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The Myth of Commoditization

Conventional wisdom has it that most innovations eventually become commodities, bought on the basis of price and nothing else. Citing a quotation by a Columbia Business School professor that epitomizes that point of view -- "In the long run, everything is a toaster" -- the author uses the technological history of toast to persuasively undermine that notion. Drawing on the wisdom of economists Ronald Coase, Paul Samuelson, John Maynard Keynes and Adam Smith, he makes a historical case that commodity is not destiny, and uses brands such as Starbucks, Evian, Dasani, Scott Paper, Yahoo and Google, Hoover and Dyson to illustrate the point.

The danger, he says, is that executives, entrepreneurs and investors may buy into the commodity designation far more often than they should, making the commodity ideology a self-fulfilling prophecy. Businesses that believe that today's breakthrough is tomorrow's toaster understandably fear rapidly diminishing returns from their innovation investments, and the economics of "good enough" innovation become good enough. The potential of ideas is inherently undervalued. Sustainable innovation opportunities are either missed or dismissed. Intense price competition, the author argues, may not signal the prolific presence of substitutable commodities but rather an arid absence of innovation. That signal, he says, should give a clear and present incentive for executives and entrepreneurs to innovate in order to differentiate; to identify hidden or untapped potential for new value creation.

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