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Monday, February 25, 2013



It seems we can never have enough help when it comes to organizing our thinking. As one of our favorite authors says -- via his main character -- in one of his novels, “I never know (for sure) what I think until I see what I say.” Writing down your thoughts and “displaying” them with colleagues always invites helpful dialogue and, usually, better overall thinking. Among the many organized-thinking tools that we have used so effectively for years now is the Benefit Ladder.


The tool probably owes its genesis to a combination of sources: first, from Abraham Maslow, the famous American clinical psychologist; and second, from the fairly common market research technique called “laddering.” Maybe you recall from school that Maslow created a “hierarchy of needs,” which he used to demonstrate that we humans require an ascending series of needs -- from basic physical ones, like hunger and thirst satisfaction -- in order to reach the higher, more emotional ones, like being loved and, ultimately, feeling “self-actualized.” One of the keys to fulfilling those higher-order needs was, in fact, the order of them: in other words, if one’s basic physical needs were not met, then the higher ones would not be me either. Said another way, the linkage in the hierarchy is critical.


As for the market research technique called laddering, it followed from Maslow’s theory. Roughly sometime in the 1970’s market research firms began adapting Maslow’s hierarchy theory for consumer interviews… as a way to better understand the linkages among consumer’s purchase behaviors and their end-values. Upon completion of a quantity of interviews, the researchers would construct a kind of chain-map that linked product features & attributes (at the lowest, most obvious-tangible level of the chain) to ultimate consumer values (at the highest level of the chain). In this way brand marketers might find potential emotional need-benefits that best fit their product’s attributes and functional outcomes.


So, in keeping with this history, the Benefit Ladder literally begins with meaningful product features and attributes (at the bottom-most rung) and progresses up to lower-order functional benefits, higher-order functional benefits, and finally to the highest-order emotional benefits (at the top-most rung). When completed, a Benefit Ladder—or even a series of different Benefit Ladders—enables a brand team to better understand and check out with target consumers the strongest, most competitive Benefit & Reason Why proposition for the Brand Positioning.



As you can see, each rung addresses a progressively logical link to the ones above it…starting with those meaningful features and attributes that suggest or explain all of the benefits. When completed, a given ladder enables a sound dialogue among the brand team. Sometimes, teams are inclined to load multiple benefit options into each of the benefit rungs; but we’ve found that it’s much better to limit the benefits per rung as much as possible -- and to construct multiple ladders instead. That way it’s much easier to perceive the logical linkages. In fact, prior to conducting any consumer research around potential Benefits & Reasons Why for a brand’s positioning, it’s really helpful to construct multiple ladders, assess each one’s soundness, and then select the best options for sharing with consumers or customers.


But, prior to sharing any ladders (or parts of ladders) with consumers or customers, we recommend the brand team “inspect” each ladder for the following:

  • Are the components of the ladder in the right places? For example, are what’s listed or bullet-pointed on the bottom rung truly features and attributes? And, are the emotional benefits truly expressive of feelings?
  • Are the components expressed as competitively as possible? If the brand can truly claim and support a product benefit such as “makes teeth cleaner and whiter,” is the benefit articulated this way? Or, if the ladder contains two consumer functional benefits, is at least one of them written as a legitimate advantage—as in “Bayer is the only leading brand that can effectively relieve pain (parity benefit) and also save your life (superiority benefit)?”
  • Is there an inherent integrity to the ladder? As you read from bottom to top, do the parts link tightly? Would a target consumer/customer see this integrity the same way?
  • Most important of all, does the ladder also link cohesively to the rest of the Brand Positioning? In other words, does it address (on a real or perceived basis) true needs the target consumer/customer has? Is the emotional benefit consistent with the target’s psychographic profile and driving attitudes? Does the ladder’s content fit with the brand character?

If you and your team haven’t used the Benefit Ladder, we highly recommend it. When you think about it, there’s a lot to like about the ladder as a metaphor for what we do in positioning our brands. Like a well-constructed brand positioning, a well-made, reliable ladder (one that you are confident to believe in and stick with):


(1) Requires that the bottom rungs be rock-solid--you cannot trust yourself to go to the next higher rung if one of the bottom rungs is wobbly or broken;

(2) Requires that all the parts be made of sturdy material and form into a single unit; and,

(3) Takes people up, to some higher place.

But one of the things we like best about ladders is that they are pretty darn simple.


Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney


Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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