The Voice of Design: Commodities

Design is a process of thoughtful consideration focused on a product, package, building, experience, behavior or other cultural element. 

One perspective about this and the time spent thinking about it is that it’s an expense and should contribute to more margin, sales or favorable behavior. Another perspective is this, if a brand creates unique margin for the brand owner, then commodities are the exact opposite of brands. If design works for brands, can it really be of value for commodities?

Let's examine two commodities: concrete and milk.

Both of these commodities are optimally produced within a 100-mile radius and distributed from that point. This doesn't allow a national or international dominance where margin is created by significant scale (think oil, corn, etc). The local competition allows for a natural marketplace of at least—and sometimes more than—three players.

The real margin is created at a local level with a brand name, while it may not be McDonalds, it is often a brand you know and see in your local community. In our area there are two brands we've worked with, Cemstone in concrete (cementatious materials) and Schroeder in milk (liquid dairy).


The difference here is a matter of how you think about the commodity. If you think milk is milk and concrete is concrete, then design will never add margin. But, the potential for adding margin is there for those unique management teams and leaders who believe their concrete and milk is unique enough to be considered more than a commodity.

While this would seem to be universal and easy, because most teams believe they have something unique, it isn’t. It’s where the (pardon the cliché) rubber meets the road. Do you invest in design? Do you spend the resources, thinking time, inside or outside mental activity to consider how different your commodity is from others? Or, do you have a team that starts sentences with the phrase, "well, it’s just..."?

Examples, "do we really need to think about what color our trucks are? Well, it’s just on a construction site." If Cemstone had used this phrase, their trucks would be white or some boring version of blue. Another example, "do we really need to spend this much time and resources on our package design? Does it really matter when in our retail accounts we are the only choice of milk?" If Schroeder had asked this, the current design wouldn't exist.

The voice of design has always been there. There are just more people talking about what it means in their category. The voice of design in commodities means you can't think only about the penny you will save by not doing something but rather about the extra three pennies you will earn by doing something.

This is listening to the voice of design inside your organization. It exists all around you and certainly within every organization, yet in many organizations it is silenced by the commodity majority and the voice of "well it's just..." 

Aaron Keller
Managing Principal



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