Visions, he sets the direction and develops products for this leading marketing and sales messaging, content and training company.

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