The transition from coal heating to oil, gas, and electricity was a positive one for all but those who made their living off of cleaning up coal’s drawbacks. When coal heating became obsolete in the early 1900s, Kutol Products—the largest wallpaper cleaner manufacturer in the world—was sunk. With the problem of soot residue on wallpaper resolved, so was the need to buy Kutol, the soft putty designed for cleaning it up.
The future looked bleak for Joseph McVicker, Kutol cofounder. But happily, his sister-in-law Kay Zuvall was a nursery school teacher and saw another application for the putty: kids loved playing with it, molding it into shapes. Thus sparked Kutol’s rebrand: as Play-Doh.
“It’s a tale of technological obsolescence with a happy ending… That turned the company around,” Christopher Bensch, vice president of collections at the Strong National Museum of Play, told Smithsonian. It’s also a tale of divergent thinking—that’s critical to good branding even if your product’s main benefit doesn’t become obsolete.
There’s a test for creativity, designed in 1967, called the Alternative Uses Test: in a certain amount of time, you need to think of as many uses as possible for a brick as possible. An anchor, a bookend, a drawing aid to draw straight lines, etc. Viewed through this lens, branding is an exercise in seeing an item from all sides: a product’s unique value propositions are its functions that are both needed and distinctive. (Adding unique value, get it?) A plant-based dog food can be branded as extra healthy dog food, hypoallergenic dog food, or cruelty-free dog food. McVicker’s putty can be a wallpaper cleaner or a generative children’s toy. A brick can be (and can be branded as) a paperweight or a doorstop or a step to higher ground.
It’s important to test UVPs and see how consumers respond: you won’t necessarily know what UVPs appeal to the public until you test. And it won’t always be you that alights on your product’s most popular UVP: watch out for consumers pioneering an alternate function for your product, and don’t be afraid to pivot accordingly. In 2022, we know Pedialyte as a hangover cure (or sports drink) for adults, but its rehydrating formula was originally designed as a cheap way to combat dehydration caused by acute gastroenteritis. In the U.S. Pedialyte was originally marketed to children recovering from the stomach flu. It was only when people started tweeting about its hangover-related benefits—and when adult use rapidly increased, accounting for a third of Pedialyte’s total sales in 2015—that Pedialyte decided to lean into marketing the product to adults. Now, adult consumption accounts for more than half of Pedialyte sales. “The beauty of the product is the benefits haven’t changed,” Eric Ryan, senior brand manager for Abbott Labs, which manufactures Pedialyte,. “Pedialyte is still a medical-grade solution backed by advanced science.”
So—when considering products’ UVPs, examine all sides of the product as you would a brick or similar building block of the world. Stay reactive: as the world changes, so does the way your product is used. Remaining open to different niches for your product and viewing your UVPs as part of a back-and-forth with the consumer will help you find functions people genuinely need and want. You may even surprise yourself by the different, imaginative forms you mold your brand into.