Design and thinking. Sometimes together.


Seth Godin: Blasphemer (and Other Thoughts on Feelings)


I think Seth Godin is a genius, but let me tell you, this post is patently wrong. It talks about Heinz Ketchup, which is, frankly, the only Ketchup worth eating and all other entrants in the category are worthless. Heinz could charge me triple and I would buy it. One of Seth's readers suggests that this is because it's just better ketchup. And I agree.Seth however doesn't:

Heinz doesn't make better ketchup. Heinz makes better Heinz ketchup. There's a huge difference.

If you define ketchup the way most people do, you define it as, "the ketchup I grew up with." Or to be more specific, "the ketchup my mom served me, the one that I was allowed to serve myself when I turned three..."

Wrong. The idea here is that Heinz is selling a feeling. This is certainly true enough. But he's going on the idea that Heinz ketchup is empirically the same as Hunt's or, god forbid, Red Gold. This is actually quite untrue as this Malcolm Gladwell article would attest.

Godin's use of Heinz's name in vain raises some interesting issues. First, selling a feeling is vitally important when competing in a more diverse sphere. Cheerios and Corn Flakes can not be compared in any real empirical way, yet they are competitors. The two have different flavors, shapes, nutritional content, histories and as such they also have two incredibly different brands. Cheerios has to beat its generic versions by being actually better Cheerios. But it beats other cereals by being identified with childhood, and family and all the other parts of their story that Corn Flakes and Cinamon Toast Crunch simply don't have. Heinz's brand isn't quite the same, they fundamentally build their brand on the fact that their ketchup is quantitatively better. And they have to because while the difference between Heinz and Red Gold is huge (in terms of taste and market share) it isn't nearly as big as the difference that exists between cereals.

This brings us to the second thing. In a great deal of circumstances, better product is better brand. This seems like stating the obvious, but in some cases we need to get beyond the idea that the branding of things can make up for deficiencies in services or products. If you make shitty ketchup no branding will help you steal market share from Heinz in any meaningful way.

The monolithic aspect of the ketchup category (meaning that while there are many brands of ketchup there really aren't that many varieties of ketchup) stands in stark contrast to other categories where diversity means that brand can actually drive product. In that circumstance you seek an audience, carve out a niche story and design a product to meet that story. This is how you end up with giant SUVs and Smart cars in the category called "cars." The brand story in both of those cases is driving the design of the car. SUVs and Smart cars live up to different stories and promises that identify with certain audiences.

In short: I love Heinz ketchp. I love Seth Godin. And when the two cross paths my brain melts. Never cross the streams.

Jason LaughlinComment