We’ve all heard of the concept of managing your “personal brand”, right?

Typically this doesn’t really mean anything more complex than managing your reputation, but even so people tend to find it a bit “icky”, since it mixes the impersonal language of business with the far deeper subtleties of ourselves as human beings.

Certainly I don’t much care for it.  It is kind of degrading thinking of yourself as a commercial unit like that – but arguably it’s appropriate, since the similarities between us and businesses are more similar than they at first appear.

You see just like businesses we navigate a system made up of other things similar to us, but different (i.e. other people).  Just like businesses we have a notion of success or failure within that system.  And also, just like businesses that success or failure is built on the responses of others to our actions.

In addition to concepts like “personal brand”, we also sometimes see this parallel being drawn with the use of the word “market”.  People talk of the “job market” and the “dating market” – recognising the dynamic similarities between these fields and those in the commercial world.

Although this is a cold and cynical way of reading human interactions, it does have the potential to yield valuable insights.  One of the main reasons for this is because a lot of strategic analysis has been conducted in the business world, seeking to understand the “system dynamics” of markets.  If we accept that human systems have similar characteristics to business ones, we can translate this analysis across categories, and as a result better understand our own behaviour and performance – as well as developing a more sophisticated understanding of the ideas themselves.

In this piece I wanted to do just that with the idea of “commodification” – and ask whether we, as people, can be guilty of treating ourselves as commodities, and the negative consequences that might bring.

Now although I’m sure everyone here knows what commodification and “commodity behaviour” are in a general sense, let’s just break them down a little to get us on the same page.

When a product is commodified that means it offers the same value as the other products around it.  As a result the only way it can succeed and get competitive leverage is to find a way of offering “more for less” – either by reducing prices, giving more for the same price, or both.  There are loads of successful businesses playing the commodity game, typically via finding economies of scale or manufacturing tricks that enable them to undercut the competition.  All we need to understand about commodification for our purposes here however is that it basically boils down to trying harder.  Doing what others are doing, but somehow doing it a little bit more – through spend, effort, whatever.

The alternative of course is differentiation: getting leverage by offering something unique rather than more of what everyone else is offering.

Pretty straight forward stuff.

Now clearly although both approaches can be very successful, nobody would choose commodity behaviour if they could avoid it.  That’s why most strategy involves finding paths to differentiation.  However if you think about it, you’ll see that in our own lives we often choose commodification – trying to offer more for less – as our default position.

For example let’s examine those two “markets” we mentioned before – jobs and dating.

When it comes to jobs, naturally most of them can be done comfortably and effectively by a huge number of people.  There isn’t “that one special person” required to fill a given role; loads of people will do.  This means therefore that the job market has tendencies towards commodification built into it from the start.  As a result the way that most job-seekers attempt to find success in it is predictable: they’ll treat themselves as commodities and try to offer “more for less”:

All of this is totally normal, just as commodification amongst businesses is totally normal.  All other things being equal, the person who “bleeds” the most will take the prize.

However what is obvious is that, as a job-seeker, none of these measures are particularly appealing.  They all involve pain of some description.  And they all represent a power imbalance between “buyer” and “seller”.  Therefore, just like a strategic business, a strategic job-seeker may look for an alternative in the form of differentiation.

Maybe if it’s a sales role they will have a well established relationship with a client the business hopes to win.  Maybe they will have an unusual but relevant qualification, or skill.  Maybe they come to the interview with a particular idea they’d like to implement in the job which the company never thought of before.  Maybe they are the niece of the boss.  Who knows, but the point is that they bring a unique quality to the table that changes the game.

Suddenly effort and pain are no longer the deciding factors.  Indeed maybe the “fundamentals” of the role suddenly cease being important all together.  They have something the company wants, and the power dynamic radically shifts.  In certain circumstances the shift may be so pronounced that it is the employer who becomes the commodity, not the employee.  Maybe the employee has got something so differentiated that they are simply doing the rounds in order to sell their services to the highest bidder.  Who’s taking the pain now eh?

We can see a similar dynamic within organisations when it comes to promotions.  Something I noticed when I was employed was that people tended to think that if they did a “good job” at whatever their role was, they would eventually be rewarded with a promotion.  This again is self-commoditisation, and isn’t smart systems thinking.  If you are simply doing a “good job” then you are right where the company wants you to be.  Why would they give themselves a headache moving you somewhere else?

(This is the root of the “Peter Principle”, a concept I adore which states that people will get promoted to “the level of their incompetence”.  In other words people will continually get promoted out of roles they’re good at until they hit a role they’re bad at, where they’ll stay indefinitely.  A company that falls for this trap is, in theory, destined to have poor performers in every role – hence their well justified wariness in promoting people just because they’re doing a “good job”)

Ironically the people most ripe for promotion are not those who are a perfect fit for their current role, but those who are an awkward fit.  Those who are doing something a bit aberrant which would have a more natural fit at a higher level – even if they are perhaps “worse” at their job than others around them.

In other words, those pursuing a differentiation strategy, rather than commodification.

How about dating?

Well, whilst I’ll be the first to admit that using such language in this more emotional context is extra-icky, once again we find that self-commoditisation is common.

People attempt to offer more for less by doing things such as:

Although a degree of this stuff is simply positive romantic behaviour (just as a degree of enthusiasm for a job is also desirable) you can see how when it becomes the primary point of leverage in an interaction it can tip over into self-damaging territory – becoming not only effortful, but potentially counter-productive (i.e. unattractive).

You don’t have to be some sort of love guru to recognise that…

The bottom line of all this is that no matter what the field, offering more for less is rarely the smartest way to go.  Aside from it being costly to you – in terms of money, pain, or dignity – you’ll inevitably find that your limits are pretty similar to everyone else’s.  And even if they aren’t, you’ll probably still be outmanoeuvred by someone offering differentiation.

Every penny you spend, every late night you pull, every drop of sweat and every pride swallowing moment – all of these are signals.  Signals that in whatever system you’re participating, you are the commodity – and you’re having to make up for lack of differentiation in some form or another.

On the other hand in those parts of your life that seem easy, where things just seem to happen for you, and that you barely have to think about?  Those are the places where you are differentiated.  Where you have some form of leverage that’s doing all the hard work for you, and allowing you to simply cruise.