Arlen Robinson [00:01]
Welcome to the e-commerce marketing podcast, everyone. My name is Arlen and I am your host. And today we’ve got a very special guest, the marketing super villain, JJesse James Wroblewski who is a noted consultant specializing in brand differentiation and the co-founder of Decommoditized, a company that focuses on helping brands stand out in crowded markets. He is passionate about rescuing companies from commoditization, advocating that any brand can achieve leadership positions with sufficient courage and discipline. In addition to his work at Decommoditized, Jesse has been the owner of the digital marketing agency Generations Beyond since 1999. His innovative and often offbeat marketing strategies have garnered attention in media outlets such as Rolling Stone. Jesse is also the author of the book “Marketing for Super Villains,” which is described as an up-and-coming cult classic in the marketing industry​​. Welcome to the podcast, Jesse. Thank you for joining us, Jesse. I’m really excited to talk to you. You know, we’re gonna be going into a subject that I think has always really been a part of marketing.   

Jesse [00:16]
Greetings, citizens.

Arlen Robinson [00:30]
which is setting yourself apart. How do you set yourself apart? How do you make your e-commerce marketing strategies different from the next company and from your competitors? So we’re gonna be talking about differentiation amongst marketing and specifically e-commerce marketing. But before we dive deep into that, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into what you’re doing today.

Jesse [00:56]
Sure, sure. So I run an agency called Generations Beyond for about 25 years. Started doing websites when we were getting AOL discs in the mail and had to do it via dial-up. So I’ve been through, you know, even though it’s only been 25 years, in internet years, it’s almost like dog years. I’ve been through so many iterations and lifespans of different technologies and kind of adapting to them and then, you know, getting, you know, evolving out.

So I was doing differentiation for clients before I even knew I was doing it. So I essentially wanted to stack the deck in my favor. So maybe you’ve experienced that a client comes to you, they say, hey, we’re gonna write you a check and you need to do marketing for me. And like you said at the beginning, what makes your campaign any different from any other campaign out there?

Give me something to sink my teeth into because I know at the end of six months, you’re going to say, I wrote you X amount of checks. It didn’t get me X amount of sales and we’re going to part ways. So let’s fast forward six months. Once we hit that wall, how are we going to make you guys stand out? So I kind of always had a, maybe it’s a selfish inclination to kind of stack the deck so I could be successful as a marketer. And in turn, my clients were successful as well.

Arlen Robinson [02:20]
Yeah, good stuff, good stuff. And yeah, that’s really all what it’s about. And especially from your side of things, the agency model, yeah, it’s all about the results, of course, that you’re gonna get as far as if you’re gonna continue to work with the customers you have, and then if you’re gonna be able to get new customers. And then of course, I think with you, it really becomes a…

trickle down effect because those customers that you’ve had success with, you can use those as prominent testimonials to get win other business. So it’s definitely becomes kind of a win-win for all parties. So yes, thank you for sharing that, Jesse. First off, I guess I’d like you to explain a little bit more detail what differentiation means in the context of marketing and why you feel it’s

Jesse [02:54]
Yep.

Arlen Robinson [03:13]
critical for brands in specifically crowded market niches.

Jesse [03:19]
Sure, so differentiation, it’s kind of synonymous with the term decommoditization. So I kind of invented that term, but a commodity or when something becomes commoditized, the one thing that makes them special in a marketplace, when that special factor is no longer recognizable by the general public or that special factor really isn’t that special anymore.

They become known as a commodity right so I can get What I can get from you from somebody else for less of a price. Why should I go with you? There’s really nothing special about you. So to illustrate this I use the term the example of Airlines, let’s go back to the 80s, right? Nobody really had brand loyalty of an airline you bought a ticket on an airline based on price, right? I can get here to here for the cheapest then some genius came up with the idea of frequent flyer miles

Arlen Robinson [03:57]
Mm-hmm.

Arlen Robinson [04:04]
Yeah.

Arlen Robinson [04:12]
Mm-hmm.

Jesse [04:16]
and that brand became really special and their sales increased significantly. And then what happened? Everybody started offering frequent flyer miles. So the one thing that made that person special, that airline special, slowly got eroded away and eventually again, they became a commodity. So differentiation can be like a wave, something that’s always evolving, but you always want to make sure that you’re the one standing out. People are going to copy you.

in my industry, I’m sure it’s very similar to yours, they’re often intimidated at what we do because it is confusing or they really, they’re uneducated so they can’t tell the difference between why one agency is better than the other agency. So it’s our job to make it as easy as possible for them to say, I want to work with that guy, that girl, because of blank. What’s the blank?

Arlen Robinson [05:08]
Yes, yeah. Yeah, yeah, that’s a great breakdown of the concept. It really highlights, you know, there’s the importance of standing out, especially in today’s competitive environment, not only with like what you’re doing as from the agency model, which will help people make a decision when they’re deciding to work with you, but from an e-commerce business perspective, there are now more e-commerce businesses out there than ever. You know, a lot of this was accelerated, of course, during 2020 and the pandemic.

where businesses that didn’t have an e-commerce platform, didn’t have the ability to sell e-comm or were not doing it that great, they kind of got their acts together in a short amount of time. And so this really, there was a lot of emphasis flooding into the e-commerce markets in a short amount of time. So there’s so many options when it comes to purchasing items. That’s why you’ve got to stand out. You gotta make your product or services.

different, noticeably different from your competitors.

Jesse [06:12]
Yeah, I mean, with agencies, obviously, we have a little bit of a luxury because someone wants to compare agencies, truly compare them. They got to make phone calls, they got to set up Zoom meetings, they got to compare and contrast. With e-commerce, it’s like click of a button, this one, this one, or this one. This one’s the cheapest. I’m going to go with that one. So it’s split-second differentiation compared to luxury of explaining to a client why you’re different.

Arlen Robinson [06:21]
Yes.

Arlen Robinson [06:30]
Yeah. Right. Yes.

Arlen Robinson [06:38]
Exactly. So I wanted to see if you could share an example of a brand that successfully differentiated itself in the past decade or so and what lessons can you know any emerging brands learn from it?

Jesse [06:54]
Yeah, so my favorite story of most recent times is I’ll use the perfect example, which is the ultimate commodity water, right? So water is essentially free. So how the hell do you charge a premium for something you can get for free? So one of my favorite brands is this brand. They sell water in a can. They’re called Liquid Death.

Arlen Robinson [07:05]
Okay, right. Yes.

Arlen Robinson [07:12]
You’re right.

Arlen Robinson [07:19]
Yes.

Jesse [07:19]
So their slogan is murder your thirst. The way they differentiated themselves, besides the obvious, is they created a lifestyle brand. As opposed to the normal business thought of, I got to appeal to as many people as possible. I want to attract the widest audience. They said, no, no. We’re going to attract the people that he calls other waters yoga accessories. Because they all look the same and it’s just basically something you bring to yoga class. We’re going to bring…

Arlen Robinson [07:43]
Right.

Jesse [07:48]
You know, we’re gonna speak to the people that aren’t spoken for so he carved out a little niche audience Which was a small audience but a passionate audience that speaks his language Created a lifestyle brand and because his brand is so powerful Even though they only do 50 million dollars in sales a year The valuation of the stock is at half a billion dollars So they have over a 10x valuation just based on the

Arlen Robinson [08:13]
Wow.

Jesse [08:17]
of the brand and where I could go in the future.

Arlen Robinson [08:20]
Yeah, that’s awesome. And that’s a great example. It really puts into perspective, how effective differentiation can be. Because like you said, with water, you know, it’s like, you know, water is water. You can get water anywhere. What’s the really difference? And it’s interesting that you mentioned that, because I think the first time I came across that brand, I started noticing cans and people drinking them.

I’m trying to remember where maybe he was in the gym or just different places. And, um, my first thought when I saw it, because, you know, that’s like, they, they’re totally different than any other water company, as far as their branding, their logo, the slogan, you know, liquid death. And when I first saw it, to be honest with you, I didn’t know what it was. You know, I, my first thought was that guy didn’t, I wouldn’t have thought it was water. I think when I first saw it, I thought it was like a.

an energy drink, something like that. That was my first thought because, yes. Yes.

Jesse [09:15]
Yeah, I mean by design, you know, one of the things that he took into account, you know, I’m not a drinker, but when I go to a bar, everyone on the planet asks me, you drink, why not? Why don’t you drink? So now you have this thing that looks like a tall boy, right? So it kind of like reduces that anxiety as well. So he’s firing on a lot of levels where you could hold this can in a bar and you might even be the coolest guy at the bar because you have a can of water that’s really cool and he has a really

Arlen Robinson [09:26]
Right. Yes. Exactly.

Arlen Robinson [09:35]
Yes.

Arlen Robinson [09:44]
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it’s interesting to look at it that way. And you’re right. It kind of fits in with those types of drinks, the Red Bulls, those other type of energy drinks that have the kind of, you know, different types of style logos and the branding. And so somebody, like you said, at a bar drinking that.

Jesse [09:44]
in our fan base.

Arlen Robinson [10:02]
doesn’t feel left out because, you know, although he’s drinking water, you may not never know. Cause like I said, I saw it, I thought it was an energy drink. So yeah, interesting stuff. I mean, really interesting to see how this strategy unfolds in two real world scenarios. So, you know, looking forward, just wanna pick your brain a little bit. How do you see the strategies for differentiation evolving, you know, with the advent of these new technologies like AI and machine learning, which is…

Jesse [10:04]
Yep.

Arlen Robinson [10:32]
of course, the talk of the town in pretty much all spaces. I can’t get around not talking about AI. So what do you think?

Jesse [10:40]
Yeah, absolutely. So differentiation is going to be immensely more powerful, but needed. If you think of the world before the internet, right? Before e-commerce, you went to the store and you might have had one or two choices of anything, peanut butter, whatever. Now we have the internet, Seth Godin, who’s an author says people have an explosion of choice. Right? So now there’s

Arlen Robinson [11:07]
Yeah, yeah.

Jesse [11:08]
infinite amount of more choices that you have the ability for. You bring in AI, I mean aside from the marketing aspects from it where you can create you know a thousand banner ads with the click of a button, it’s also going to influence manufacturing. So now those thousands of peanut butters you had before on the internet very easily gonna crank out more brands, more ability to create more product and those might turn into tens of thousands of brands. So there’s just going to be more and more and more options and choices out there. It just makes it that more that much more important or harder to do business. So you need to employ differentiation. If everybody can create a peanut butter brand with the click of a button, yeah, why would you even get into that market?

Arlen Robinson [11:48]
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Arlen Robinson [11:54]
Everybody, yeah, that’s true. So everybody now has the power to come up with a million in one slogans, a million in one different types of ad campaigns and logos. So yeah, like you said, it’s good and it’s bad. In a way, it does level the playing field a little bit for some of the smaller brands, some of the brands that don’t have

Jesse [12:04]
Yeah.

Arlen Robinson [12:22]
you know, huge budgets to, you know, spend on ad agencies that are doing these massive campaigns that involve a lot of research, a lot of testing. Um, you know, the smaller mom and pop e-commerce, um, e-commerce company or e-commerce brand can just hop on to chat GPT and, you know, within a few hours, they can come up with some pretty good marketing campaigns from the email campaigns to.

messaging for their website, you name it, all of that can be created and just, you know, within the typing of just a few prompts. So in that aspect, you know, I think it’s good because it does really foster a lot more competition. And, you know, as we all know, competition, it is good when things are level and more competitive. That’s when, you know, things can get better for…

Jesse [13:02]
Sure.

Arlen Robinson [13:21]
the consumer is gonna be a lot more options and it’s going to keep brands on their toes as well as marketing agencies. So yeah, I think it’s, you know, I think it’s overall, it is a good thing. Now, with all your, of course, years of experience, what have you seen as being, you know, your most challenging aspect of implementing a differentiation strategy and how did you overcome it?

Jesse [13:48]
Yeah, so the challenge is always, always the client and fear of change, which isn’t relegated to just clients. Everybody has a fear of change, right? So whenever I get into a meeting, whether we’re talking about differentiation or not, a client’s never going to sit down and say, okay, you know, we’ve been doing this and we just want to hire somebody to keep churning out the same stuff. They always say…

Arlen Robinson [14:00]
Right.

Jesse [14:13]
We’re hiring you because we want to go in a different direction. We want to stand that. We want to take it to the edge. And then ultimately when you get them to the 99 yard line, you’re like, whoa, let’s stand off the rough edges. Let’s make it a little bit more safe. So that’s always been the challenge and something that I’m working on to kind of mitigate that at the last minute.

So, you know, figuring out, I tell my clients, I’m really, really good at differentiation. I suck at mind reading. So, I’m going to tell them, if you have a problem being funny or being on camera or charging a premium because you know you’re not the best in your industry, tell me now and we’ll make those decisions together. There’s no one way to differentiate yourself. Let’s put all the cards on the table.

And then we’ll make an educated choice on what differentiation tactic, you know, we’re going to choose. And when we get to that scary place, we’re not going to use our gut. We’re going to use data. Say, look, this is what the data supports. If we go this route, if we go with the same old way that we’ve been doing things, the data supports that. And it’s a simple, you know, logical, uh, decision as opposed to this emotional thing where, I don’t know, I’m changing everything. I could lose my life. So just kind of quelling those concerns.

Arlen Robinson [15:14]
Yeah.

Arlen Robinson [15:21]
Right.

Arlen Robinson [15:33]
Right, right, yeah, that’s good to hear. That’s a great way to go about doing it. Just backing your, what you guys come up with, what you guys plan to implement, the creativity, the campaigns, strategies, backing that with data. And that’s the best way to do it. Because I can definitely feel your pain. I understand where you’re coming from. When you get to those points.

you get to the 99 yard line or whatever, and then you say, okay, so we’re gonna do, they agreed already, but then when they see what it is and how different it is from what they were doing in the past, then they can get a little antsy and a little gun shy, I guess you could say, which is understandable because everybody is averse to change, no matter how we fight it.

in how much we fight it in all aspects of what we do in business and in our personal lives. It’s tough to accommodate change. But like you said, if you’re coming from the angle of saying, okay, you can go down this road with what you’re doing right now, but the data is showing that your sales are going to continue to decline. But if we go with these different strategies, which have been proven by some other brands, you know…

nine times out of 10, you know you’re gonna have a boost in sales and things like that. So yeah, it’s good to see that you are approaching things with your clients in that way to keep things based on data. Now, I’m always one to really understand that a lot of growth really happens when you’re learning from the mistakes and the pitfalls. So I wanna see what common pitfalls

you know, businesses should avoid when attempting to differentiate their products and services overall.

Jesse [17:24]
Yeah, so there’s a chapter in my book that I basically say, it’s not a hard and fast rule that you have to be fully authentic with yourself. And I’ll get into what that really means. But if you choose a differentiator that is authentic, it’s a huge leg up, right? So it’s just gonna increase your chances of success, right? So inauthenticity, lightning rod of a topic, but you saw what happened with Bud Light.

They put some emphasis on virtue signaling on a certain community. Everybody came down on them. They were just putting something out there that wasn’t really ingrained in their DNA. Everyone’s very quick to be like, oh, we sell products, but we’re also saving the planet. Just throwing money at this charity. People can see right through it. Nowadays, if you do it inauthentically, people will call you on it.

Arlen Robinson [18:18]
less.

Jesse [18:23]
I think trying to, if you’re selling gas guzzling vehicles and you’re trying to be Mr. Green Company and saving the trees and all that, people are really wise to that. I think that’s the biggest challenge or advice I can give. Just be authentic in your differentiation.

Arlen Robinson [18:37]
Yes.

Arlen Robinson [18:48]
Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. And I do see it being a trend, especially things like, you know, the virtual signaling that you, that you mentioned associating your brand with, you know, helping a certain community or associating your brand with sustainability efforts. When, you know, you look at some of these companies where you look back, maybe just a year ago, even months ago, there’s no mention of any of that. They don’t have a history or track record of

Jesse [19:14]
Yeah.

Arlen Robinson [19:16]
of supporting any of these things and all of a sudden, you know, you see all of this stuff about sustainability and supporting certain groups. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that. You know, brands can, you know, have a change of identity, I guess you could say, and they can decide to support things. You know, they are every brand has that right to do it. But you have it has to be authentic. It has to be something that’s tied to your company’s.

core mission because like you said, most consumers these days are really educated and can see right through all of that stuff. And the of course, it’s so easy to look back and to you know, with AI these days, you know, you can get a full history of just about anything, any company and what they did 10 years ago, what were their missions on these dates. And so we have to be careful because yeah, people will see.

Jesse [19:49]
Yeah.

Arlen Robinson [20:10]
see straight through some of those inauthentic efforts, for sure. Now, Jesse, as we get ready to wrap things up, as consumer behaviors overall continue to change, because they’re always changing, how would you say companies would need to adapt their differentiation strategies to remain relevant and competitive?

Jesse [20:36]
Yes, I mean, you use the perfect adjectives, relevant and competitive. It’s a constantly evolving thing. I have clients, chances are you’re not dealing with a powerful brand owner that’s fairly large who’s very young. So all of the more established brands, rightfully so, are managed by seasoned executives.

doesn’t matter who you are, thinks social media is like super sexy, right? But a lot of the times, the executives that want to be on social media, they don’t know how weird of a place social media is. They can’t read the room. So sometimes I come back to them and I’m like, all right, here’s what’s going to be successful. And they’re like, who the hell would ever like even watch this or like it or so staying relevant. I don’t know how to, how to, how to, you know, better wrap it.

Arlen Robinson [21:09]
Right.

Arlen Robinson [21:20]
Yes.

Jesse [21:35]
If social media is included in the future of your brand expansion or differentiation and you’re not on it and you’re not authentically interacting with people and kind of reading the room, at least bring someone on board that you trust. That’s going to… and that’s everywhere. Knowing where your market is and knowing what your market wants. If you are completely shut off and saying, ah, this TikTok thing, these kids today, guess what?

Arlen Robinson [21:46]
Thanks for watching!

Arlen Robinson [22:01]
Right, right.

Jesse [22:02]
that’s a huge indicator of where your brand is going to be in 5 to 10 years. So if you’re closed off, chances are you’re not going to be very differentiated a decade from.

Arlen Robinson [22:12]
Yeah, yeah, very sure. And that’s a great example with tick tock. You know, it seems like, yeah, definitely adaptability seems. It does seem crucial as the market evolves because we do have all of these two new platforms, these new marketing channels. And, you know, of course, there’s, you know, a lot of brands that are out there, like you said, that are older and.

been around for a while, may have been used to doing certain things, but you know, if they don’t have that expertise in house, they better find somebody that can help them with these efforts, you know. And typically, it’s going to be a younger person, somebody that’s a little bit more social media savvy. They may have grew up with social media. They’re on TikTok. They’re all in it. And you know, you would do have to, especially as an older brand, you do have to look to some of the younger generation and see how they can help you navigate these things because it’s stuff is very different, very different. Before social media, I know that there was really the only options when it comes to advertising was really radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines and that’s really about it. I don’t think there was really anything else.

Jesse [23:26]
Yeah.

Arlen Robinson [23:28]
you know, now there’s like a whole slew of other channels to really get out there and market. And so, yeah, I think it’s only going to keep increasing.

Jesse [23:38]
Yeah, I mean, we’re being a little stereotypical, but I think it’s true across the board, right? So not even limited to the platforms. You take a company like Harley Davidson, right? Steeped in tradition. As the new generations came along, new generation doesn’t wanna drive the same bike his father and grandfather rode, right? They want something new and cool. They don’t want a gas guzzler. They want something responsible for the environment.

Arlen Robinson [23:43]
Yes.

Arlen Robinson [23:48]
Yes.

Arlen Robinson [24:01]
Right.

Jesse [24:06]
So Harley kind of like shut their eyes and like blocked out these millennials coming up. And now they’re a huge problem because there’s a total disconnect between the traditionalists and the hardcore Harley lovers versus this new market because your old market’s going to age out. And now they have absolutely no appeal to this new market that they just shut out for a while. So yeah, social media, young kids, you know, it’s always going to be an issue of keeping in mind.

Arlen Robinson [24:21]
Yes. Mm-hmm. Yeah, right.

Jesse [24:35]
keeping relevant as you put it, keeping it on top.

Arlen Robinson [24:37]
Thank you.

Yeah, yeah, for sure. Definitely. And that’s a great example, Harley Davidson, because I definitely see it. It’s definitely, I mean, you anyone that kind of knows about that and knows of their brand, you immediately think of an older demographic. You kind of get your, you kind of pictures a person in your head and typically it’s an older person. And unless they do something, you know, drastically different than they’re going to be an example of a brand that, you know, when they’re older generation,

you know, moves on and is no longer able to, you know, to, you know, to ride their vehicles, then you know, what’s, who’s left. So yeah, it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be a lot of brands unfortunately in that, that’s gonna have that dilemma. So it is gonna be interesting to see what happens with some of these older brands that have been around for a long time. Well, Jesse, this has been an awesome conversation. Can definitely talk about.

Jesse [25:19]
Yeah.

Jesse [25:27]
Absolutely.

Arlen Robinson [25:37]
differentiation and marketing for a long time because I think it’s really a key pillar to marketing. You always have to be different. You always have to stand out from the next and from your competitors. So it’s something I think always needs to be in the forefront of your mind as a brand owner or as a marketer. And so, but lastly, I always like to shift gears just a little bit, just so our audience can get to know you a little bit better. If you don’t mind sharing one closing fun fact about yourself.

that you think we’d be interested to know.

Jesse [26:08]
Sure, so in my book I tell a couple of stories about You know how I got to where I am and I think two notable stories and I’m happy to elaborate if we have time one story is I came extremely close to building a website for the mafia and

Arlen Robinson [26:26]
Oh, wow.

Jesse [26:29]
The second story is I actually built a website for the Insane Clown Posse. I won a website design contest and I spent the weekend, they flew me out, living with, as they claim, the world’s most hated band. So that’s it.

Arlen Robinson [26:34]
Okay.

Arlen Robinson [26:43]
Okay. Interesting stuff. Okay. I almost developed a website for the mafia and uh developed a website for the insane clown mafia. Yeah I’m familiar with that group. They’re they’re like a is if I’m not mistaken they’re like a heavy metal group and they always are masked in a clown type of evil clown type of masking. Yeah.

Jesse [27:02]
Yeah, so they’re two guys, they wear clown makeup, and they’re more rappers than metal. And they just, they rap about the stupidest stuff, but it’s so well, to me, it’s very well done. And as far as pop culture goes, they’re like the punching bag, you know, they got made fun of by Saturday Night Live, and they become like this meme, but they say they’re the most hated band in the world. So.

Arlen Robinson [27:09]
Okay, got it.

Arlen Robinson [27:14]
Okay.

Arlen Robinson [27:18]
Okay.

Arlen Robinson [27:23]
Thank you.

Arlen Robinson [27:28]
Yeah. Okay, gotcha. Interesting stuff, interesting stuff. Well, thank you for sharing that and really appreciate you sharing that and having you on. And lastly, before we do let you go, if you don’t mind sharing the best way for our listeners and viewers to get ahold of you if they’d like to reach out to you and pick your brain anymore about differentiation or any other marketing subject.

Jesse [27:30]
at the weekend with the most hated band in the world.

Jesse [27:54]
Sure, sure. So just released a book called Marketing for Supervillains available on Amazon and pretty much everywhere else online. If you wanted to chat with me, I’m very, very active on Instagram and TikTok under Marketing Supervillain. And my website is Dekomoditize.com. I know it’s difficult to spell, so we brought a whole bunch of domains of the different spellings people might mistake. And you can also reach me through Mark

Arlen Robinson [28:19]
Got it.

Arlen Robinson [28:24]
Okay, awesome, awesome. Well, thank you for sharing that, Jesse. We’ll definitely have both of those links to those websites and the show notes so people can reach out to you and pick your brain and see how you can assist them in their brands. Well, this has been awesome once again, Jesse. We really appreciate having you on the E-commerce Marketing Podcast.

Jesse [28:44]
Thanks for having me.

Arlen Robinson [28:45]
Thank you.

Podcast Guest Info

Jesse Wroblewski
CEO of Decommoditized