Rebranding Your Potato

How Frederick the Great of 18th century Prussia changed the potato game.

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At the core of every great brand, there is a story worth telling. A good story can be a drama, a thriller, or even a comedy. In the case of branding (or rebranding) the potato, it is a comedic drama about privilege and exclusivity. These themes are common in the uncommon stories of many distinguished luxury brands in the world, from the Limited Edition James Bond Omega watch, to “Diamonds Are Forever” (but not for everyone!) Yet, privilege and exclusivity can cross the boundaries of luxury goods to increase demands for almost anything, as long as the story is right for the audience and the time. Think of what the latest global pandemic has done for face masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.

Now, on to our story.

Rebranding the potato

It was the late 18th century in Prussia. Frederick the Great wanted his people to grow and eat more potatoes for good reasons. He realized the potential dangers of market volatility and even famine of relying on only one source of carbohydrates. At that time it was wheat.

Unfortunately, nobody wanted to grow or eat them. “The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?” The people of Prussia protested. Frederick couldn’t get the people to eat them, nor the farmers to grow them. Even at the threat of execution, the farmers refused to grow potatoes.

Frederic was a smart king and an even smarter marketer. Rather than continuing to enforce his rule, Frederick decided to re‑brand and re-position the potato in the market.

He declared the potato a royal vegetable, only allowed to be eaten by the royal family. He planted them in a “royal potato patch” secured by “royal guards” with specific orders to watch over them (just not very well).

The result:
It was only a matter of time before potatoes were stolen, grown, and an eventual black market was formed for the popular tuber vegetables (commonly thought of as root vegetables, but we’ll save that story for another day). The potatoes soared to popularity, and become highly sought after. Eventually, farmers could not produce enough to keep up with high demands.

I heard this story first from Rory Sutherland, during his TEDGlobal 2009 talk titled Life Lessons From An Ad Man. Not much has changed since Frederic’s days. We want the same as those we aspire to be like. Just see how fast a new product by Kim Kardashian sells, or something endorsed by Tim Ferriss. We want things that we’re told to be out of reach, or that it gives us some special power. Before tattoo machines, tattoos were once only reserved for royalty and the megarich.

Whether a potato, your product, or service, there are strategies and techniques to generate more demand. It’s not about selling, but rather about storytelling and inviting people to want to buy. In Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing The Chasm (absolute great book), Moore points to a few tried and tested truths in market growth strategy.

  • One is that your strategy for growth depends on where your product/service exists in the Adoption Life Cycle. The story you tell Innovators is different than the story you tell Early Adopters. Even drastically different from what you tell the Late Majority. In the case of the potato, Frederic’s story of exclusivity attracted the Early Adopter opportunists – also known as thieves.
  • The second important piece of the puzzle is how you will leverage and grow your story from one market to another. Markets in this case should be viewed differently from the Adoption Life Cycle. Moore presents the importance of focusing on one market segment, referred to as the Beachhead Market. This is a reference to the Allied Forces concentrating their efforts to capture Normandy, versus spreading themselves thin – which unfortunately most marketing strategies do. It is only once you have captured your beachhead that you can leverage your story and your winnings to attack the next (and importantly, similar) adjacent market. In the case of the potato, it moved from the thieves to probably growers and eventually the naughty-risk-taking consumers, to eventually everyone else in Prussia. Kinda like the cannabis industry in Canada.

In conclusion
When we meet with customers and clients, almost always the challenge they face is not producing better quality products or services. It’s that often times, a not-so-great competitor with a better-positioned story is swooping up market shares. This is a tragedy for the company, the potential customer, and the market. One that can easily be remedied with just the right story.

The Author

Pierre Monké
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