Commodity versus Product

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commodityproductA few months back I read an old, old book about how to set up a small business called The E-Myth, by Michael E. Gerber. To give you an idea how old it is: it was written before the turn of phrase ‘E-something’ meant anything. So in fact the E here isn’t anything electronic, but refers to entrepreneurs. His basic point is that the idea that successful businesses are down to the special qualities of entrepreneurial people is a myth, and that good organization has more to do with it.

I may come back in another post to how his model plays out for starting a choir (if I can face in retrospect dealing with all the things I did wrong!). But for today, I’d like just to focus in on a useful distinction he makes between your commodity and your product.

The commodity is what you make in the factory; the product is what your customer wants to gain by buying it.So, to use one of his examples, the founder of Revlon claimed that what they made in the factory was cosmetics, but what they sold in the shop was hope. Gerber’s point is that most business owners obsess about the specialist thing they produce, whereas what they should be thinking about is how their customers feel as a result of acquiring that thing.

(There are resonances here with the Creating Passionate Users principle: it doesn’t matter what they think about you, what matters is how they feel about themselves after interacting with you.)

Clearly, the archetypal business Gerber is thinking about is a widget maker. But the distinction works very well for musicians too – possibly more obviously, indeed, than for widget manufacturers.

Our commodities are things like performances: in the factory of the rehearsal room we put together a performance of Handel’s Messiah, and then deliver that commodity to our customers on a pre-determined date at a pre-determined place, at a pre-determined price.

But our product is something different. Our product is the subjective experience of each person who comes to the concert. How do they want to feel as a result of witnessing that performance? Uplifted? Connected with tradition? Cultured? Nostalgic?

And how would those product desires be different if we were delivering a different commodity? Would the same customers want the Messiah-induced sense of participating in a long-established seasonal tradition as would want the Stimmung-induced sense of discovery and artistic adventure?

I guess that’s just a way of saying that different musics have somewhat different audiences (which we knew already). But it does give a means to understand the needs and motivations that underlie people’s decisions to listen to performances, and that in turn can guide the way we prepare – and package - our commodities.

Arguably, the musicianly focus on honouring the composer’s intentions is a very commodity-oriented perspective. Of course, if our audiences care about that – if what they want from our performance is the feeling that they are connected with the creative imagination of a great mind – then we are wise to focus on this. But that may not be the only thing, or even the primary thing, our listeners want to experience, and if we spend a bit of time thinking about product as well as commodity, maybe we can better meet their needs.

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