How to work out what are you really selling
“If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, you will find a broad, hard beaten road to his house.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you build it, he will come.
Field of Dreams
[Like many film quotes, that one’s been misquoted as “built and they will come”.]
Except he or they didn’t come.
Thinking all you have to do is open a shop, build a website or shout loud enough about your shizzle and customers will come running to buy from you is one of the greatest misconceptions in marketing.
The high street and the internet are littered with empty shops and websites with no visitors that thought that was a good idea.
Yes, you should build something people need.
But that’s just the starting point.
In fact, no-one buys anything just because they need it.
Buyers are only vaguely interested in any particular product or service for its features. They need more than that to get their credit cards out.
We actually buy with our hearts, not our heads — The Diderot Effect explains this.
That’s why despite taxes making a basic car in Singapore cost more than a luxury one in the US or Europe — there’s not much room to encourage car ownership — the country sells more Ferraris per capita than anywhere else in the world.
No-one needs a Ferrari in Singapore, it’s one of the worse places in the world to drive one. The speed limit is 90 kph.
Then why do people no buy them?
Because they want them.
It all starts with a character and a problem
The world turns on narratives and stories. We have them rattling round in our heads day and night.
Stories start with a character.
On its own, a character is boring — it could be just an extra, a cameo or walk-on so much it adds no value.
It needs a problem – what they call in the storytelling business an inciting incident, a moment in the story that kicks it all off.
- The moment that Luke decides he wants to go and fight the Empire.
- When Captain Ahab discovers he doesn’t like whales much.
- Or when Robin Hood decides to take up against the Sheriff
In terms of your marketing, it’s the moment your prospect decides there’s a problem. It’s the reason to decide to buy from you.
No one buys anything unless they have a good reason to do so. The inciting incident is that reason.
There are two fundamental levels of problem
First, there’s the external problem, the one that you are aware of.
For example, you need your computer fixed because the hard drive has failed. Or you need your car fixed because the engine won’t start.
But those in themselves are not reasons for you to buy one or other service.
You need a greater, interior reason. The REAL problem that needs solving.
If my hard drive fails,
I can’t do any work.
If I can’t do any work, I won’t get paid.
If I can’t get paid then I can’t eat or go out.
In the extreme case, if I can’t go out and I can’t eat, nor can my wife.
And she might leave me.
If my car won’t start, I can’t go out.
I can’t get to work. If I can’t get to work,
I can’t get paid … you can see a theme here.
I’m not really concerned about my wife leaving me, but you get the point. And as I write this I can’t go out anyway.
Most business owners don’t know the science behind this. It all comes down to human psychology.
The Pleasure Principle
All human activity is pulling away from pain and pushing towards pleasure.
We want to avoid bad things and aspire to good things.
It was Sigmund Freud that discovered this with the development of the idea of the Pleasure Principle in the late nineteenth century.
The Pleasure Principle is in many ways the manifestation of child-like desires.
“I want it and I want it now because it gives me a kick”.
Later, he developed the Reality Principle looking at what we do as we mature.
The Reality Principle is the realisation that we can’t have it all now and there could even be some pleasure in delayed gratification.
Both these principles have a role in marketing using fear — people are more motivated by loss than by gain — and aspiration — people want to be better.
The push and pull between the pleasure principle and the reality principle are where advertising comes in.
The old features and benefits debate
Even now, businesses still try to sell purely on features.
“Buy my stuff because look at all the things it can do”!
It was successful for PC World for many a year. Their ads only talked about the processing power and disk space of all the PCs they sold. Not what you could do with them.
But their demographic lapped it up.
But features are the building bricks, not the house.
Selling something on features rarely works because they bore prospects — benefits convince them to buy.
A lot of the time. Most of the time.
Features are standard and generic
You have to have them because your pitch will sound like empty waffle if you don’t. But few people care about them.
Benefits, on the other hand, are things we can get excited about
They’re personal (when done right), they apply to a specific set of customers — sometimes even, a single customer.
The trick is to assess your prospect’s situation, then map each feature to their needs.
The link between the ability to do something and a problem or desire turns a feature into a benefit
So at each stage of the sales process, ask yourself, “So what?”.
Let’s have a look.
Us human beings are quite insecure and we need reassurance. A simple feature is not a reason to buy a product. We need to know why.
If you say:
Our software will keep track of all your transactions, calculate what’s due and produce statements every month in just one click”
Disclaimer 1: I don’t know if software exists to do that.
Now let’s change that to make it more benefit-focused.
We know you’re looking to save time and money in your business so I’d like to show you our automation features. We record all your transactions seamlessly and do all the calculations so you don’t have to. We produce statements, chase payments and reconcile the whole lot in the blink of an eye.
Disclaimer 2: that is obviously bad draft copy but you get the point.
Answering the silent “So what?” in your explanation will force you to personalize your messaging.
Every feature has a higher value. Otherwise, it’s worthless.
This computer has an i5 processor and 16GB of RAM.
That means it can handle complex tasks in a fraction of the time your old computer can.
You’ll get finished quicker and be home in time for tea.
You’ll see more of your partner and your kids
You’ll be happier. It always comes down to being happy
That’s obviously a crude example and there purely for illustrative purposes. But if you pepper a pitch with features your buyer will feel you don’t really understand the situation they’re in because you’re not addressing the real problems.
You’re inadvertently deemphasising the things that really matter to your prospect.
By spending a little time expanding on mere features, you’ll enable your prospect to see why they are important.
So to successfully sell benefits, leave out anything that doesn’t relate directly to your prospect.
Ask yourself, “Does it help them survive and thrive?”
People are looking for better. They won’t buy unless they can see how the product will improve their lives.
People just wanna be better versions of themselves
In 1957, Pepsi was in a bad way. You could get one for half the price of a Coke but was still being outsold by its biggest rival by six to one.
Coca Cola, on the other hand, was riding high. It represented everything that the American public thought about its good and wholesome self. In many ways, Coca Cola was “brand USA”.
Then, in 1963, they decided to address the issue. The problem was that their product was almost identical to Coke but Pepsi was having its backside whipped at every corner.
Seemingly, they had nowhere to turn. So they got inventive. Instead of focusing on the product, they focused on the people buying it. Or those that should be buying it.
That group became known by the very 1960s term, The Pepsi Generation.
For the first time, advertising focused on people and outcomes, not the product.
Aspirational advertising was born.
It tapped into a basic human need. A desire to be better. The pleasure principle.
People are interested in what that particular product gives them, what they will become when they use it.
Remember, people buy with their hearts, not with their brains (and that includes you).
So life is easier because the washing machine is better at getting out stains, even little Johnny can get his sports kit clean for tomorrow even though he forgot it had been festering in his bag for the last three days.
The business runs a bit smoother because the billing system is more reliable and new processes are in place.
The weekends are more fun because it’s possible for people to jump in the new car and go wherever they want without worrying about getting lost because the GPS will mean they won’t have to argue over the map anymore.
They are better versions of themselves.
But look at my great qualifications, my great product … oh, wait a bit
- As a personal trainer, your clients will care less about your qualifications or your Boot Camp than how they’re going to look and feel after six sessions with you. They want the rewards of feeling great. It’s not about losing weight, it’s about feeling great.
- Someone that buys a weight loss product doesn’t want to lose weight per se. They want the feeling of having clothes that fit, to enjoy looking at themselves in the mirror or feeling proud of themselves for having achieved a goal.
The Apple question
When Steve Jobs return to Apple in 1996, all computer advertising was based around features. RAM, disk size, processor speed. If you knew what that meant, you were on the inside.
And many people weren’t. They were disconnected from technology because they felt it didn’t relate to them.
But he’d co-founded Pixar during his time away. They made one or two good films. His experience there had taught him about storytelling.
He understood that the majority of computer buyers were less interested in hard disk size and RAM than they were in lifestyle and looking and feeling good.
The iPod wasn’t the first digital music player.
- Remember Creative Labs? They had one, the Creative Zen. Discontinued as late as 2012.
- The Zune is probably best forgotten. Most of us have.
- Sony should have been well placed to clean up with a digital Walkman. But their mp3 player, like Betamax, was sidelined by a better message (and this time, by a better product).
Steve Jobs wasn’t interested in RAM, speed or anything like that. Apple doesn’t sell computers or devices and no adverts mention features.
He focused on what you got.
1,000 songs in your pocket.
It was tangible, compelling and people loved it. Their whole record collection in their pocket on the move.
And headphones that made you look pretty cool.
Apple exists to fulfil a need that some people have to have the latest and greatest technology and want to have fun using it.
Others just want the cheapest computer or device and there is any number of providers that will give it to them. Like Kindle.
In a different way, Disney is the same.
They advertise a “magical” experience for the entire family. People don’t visit for the rides, they certainly don’t visit for the food. They visit for the experience. And not a cheap experience either. $87 ahead for a one-day ticket to the park with food and lodgings on top.
We are all selling something or other.
Even if it’s not in exchange for money. We sell ideas, points of view or anything else people have to be persuaded or moved to do. The techniques needed for getting someone to vote for you are pretty similar to those used for getting someone to buy something for you.
Simon Sinek worked this out a long time ago.
For example, you are selling your reputation.
Customers have to be able to trust your offerings will work in the way you promise and if something happens you’ll take care of it and live up to your side of the bargain.
Customers really expect that nothing will go wrong with your product but they do expect you to fix problems when they go wrong.
They want the intangible things that your brand promises whether it’s luxury or liability or homely warmth or social awareness. It’s not really about the product, it’s about the lifestyle of the story that you offer along with it.
Take a look at how you sell your business to customers.
But this is what it’s really about. This is the important bit.
Ask yourself one question, what does my customer get out of this? This isn’t just a question of features and benefits, it’s about outcomes.
This requires a big dose of empathy and knowing what your customer is thinking. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good opportunity to ask them.
Then ask yourself the question, “what do my customers want?” What do they aspire to? Again, surveys are your friends. Take your ideal client data, particularly the psychographics and compare it with your hunches.
Now take a look at your marketing, your messages, your social media and your website copy. Do they match up? Are you conveying what your prospects actually aspire to or what you think they might want just because you provide that service?