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January 19, 2022

Sabir x Sasha Der Avanessian

TL;DR

How can you stand out in a saturated commodity marketplace? How can you sell books in a world of Amazons and B&N, how can you succeed as a coffee brand when you’re going up against Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts? It’s a question that I posed to Sasha Der Avanessian, the founder of Harvest Dental and an expert in commodity branding and strategic marketing.

Sasha founded one of the biggest companies in the dental equipment industry. He entered an industry with a rigid and strict way of doing things and he adopted a strategy that led to instant and rapid growth.

His techniques, which focus on brand loyalty, value, and out-of-the-box thinking, can help others to match his success.

In this 60-minute video and 10-page guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to take on the big boys, tackle the toughest challenges, and thrive in any sector.

  • What are Commodity Brands? How do these brands different from luxury ones, what should you do if you sell a commodity product, and is it always a bad thing? The answer might surprise you.
  • Cost vs Value: You should not be defined by your price, and if you are, then you’re treading a very fine line. Companies can undercut you, and when they do, your business will deteriorate, and you’ll be left with nothing. Learn how to stop relying on price cuts and start focusing on value.
  • Are Loyalty Brands Worth It? We discuss the reason that so many loyalty programs fail and highlight the ways that you can improve them and offer something that is truly rewarding for your customers, something that will establish a connection and ensure they return time and time again.
  • Mission Statements: Do you have a mission statement? If so, it’s probably useless. You need them—every business does, but unless you follow the simple rules discussed in this guide, your mission statement could be hurting your business more than it helps.
  • Marketing Strategies: Whether you have a luxury product or a commodity product, these marketing strategies will help you to increase the lifetime value of your customers and ensure that you stay on course to hit your targets.
  • Playing the Game: Sasha gives some eye-opening insights into something dubbed the Finite Game vs the Infinite Game, and it’s something that all business owners need to hear.

And don’t miss the $100,000 insight! This is the single piece of advice that has helped Sasha to achieve his goals and has allowed him to become the successful businessman that he is today. If you run a business, own a startup, or are preparing to launch a company, this information could earn you over $100,000 in revenue.

There are snippets of advice like this peppered throughout every episode of This Week With Sabir and you’ll find many of them in this one, as well. But this particular recommendation is the biggest and best one yet.

Full Article

I have had the pleasure of speaking with many different branding experts here on This Week With Sabir.

Joe Yoon and Nick Aldis taught me about the importance of staying authentic when building a personal brand. They provided some insights into fitness, influencers, and marketing to Millennials and Gen Z.

Aron Levin talked about the world of influencer marketing and the way that you can use it (as a business) and benefit from it (as an influencer). But Sasha Der Avanessian has a story that is completely different, and he has built a brand that is distinct from everything else we’ve talked about over the last year or so.

Sasha’s company, Harvest Dental, operates in a small but essential marketplace. He sells dental equipment to dentists—a commodity, an essential service, and yet one that operates in the shadows.

After all, many consumers assume that their dental equipment (dentures, crowns, implants) is made by their dentist. They suppose that their dentist enters a backroom at the end of the day and labors away like some mad scientist as they craft synthetic smiles.

The dental laboratory doesn’t get much credit, has limited branding opportunities, and faces a series of exceptional challenges.

But by adopting some unique business and marketing strategies, and always putting his customers first, Sasha Der Avanessian has built one of the biggest companies in the sector and has used it to branch out into other areas.

It’s proof, if you needed it, that there is no brand too niche, no business too small, and no need too precise.

If you’re in the business of making money and appeasing customers—whether those customers are end-users or highly-skilled professionals—there’s always something you can do to hack your growth and there are always lessons to be learned from the world’s most successful brands.

That is ultimately the theme of the latest this Week with Sabir episode. You can watch the video in full below or read this article for an in-depth analysis of the points discussed.

Make sure you read to the end because Sasha provides a detailed rundown of his most valuable tips and it’s one of the best ones yet.

If you run a business, either in the B2B or B2C industry, these tips could easily earn you over $100,000 in value!

Selling In A Commodity Market

Sasha’s definition of a commodity product is one that can be easily found on the internet. It’s a product that is widely available and sold by many different companies, and when you’re in this market, it is hard to get noticed.

In the article about Magic Spoon’s founding, I discussed how difficult it can be to have a completely original idea, as it means that you need to create the supply chain, do the research, complete the testing, get the patents/trademarks, etc., Back then, I suggested that the best option was to enter a proven marketplace and make yourself heard.

The comparison I used was that it’s like being in a crowded theater, standing taller than everyone else, and saying, “Look over here”. It’s busy, it’s hectic, but if the attention is on you, none of that matters.

When you enter a commodity marketplace, it’s a little trickier. To use the same analogy, that theater is still packed and you’re still trying to get noticed, but now everyone else is 2 foot taller than you and has microphones.

It can feel like an impossible task, but it’s not. You just have to find some hidden value and do the thing that no one else is doing.

How Do We Differentiate?

There are two ways to differentiate. You either go cheaper or better.

The first is easier, but it’s not always possible and you will be undercut eventually. When that happens, you become a cheap commodity business that loses touch with its customers and only cares about the bottom line. It can work for some, but it’s not a good strategy to start with.

The better option is to provide value, to give customers something that encourages them to shop with you even if you’re not the cheapest.

We’ll discuss some of those options below, but firstly, it’s important to note that being original is simply not enough in this space. You can be the first, and during those early stages you’ll be the only one, but that won’t last.

As an example, let’s say that you find a type of fruit, coffee, or another commodity that is a delicacy in one country but pretty much ignored elsewhere. You buy it in bulk, brand it, and start selling it to customers in the United States.

To begin with, you can pretty much do what you want. No one is selling that product and so you can set the price, dominate the SEO, and establish yourself.

But as soon as you start doing well, a big brand will come along, buy larger wholesale quantities, and undercut you on the retail price.

Once they start doing well, other brands will follow, and at that point, you’re just another small brand in a big commodity marketplace.

Originality is great if you have it, but it’s not enough to sustain your business.

Here are a few of the things that Sasha discussed when talking about differentiating your brand from the competition and helping you to make your way in this cut-throat industry.

Inspire Your Customers, Don’t Manipulate Them

There are two forms of marketing: manipulation and inspiration.

Whether it’s online marketing, TV commercials, or influencer marketing; whether it’s old-school or viral, all marketing approaches fall into one of these categories.

A company that manipulates its consumers is one that generates short-term sales but fails in the long-term. A company that inspires, will have that customer for life, and will also influence their friends, family members, and everyone else they come into contact with.

Apple used inspiration marketing to enter a commodity marketplace and create a must-have product.

Before the iPod, MP3 players were ubiquitous. Businesses were giving them away as corporate gifts, everyone had one, and it seemed like a dead-end market. But then Apple came along with the iPod and created a must-have commodity.

People went from being sick and tired of seeing MP3 players, to desperately wanting the latest iPod.

Apple did this by creating an air of luxury, enabling inner creativity and expression, and making them stylish. It wasn’t just an MP3 player, it was a device for young, cool, and creative people; one that could be used when you were running, cycling, lifting weights, dancing, or working.

Owning it became a fashion statement, and that allowed Apple to grow into the mega-brand that it is today.

On the flip side, you have manipulation marketing, where the goal is to use trickery to convince consumers to buy.

Take breakfast cereals as an example.

Cereal manufacturers are notorious for using tricks that manipulate parents and children. They use green labels and manipulative copywriting to tell parents they’re getting something natural and healthy, even though it’s basically cornhusks sprayed with sugar and synthetic vitamins. They use cartoon characters and bright colors to attract kids, and these characters even look down so they can catch their eyes as they walk through the supermarket aisle.

If they wanted to inspire, they could go down the Magic Spoon route, creating cereals that really are healthy and beneficial and then inspiring people to make better choices for their health.

But they don’t, because it’s cheaper to make sugary cereal, it’s easier to sell, and it has a wider margin.

An inspiration brand is one that cares or gives the illusion of consideration. A manipulating brand is one that only focuses on profit.

The former brands are the ones you fall in love with, tell your friends about, and buy everything that they sell. The latter are the ones you use because you have to, and you’ll leave as soon as something better comes along.

You Need Value

People want good products for a fair price. That’s value. But if that price is the only differentiator in your business, you will lose out, because as noted above, someone will eventually undercut you.

Your value needs to be more than “we sell this common product at a cheap price”.

When you launch a business, you need to understand what your value will be.

As an example, let’s look at bottled water.

Company A sells bottled water for $5 per pack and Company B sells it for $10. Company A is the cheapest option, but it’s a generic brand that sells filtered tap water while Company B sources its product from glaciers in Iceland and has built a luxury brand story.

These companies can co-exist and flourish, but what happens when Company C comes along and promises Icelandic glacier water for $6 per pack?

At this point, Company B needs to rethink its strategy.

Maybe it pays its employees more, donates water to children in need, and builds wells in Africa. Maybe it doesn’t use plastic bottles and is a carbon-neutral company. If so, it doesn’t matter if it can’t compete with Company C in terms of price, because at least it can say, “If you give us that little bit more per pack, we promise it will be put to good use”.

This is 2021. Consumers are environmentally conscious. They are aware of their place in the world and understand the impact that their choices have. It’s not all about money anymore, and if you’re able to offer value like this, they will back you.

It’s something you can see across most industries.

Chocolate companies have gone Fairtrade, charging consumers higher prices so they can pay typically underpaid workers more money.

Food companies are turning their backs on palm oil. It’s not harmful to health and it’s a very cheap and useful ingredient, but it’s also damaging communities and habitats around the world, and many consumers are happy to pay a little more if it means they can avoid it.

You even have clothing and accessory companies that are making clothes from “lesser” materials and charging more for the pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, bamboo is a great material, but it’s not as comfortable or as strong as cotton and synthetic blends, and yet consumers are paying more to companies that use it, knowing that they’re doing their bit for the environment in the process.

If we go back to the example of Apple, it’s essentially a tech company that charges the highest price but doesn’t have the best tech.

I’m sure that Apple customers will disagree with me on that one, but if you look at hardware comparisons, Apple often falls short. In fact, there are products that cost half the price and are more powerful than Apple devices.

But Apple is able to hold up its hand and say, “We have the most user-friendly software”. It invests a lot of money into making sure its software is suitable for everyone and that it experiences less lag and fewer issues than Android and Windows platforms.

I know, for instance, that if I have $2,000 to spend on a laptop, a high-end Dell, Lenovo, HP, or Asus offers me the most bang for my buck. They are commodity brands that focus purely on the features and the price, and so I’ll probably get a bigger, better, and more powerful machine.

But I also know that if I want an enjoyable user experience, something that is great for my work (whether I am consulting, writing, designing, or coding) a MacBook is the better option.

Think about how crazy that is in any other context. If I were to tell you that I’ve just dropped $2k on a new TV, and say that while it doesn’t have 4K, isn’t OLED, doesn’t have apps, and is only 30 inches, but it’s a sought-after brand name, you’d probably call me an idiot and slap me in the face.

That’s the world that we live in, and it’s something we see with clothes, accessories, cosmetics, and many other industries.

If you provide the right value and create the right culture around your brand, it doesn’t matter how much someone undercuts you, because customers will always prefer your product.

Value Retention

When asked about their opinions on a brand after they stop using it, customers will often say that they were satisfied. It’s true for the majority of consumers, but if they were satisfied, why did they leave?

Ultimately, it’s not that you were doing anything seriously wrong, but that you were doing just enough. You had the bare essentials covered, and as soon as something better comes along, customers leave for greener pastures.

It’s like a job flipping burgers in McDonald’s when you’re young. You’re not there because they are giving you everything you want, and you have fulfilled a dream. When you leave, it’s not because they were mean or you hated the company, but because something better came along, something that was able to beat the mediocrity.

If McDonald’s had provided you with more value, such as a raise, a promotion, training, and more career prospects, you would have been given value and maybe you would have remained. But they didn’t, and so you went looking for an employer who could offer that value.

That’s how consumers operate.

If you own a restaurant and get a lot of customers through the door, it might mean that you have great food and everyone loves you, but it could also mean that you’re the only pizza place in town, your food is cheap, and people are settling for what they can get. They will tolerate you now, but as soon as a Pizza Hut opens down the street, they’ll all leave you.

Own The Loyalty

I talked briefly about the importance of loyalty schemes during my discussion with Sasha, noting how they work because many consumers sign up regardless. They have nothing to lose, they don’t want to miss out on anything (even if “anything” is just a few worthless discounts and a truckload of spam) and so they join.

But there is a disconnect between the customer and the program and it flies in the face of what a loyalty card should be.

It’s something that Patrick Givens touched upon in an early 2020 episode of This Week with Sabir when he insisted that brands need to have more continuity if they are hoping to connect with their customers. He was speaking in the context of smart voice technology, but it applies here as well.

Every time I go to my local store, I’m asked, “Do you want to sign up for our loyalty program?” even though I’m a member, have been a member for a while, and shop there on a regular basis. It’s the same person asking me the questions and I suspect that he probably recognizes me, but I also suspect that his bosses have told him to recite those words to everyone who makes a purchase.

After all, by targeting everyone like this, they acquire more sign-ups, but therein lies the problem, because it’s no longer about loyalty and making a connection and is all about data and profit.

As an e-commerce brand, you have the chance to make one of these programs work. You have the chance to make that connection.

I would be much happier if I walked into that store and they greeted me by name, asked me about the previous day’s purchase, and informed me that something I requested has just arrived in the stock room. That’s loyalty, that’s the experience that consumers want, and it’s one that you need to emulate as an e-commerce brand.

It’s about having a conversation and not simply making a transaction.

Sasha mentioned a book by James P. Carse that talked about finite games vs infinite games. The former is all about winning; the latter is about continuing the game. He noted how this corresponds to business and to the problem of loyalty.

Many brands are playing the finite game. They want to hit those short-term sales targets and see those immediate results, which often means making rash decisions like reducing prices. To someone playing the infinite game, however, it’s all about owning the moments that matter. They will find unique and creative ways to connect, to keep that game going, and to create a relationship that continues to pay off.

Sasha used marriage as an example of an infinite game. There is no winner (although there are certainly a lot of battles) and the goal is to build, nurture, and ensure the relationship is strong and long-lasting. It’s a much more rewarding experience and one that will be better for your mental and emotional health, not to mention your career, family, and pretty much everything else.

On the flip side, a finite game would be akin to a series of meaningless flings. They might be exciting in the short-term and they might get the payoff that you seek, but they are ultimately fruitless and if you keep playing that game, you’ll eventually grow tired, weary, and will lose touch with the things that matter.

Apple is a great example of a brand that is playing the infinite game to perfection. Through creative branding, innovation, customer support, and strategic marketing, it has created a legion of dedicated fans who will buy everything that the company sells.

Every year, consumers crowd outside Apple stores to buy the latest iPhone, even though it isn’t all that different from the one they bought the year before, or the year before that. It’s perfect branding and it works because Apple is willing to play the long game.

When other commodity brands are relying on Black Friday discounts and the Christmas rush, offering stacks of discounts to play the short game, Apple is focusing on innovation, timing its releases, and continuing to play the game.

Think about this for a moment: When did you last see an “everything must go” sale or a Black Friday sale at an Apple store? You haven’t, because they don’t exist, and they don’t exist because Apple is not solely focused on the transaction value.

It’s not all about multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns and flash branding, either. Sometimes being direct and genuinely trying to help is enough to make a connection.

Sasha used his own dental laboratory business as an example.

He noted that if someone approaches him and asks about dental equipment or products that he doesn’t sell, he won’t simply ignore them or send them packing with nothing more than a vague apology. Instead, he will find someone who does sell that product—be it a competing dental laboratory, dentist, or another dental equipment supplier—and provide them with a link.

He will then follow up that link a day or two later and ask them how things went—did they get what they were looking for, is everything okay?

It establishes a relationship and creates a culture of trust.

The idea of sending a prospective customer to a competing business may seem abhorrent to someone who is only playing the finite game, and therein lies the problem.

When you’re playing that game, it’s best to try and convince the customer that they want something that you have, even if it means they will inevitably return with a complaint when that product wasn’t what they were looking for. It means getting that transaction at all costs, even if it means that person will never return.

But if you genuinely try to help them and provide value, they are more likely to return, to buy from you in the future, and to recommend you to others.

If you’re focused on doing the best for your consumers, you’re always on the right path.

It’s something that Neil Patel mentioned during an early episode of this show. He talked about writing extensive SEO guides and then linking to his competitors, adding that if they have something valuable to offer his readers and highlight whatever point he is making, he will reference them. His ultimate goal is not to hoard all the clout but to write the most valuable content, and that’s what gives him the long-term respect of his readers.

That’s what allows him to dominate the infinite game.

The Best Strategy For The Infinite Game

True marketers sell to people who are just like them and they preach ideas that mean a lot to them.

It seems like an obvious statement to make, but it’s one that’s often overlooked in the world of business branding.

Take the mission statement as an example. It’s something that every business has, and it ostensibly forms a major part of their branding strategy, but rarely does it extend beyond a piece of paper.

I recall a situation where someone insisted that I was in violation of the mission statement and, to prove their point, recited it word for word in front of me. It was one paragraph, and they were reading it from a piece of paper. Despite working at the company for over 15 years and insisting that everyone should follow the mission statement, they didn’t know it by heart.

The mission statement was probably written by a copywriter. Maybe the CEO thought that it sounded great and so they put it on a plaque. But if it’s a genuine mission statement, then they should be living it, not simply reciting it like some meaningless mantra.

It should be a statement that means something to you and your customers, but it also needs to be genuine. If you’re lying just to impress them, they will know.

I recently encountered a site that was selling a variety of products it claimed were original, unique, and innovative. The word “unique” was used many times and was clearly part of the brand’s USP.

It seems that the owners assumed that if they told people a product was unique and couldn’t be bought anywhere else, they would believe it and buy it. But it was so blatantly obvious that the product wasn’t unique. In fact, it was being sold by hundreds of other companies and was listed on Alibaba for just 5% of what the brand was selling it for.

Of course, that’s the extreme, but it’s something that companies do all of the time. They claim one thing and then do another.

As another example, there are huge companies out there that claim to have industry-leading customer support, and yet they don’t have a phone number, their Live Chat is always offline, and it takes a week to get an email response.

The Question

Toward the end of our conversation, Sasha talked about a major turning point in his life, one where he was desperate to increase his revenue and doubting whether he had done the right thing. It culminated in a question that he asked himself, one that helped him find his path:

If harvest dental was gone today, what would my customer miss about me tomorrow?

It’s the question that every entrepreneur needs to ask—what makes me unique and what will people miss about me? If the answer is that they will miss a lot and your absence will make their life difficult, you’re onto something big. If not, maybe you’re not in the right industry.

It’s a good question to ask when you are deep in your business journey. Not only will it tell you when it’s time to pivot, but if you are doing things right, it’ll give you the motivation you need to continue.

If you’re down in the dumps because you’re working hard and only seeing the slightest progress, and then you realize just how much worse off your clients would be without you, it could be the incentive you need to double-down and keep going.

The $100,000 Question For Winning In A Commodity Marketplace

Sasha has been in this industry for a long time. He has had a lot of success with building a business, branding, and finding his way in a commodity marketplace, so his advice could generate 6, 7, and even 8-figures of value for anyone seeking to do the same.

At the end of our discussion, I asked him the $100,000 question—the advice that can earn others at least 6-figures in value.

His advice was threefold.

The first part was to change your mindset, assess your business, and look for unique opportunities.

He used the analogy of referring to the mind as fertile soil. Anything you plant there will grow. If you focus on positivity and change, you will reap the rewards in time. If you rely on assumptions, foster negativity, and focus on tired business cliches, then you’ll become a tired cliche yourself.

It reminds me of what Paul Butler said back in a 2020 episode when he noted that businesses are rooted in false assumptions (I assumed that this was my demographic, and so that’s what I focused on; I assumed that this was why my business was failing, and so that’s what I tried to fix) and until they are eradicated until those roots are ripped out, the business can’t begin anew.

Ignoring conventions and striving for originality was also a big part of Sasha’s advice. Research into your competitors, use their data to understand them, and discover what their conventions are—how do they answer the phone, what level of service do they provide, what is their USP? If you learn all of these things and discover that you’re essentially just mirroring them, it’s time to change.

You have to understand how the box works before you can think outside of it. In business, to conform is to be invisible.

The next tip was to discover what it is that you want to be known for.

If you decide that you want to be known for being committed, then find ways of making that work in all parts of your business. How can you tweak Live Chat, email support, and phone support in a way that proves you are committed to the cause?

How does your service change and why is your statement unique to you? Because if it isn’t unique, then you shouldn’t be saying it.

You wouldn’t create a mission statement that simply said, “We have customers and sell products,” because that’s what every company does. By the same token, if your response to “How are you committed?” is “we answer all customer queries quickly and deliver a good service,” you’re basically saying the same thing because every company does that!

The final part of Sasha’s advice was to create a disruptive value proposition, one that your customer doesn’t expect. It should be meaningful to them, they should know that you didn’t have to do it and that it cost you something, either in money or time.

If you can create those moments of surprise and delight, you’ll have your value and you’ll see the growth you’re looking for.

About Sasha Der Avanessian

Sasha Der Avanessian is the founder and CEO of Harvest Dental Products, a manufacturer of dental prosthetic materials. Starting Harvest in his two-car garage in 2004, Harvest has grown to be distributed in over 70 countries globally and has been the recipient of multiple best-in-class product awards. Sasha leads the integrated branding strategy for Harvest across all communication platforms, including product design and development, creative expression, strategic marketing, and user experience. He is an avid lover of people, enjoys blogging, mentoring, and lecturing on the subjects of business and branding, and is recognized as 1 of the Top 10 most influential people in dental technology.

Industry Recognitions

* 2021 Who’s Hot, Journal of Dental Technology

* 2018 10 Most Influential People in Dental Technology, Inside Dental Technology

Follow Sasha On Social Media

* Instagram https://instagram.com/sashaderav

* Facebook https://facebook.com/sashaderav

* Linked In https://www.linkedin.com/in/sasha-der-avanessian-33a66911/

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