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Making sense of those ‘features & benefits’ discussions

Features and benefits are two aspects you will find ad agency folks discuss in depth. Unfortunately, as we’re apt to do, agency people can turn a “features & benefits” discussion into a jargon-filled philosophical debate that, at face value, has little merit for the business concerned. Even worse, strategizing based on features/benefits often produces little more than a confused business owner. This confusion is most commonly a misunderstanding of, 1), exactly what is the difference between features and benefits, and 2) when should one be promoted over the other? This month’s column will seek to take the features/benefits discussion into the realm of practicality, and help to un-cloud the often murky issue.

First, let’s discuss the status quo. The fact is, advertising for most products and services focus on communicating features: low price, quality workmanship, good taste, excellent performance, etc. All of these aspects are features. If there were a Webster’s dictionary for advertising, feature would be defined as: “The one main selling point of the product/service.”

This differs from a benefit. A benefit is defined as the basic human desire that the selling point (feature) satisfies. For example, “quality workmanship” may be the leading feature of a particular product, but the consumer desire satisfied by this feature is something deeper and more innate, like social status. We can say that we buy premium vodka because it is made better — Absolut is “crafted” better than Aristocrat vodka. However, even among self-proclaimed “vodka snobs,” repeated blind taste tests demonstrate little to no difference in taste or preference. Why then, would we pay $23 for a bottle of Absolut, when we can get the same amount of Aristocrat, for $12? The answer, of course, is that Absolut vodka carries with it the connotation of social status.

Social status is the benefit attached to the “quality” of the Absolut brand.

This, of course, begs the question — should advertising promote product features, or brand benefits? Most business owners automatically default to promoting the features of their products/services. In fact, many of the world’s largest advertisers concentrate almost solely on features as related to their product lines. Proctor & Gamble, among the largest advertisers in the world, follows this strategy. Bounty paper towels hold more wetness than other brands; Charmin has more cushion; Scope gives you fresh breath, etc. The old McDonald’s campaign (and still the best) of “You Deserve a Break Today” would be an example of touting a brand benefit. McDonalds could say they serve great tasting food that is prepared quickly. However, the campaign takes it a step further — what’s the benefit of quickly prepared, great tasting food? The benefit, of course, is that you don’t have to cook and clean at home. You get a break.

It is not hard to argue that a benefits strategy is more impacting than a features-centric approach. Ultimately, the choice of which route to take should be determined by the particular product/service in question, and the marketplace conditions which surround it.

By answering two basic questions, you can pretty much determine which direction to go. 1) Does my product/service offer an aspect which is radically different, or a radical improvement, on similar existing ones; 2) Would it be difficult for a competitive product/service to match or improve on what I’m offering?

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then a features-oriented approach would work. If your product/service possesses a worthy feature that is a far improvement compared with other similar products, then by all means promote it. However, don’t forget that answering “yes” to the second question is just as important. If your advantageous feature is easily matched or topped by competition, then so are your sales.

Which brings us back to the benefits-oriented approach. By telling your audience the ultimate benefit that your product/service provides in their lives, you are somewhat insulating yourself from competitors developing parity or superior product features. A benefits-oriented approach builds value for your brand, thus creating brand loyalty. In most instances, it is easy for your competition to undercut price, tout product improvement or focus on some subjective aspect like “great taste.” It is much more difficult for competition to steal customers who have developed a loyalty to a particular brand, which is what benefits-oriented advertising fosters.

Basically, a compelling benefits approach, would be the preferred strategy, especially in a crowded marketplace. The features approach can move a lot of product in the short term, but doesn’t do much for building brand equity. However, like most all things in the marketing world, there is no one certain path. Benefit-oriented marketers often veer to a features-focused direction to introduce a new product or product improvement. Occasionally, a features-focused effort can evolve into one that addresses benefits. Whether you choose to go the features route or the benefits route, the important thing to remember is to never lose sight of the needs of those who make use of features and benefits — your audience.

Tim Mask is vice president of brand planning and development at Maris, West & Baker advertising in Jackson. He can be reached at tmask@mwb.com.

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