Understanding Emotional Benefits – Part 2

In my previous article, I described the different types of product benefits and how they are connected in what is called the “benefits ladder”.  In this article, I will explain how to identify the different types of benefits associated with your brand and when it makes sense to focus on emotional benefits in your marketing communications.

Review of the Benefits Ladder

When evaluating a product or service, people generally examine the features or attributes of the offering such as “all-welded hull” or “5-Year Warranty”.  These attributes, in turn, relate to one or more functional benefits (what the feature/attribute does for them) such as “durability” or “reduced financial risk”.  The delivery or attainment of these functional benefits impacts how someone feels about themselves (Emotional Benefits) – “feel safe in rough water” or “made a wise purchase decision”.  The linkage between attributes, functional benefits and emotional benefits is referred to as the “Benefits Ladder”.

Items further down the ladder are very rational, specific and consciously considered.  If a customer made a list of the pros and cons when shopping various brands, their list would likely be full of features (including prices) and functional benefits.

Emotional benefits, on the other hand, tend to be more abstract and reside at the subconscious level.  In fact, customers are generally not consciously aware of the connection between a functional and emotional benefit.  It is just something that makes sense or resonates with them.  And this is what makes identifying emotional benefits so tricky to uncover.

Benefits LadderUncovering Functional and Emotional Benefits

Because of their primal or instinctual nature, you cannot uncover Emotional Benefits by simple direct questioning (why did you buy that boat over some other?).   This is because people will almost always respond at the more conscious attribute or functional benefit level.

To dig into some of the subconscious underpinnings of their behavior, an excellent approach (referred to formally as “Laddering Research”) is to conduct in-depth, 1-on-1, discussions with target customers.  During these discussions, the question flow resembles a therapy session where you iteratively ask two follow-up questions: Why and What.

You start by asking a key question related to your business objective.  For example, why did you choose the brand of boat that you did?

After the person responds, you ask “why” follow-up questions to move up the ladder (towards Emotional Benefits).  You use “What” questions to move downstream (Attributes or Functional Benefits).  Let me give you an example for bass boats.

Q.  Why did you buy that brand of bass boat?

A. I liked its “fishability” (Functional Benefit)

Q. What makes it more “Fishable”?

A. I like the large front casting deck and ample rod storage? (Attributes)

Q. Why is “Fishability” important to you?

A. It will help me catch more fish? (another Functional Benefit)

Q. Why is catching more fish important to you?

A. It makes me feel like a professional angler (Emotional Benefit)

In reality, it can take several “why” type questions to ultimately get at the subconscious, emotional benefit.  Whether you do it yourself or have someone do it for you, here are some things to keep in mind when conducting the interviews:

  • Interviews MUST be conducted 1-ON-1 (in person, over the phone, or by online video chat).  Some would rather do a focus group type discussion because it is often a little cheaper and easier for company employees to observe.  But, you can’t go “deep” with an individual in a group setting and social-shading (modifying your answers to socially acceptable responses) is often an issue.
  • Do a MINIMUM of 15 to 20 interviews.  In my experience, you need at least this amount to start uncovering patterns vs. “one-off” responses.
  • Allow AT LEAST 45 minutes.  For most products and services, there are multiple functional benefits and each important benefit needs to be delved into to identify the corresponding emotional benefits.  Plus, as mentioned above, it might take several iterative “why” questions to eventually uncover the emotional payoff.
  • Describe the Process UPFRONT.  Repeatedly asking “why” and “what” questions could be frustrating and annoying to your subjects. But, if you explain what you are doing and why in the beginning, they will likely feel more comfortable with the process and catch on quicker.
  • RECORD each session.  Each interview is lengthy and can go in a variety of directions.  Plus, people typically use slightly different words to describe similar things.  But, by carefully reviewing the audio files, you can document each interview and identify the common patterns or themes across respondents.

Should You Focus on Emotional Benefits?

While focusing on emotional benefits can be extremely powerful and help engender a higher level of brand commitment, it is not appropriate for every business.  Here are some things to keep in mind to help decide whether this is the right direction for you:

  • NIke Just Do It AdThey are Not Tradeoffs.  It is not about deciding whether to do only functional ads or emotional ads.  In many cases, you can and should do both.  Here is an example of a previous Nike ad that combined functional aspects (Comfortable, Stylish, Quality) with Emotional Benefits (feeling of accomplishment/achievement).
  • You need to lay the groundwork first.  In order to be effective emotionally, you need to first distinguish your brand or business on some important functional benefit(s) in order for the connection to make sense.  For example, the classic Skeeter “Eat. Sleep. Fish” campaign was brilliant.  However, it would not have worked if the brand had not first established itself as a boat for hard-core or tournament anglers.  But, because if was already known for these things, the message that Skeeter is for those who live to fish suddenly made complete sense.
  • Don’t be too explicit.  Much of the power of Emotional Benefits stems from the fact that they exist at a primal or subconscious level.  This makes them much harder to dismiss than functional benefits and attributes.  But, you don’t want to be too overt in making the connection between buying your product and the corresponding emotional benefit.  This raises the emotions to a conscious, and often unappealing, level which diminishes its effectiveness.

Let me give you an example from my own business.  I could say that companies should hire me for my excellent research skills and extensive knowledge of boating/recreation industries (Functional Benefits).  And, from this, you will receive tremendous insights that will make you look and feel smarter to your boss and perhaps get you a raise (Emotional benefits).  But, saying that you should hire Left Brain Marketing because it could get you promoted might seem ridiculous.  While it might be true, I probably wouldn’t want to be that explicit 😉

Concluding Thoughts

Focusing on Emotional Benefits in your marketing communications can be extremely powerful.  To uncover the Emotional Benefits associated with your brand or business, use iterative “why” and “what” questions in 1-on-1 discussions with target customers.

However, focusing on emotions is not right for everyone.  It is usually best to have a firm foundation or association with an important functional benefit in order for the emotional connection to make sense.  In the case of Nike, the brand had to first establish itself as a performance shoe company before the more aspirational and emotional “Just Do It” campaign could succeed.