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 Monday, March 7, 2016




                 "People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits;
                  they buy ¼ inch holes."

                                     --Old Ad Agency Proverb



One of our most trusty positioning tools is the Benefit Ladder.  We can’t recall any positioning or communications work that we have done with clients over the years when we haven’t used the tool.  Most marketers are familiar with the concept, if not the actual ladder-tool itself.  The concept borrows from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with the most basic “survival” needs--food, clothing, shelter--at the bottom of the hierarchy (or at the bottom-most rung of the ladder) and more emotional needs at the top (you remember what Maslow placed at the top, right? Self-Actualization).  What’s often overlooked when recalling Maslow’s hierarchy is what one might call the “middle needs”—those between having food and shelter and feeling fully self-actualized.  These include such things as being able to work, provide for one’s family and safety, being able to engage in intimate relationships, and so on.


But when you translate Maslow’s concept into a benefit ladder, these middle need-benefits really stand out—for two reasons:  (1) they become what we like to term Customer or Consumer Benefits, meaning, what’s in it for the customer/consumer, or more colloquially, “What’s In It For Me”--WIIFM; and (2) they provide the logical linkage or “bridge” between the lower order Product Benefits (what the product actually does), and the higher order Emotional Benefits (how it all makes one feel).  Again, most marketers are familiar with lower and higher order benefits; but what we’ve observed is that too many of today’s marketers overlook, as with Maslow’s middle level needs, the mid-level WIIFM benefits.  They have either tried and failed to develop a product that does something meaningfully different (i.e., a lower order Product Benefit), or they have ultimately been matched by competition on whatever differentiated Product Benefit they once had.  And, in this situation, they believe, their best recourse is to “leap” to some meaningful, higher order Emotional Benefit…and hope to win there.




More and more, however, we are convinced that many brands have a better opportunity to win with a well-conceived WIIFM benefit than they do by leaping ahead to an Emotional benefit.  Why?  Well, for a number of reasons…


1. There’s a long history of brands winning with a move to the “middle” benefit.  When it was launched, Pampers was a legitimate discontinuity…versus traditional, cloth diapers.  As such, it offered a true differentiated Product Benefit—significantly better absorption and containment.  But it wasn’t until the brand moved up the ladder to what this better containment meant to babies and parents that the brand really took off.  Better absorption and containment meant keeping baby’s skin drier and free from diaper rash.  Moving forward in time, similarly, the Tide Brand—supported by a relentless string of product improvements—promised the increasingly better Product Benefits of cleaner, brighter clothes.  Eventually matched by able competitors on such lower order benefits, when the brand moved up the ladder to what it all meant for consumers, keeping clothes looking new, Tide once again had a meaningfully differentiated way to win.  Even more current (as we highlighted in a recent DISPATCHES), the Snickers Brand has masterfully migrated its positioning benefits from what the product does (satisfies hunger and taste) to WIIFM:  stop being “hungry” and get back to being me.


2. Moving to the middle runs counter to the marketplace trends.  Said another way, as already noted, most marketers are geared towards “going emotional.”  For whatever reasons, regardless of product class (yes, even in pharmaceuticals and medical devices) everyone wants to make their positioning more emotionally relevant to their customers or consumers.  They are convinced they need to add an Emotional Benefit to their “class effect” Product Benefit to gain some “differentiation distance” from their competition.  When everyone else is looking up the ladder, what better time to run counter to the herd and focus instead on the next rung--WIIFM?


3. Coming up with and implementing a meaningful, differentiated Emotional Benefit is darn difficult.  First of all, most marketing organizations are not so well-equipped to pursue the research necessary to “discover” a winning Emotional Benefit for their brand—winning as in (a) previously unused by competition, and (b) fitting seamlessly with the Product and Customer or Consumer Benefits already established in the Target’s mind.  In light of this, the tendency is to “grab and go” with a well-worn Emotional Benefit such as feeling confident, proud, or empowered (what we have typically referred to as the “usual suspects”).  Rarely do such additions to a Brand Positioning amount to much; in fact, when implemented they usually blend in with numerous others, creating a communication “wallpaper” effect.


4. WIIFM benefits get to the heart of the matter—the target’s ultimate functional needs and wants.  Your brand is the only one with a ¼ inch drill bit.  So what?  What the target cares most about is what that drill bit provides her or him:  ¼ inch holes.  When you think about any kind of a negotiation between two parties, decisions are made based upon what’s ultimately in it for both parties.  Then, too, any brand wishing to eventually get to a meaningful Emotional Benefit requires that “bridge” leading from the performance the product provides (what the product does) to what that performance then gives the customer or consumer.  Without this bridge, no wonder marketers find it so hard to translate how their customers or consumers are supposed to feel.


We’re obviously big believers in WIIFM, and we admire those brands who have consciously built their brand positioning with the help of a solid, complete benefit ladder.  Naturally, we also admire those brands that have discovered and implemented a compelling Emotional Benefit (the top of their ladder).  For sure, the “glue” that works hardest in attracting and keeping loyal customers or consumers is that relationship-building glue only Emotional Benefits can deliver.  But, our best advice would still be this:  look—long and hard—at potential “middle” Customer/Consumer Benefits before leaping to the top of the ladder.


Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney



Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard:



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.761.4038

reply to Mike:

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