What people buy and why

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If you want to market your product or service, it helps to know why people buy. What you think you sell and what people hope to buy may not be the same thing.

Your product or service works at three levels for the customer:

  • Features
  • Benefits
  • Hopes and dreams

Some highly simplified examples will make the point. First, off road cars. They are a curious because the vast majority rarely, if ever, go off road. They are city cars. So the main benefit of the car (going off road) seems  pointless, until you look at what the manufacturers advertise. They advertise a dream, a self image which appeals to a certain sort of city dweller.

Features Benefits Hopes and Dreams
6.0 litre engine Power Be macho
Four wheel drive Goes off road Be the adventurer
High driving position Safe Save the kids and look down on everyone else

Second, a graduate recruiting proposition. Teach First attracts top graduates (over 7% of Oxford and Cambridge graduates apply every year) to teach in tough schools for two years for half the salary and twice the grief of working in a bank or consulting firm. So why does it work?

Features Benefits Hopes and Dreams
Teach in challenging school Raise levels of achievement and aspiration Fulfil personal ambition to make a difference
Over 1000 top graduates Mutual support and help Have fun; build your network
Leadership training course Attractive to top employers Fast start your career of choice

As producers, the fatal trap is to fall in love with our own product: we get so excited about the amazing features of our product that we lose sight of what the customer is looking for. Even cleaning products have hopes and dreams, about being house proud. Selling Fairy Liquid in Scotland, I found working class homes all put their bottle of Fairy Liquid on a shelf in the kitchen window, where everyone could see it. Bizarre Scottish habit? No. Fairy Liquid is the premium detergent, and so it was a simple way of saying, for a few pennies extra, that the home maker had high standards and was hose proud. The families with own label detergent carefully hid their product away in a kitchen cupboard, to avoid the shame of being seen to be penny pinchers.

At the other end of the scale, cosmetics are sold purely on the basis of forlorn hopes and dreams: buy our product and look young, beautiful and glamorous. Just like the car maker or Fairy Liquid, they will still refer to some of the features of the product, to give the consumer the reason why they can believe the product claims. For cosmetics, the feature is likely to be some exotic sounding ingredient which has been tested in some plausible way.

‘Features, benefits, hopes and dreams’ sounds obvious but it is not. Producers focus on features too much. And consumers will not tell you what their hopes and dreams are. Coca Cola made the classic mistake of thinking of their product in terms of features and benefits: when they were being beaten by Pepsi’s “taste challenge” they responded with an improved product. Mistake. They were not just selling sweet fizzy pop. They were selling a culture, a dream of America and an identity. The market research never told them that and they never thought of that themselves.
No one says they buy Fairy Liquid to keep up with their neighbours, but they do. Instead, they play the producer’s game when they are asked why they buy: they start talking about the features of the product (it lasts longer and is mild on hands).  So you need more than research and marketing by the numbers to market well: you need creativity and insight.


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