Understanding the consumer benefit ladder
Developing your brand proposition is an upward journey, so what better tool to use than a ladder? Specifically, a consumer benefit ladder. Far from being another bit of blue-sky jargon, the benefit ladder concept can really bring your marketing strategy into focus.
What is a benefit ladder exactly?
Firstly, the kind of benefits we’re talking about are the ones you offer your customers, rather than ones you get for yourself – although the positive results go both ways. The benefit ladder is a way of thinking about how you position those customer benefits in your marketing, which ones you bring to the fore, and which ones you trade on as a brand.
Ascent up the ladder varies from company to company. While some use practical perks such as product price and availability, others take things up a rung or two with more complex benefits like reliability, quality and reputation for great service. At the top of the ladder, there are brands who trade on emotional benefits like feeling confident or having peace of mind.
Here’s a quick tour of the benefit ladder from bottom to top.
Product availability: making people aware of what your product is and and how they can get it.
Product features: setting out what something is made of, how much it weighs, what colour it is, and so on.
Functional benefits: following from the product’s features, these are things like ‘good value for money’, ‘looks attractive’, and ‘easy to carry’.
Emotional benefits: focusing on the customer rather than the product, these are benefits like ‘gives you confidence’, ‘provides peace of mind’ or even ‘makes you feel attractive’.
It’s worth noting that at the top rung, the benefits aren’t always spelled out in so many words – they can be suggested through storytelling or visuals. These emotional benefits are more subtle and can be more difficult to instil than the others, which is why you need to work up to them via the lower rungs.
Developing brand loyalty through benefits
The idea of the benefit ladder is linked to the idea of laddering in psychology and market research. It’s an interview technique where a person’s deep beliefs are explored through a linked series of questions. Each answer is questioned again more deeply and as one insight builds on another, eventually the person’s core values are revealed – even if they weren’t aware of them to begin with.
The benefit ladder works on the same incremental basis, although it’s about building up to something, not digging deep down. It begins with a marketing approach that establishes awareness in a customer’s mind. With that in place, the message can shift towards developing their understanding of product or service features – what the brand provides. From there, the marketer can introduce the benefits of those features, such as effectiveness or value, and these become associated with the brand and the products.
The theory goes that over time, the benefit ladder brings the customer closer to the brand and builds positive emotion by associating it with progressively deeper and more meaningful benefits.
How to climb the benefit ladder
First off, a business needs to establish its product and its features. If you’re a new business this is a huge step, but if you’re already working on refining your marketing plan we’re going to assume you have an audience that knows your product exists and understands what it does.
The next place to focus is your functional benefit – the most important thing your product or service does for its target market. For example, let’s say you sell light-bulbs which are bright and last a long time. Your benefit is clear and compelling – high quality and great value for money. But what about adding that emotional layer?
At first, maintain the link to functionality – these bulbs set your mind at ease as they last longer than any other brand. You can then develop that idea of peace of mind and enduring reliability, by moving to a more customer-centric benefit – make your home feel bright and welcoming always, and make beautiful lighting a feature of your treasured memories for years to come.
Over time, you’ve moved from a helpful feature or two to a deep connection to family and home. By gradually branding your way into the customer’s heart like this, you establish a sense of trust, connection and loyalty.
Additionally, you become tougher to compete with (since nobody else can use superior features to hop into your niche, which you’ve built up gradually). You’re also more likely to be able to expand your market, extending that powerful feel-good brand to new products and services.
Is the highest rung always the best?
It's worth noting that although the benefit ladder is often framed as something you should try to get to the top of, this isn’t always the best approach for every brand. Some products don’t successfully trade on the highest rungs of the ladder, and nor should they – it’s just not the right fit. Just because you’re at rung 2 doesn’t mean that heading for rung 3 is the only way to make progress.
To expand on that a bit, let’s imagine you’re a manufacturer of bin bags. A highly utilitarian product, very necessary and useful, but literally a throw-away purchase. You may be a purveyor of the finest premium rubbish disposal receptacles, but you’re not likely to build a campaign around their emotional benefits – at least not one that can outperform a practicality-led approach, anyway - compare:
‘Feel closer to nature with a bin-bag that won’t end up adding to landfill. Every biodegradable bag is another gift from you to the planet – a daily part of your sustainable lifestyle.’
‘Easy draw-string closure, tough enough to contain sharp corners without tearing, and still fully biodegradable? You’ve got the lot with our eco-bags.’
Could you spend time gradually crafting that emotional benefit for your bin bag brand? Absolutely. Would it protect your business against competitors touting better features and a lower price? Probably not.
The reason lies in the nature of the product and the consumer’s relationship to it. It’s for short-term use, it’s a low-cost disposable item, and although there’s a growing number of people who will find eco-friendliness appealing, they’re still more likely to resonate with a practical message like ‘biodegradable’ than an emotionally-loaded one like ‘feel closer to nature’.
With that said, it’s absolutely invaluable to understand how the benefit ladder works and where your current marketing messages sit in relation to it, so you have the option to find your most effective rung and make the most of its potential.
To illustrate further, here are some brands marketing on different levels on the benefit ladder, and what makes each one a success.
Level one: product availability
Farmfoods sells frozen food, and this is one of the first things you learn when visiting their website. They’re the frozen food specialists, and they make frozen food available on a nationwide basis. It’s beautifully clear, and a breath of fresh air compared to some approaches that overcomplicate their messaging. It also seems to be an effective approach. As belts tightened in the mid 2010s, the Scottish brand saw its sales boom alongside those of ALDI and LIDL, and it has held its own against the competiton since the 1950s.
Their TV campaigns tend to be tightly focused around product availability and low price, although there’s plenty of tone and humour in the delivery – including this gem featuring David Hasselhof repeatedly hitting his head on things. Farmfoods understands that price is a huge driver for its customer base, and it focuses single-mindedly on delivering value. If it can do it consistently, that alone can result in loyalty and repeat purchases without ascending higher on the ladder.
Level two: favourable features
There are many reasons to focus on benefits rather than features. ‘Speak the customer’s language’, we’re told, and ‘don’t limit your audience’. But sometimes, your audience knows exactly what they are looking for, spelling out the benefit isn’t required, and the features speak for themselves. This is never more true than in the wonderful world of gadgets and tech.
Looking at the landing page for the OnePlus 6T, the latest in a series of ‘flagship killer’ smartphones from the Chinese brand, there’s no shortage of sophistication or gloss. But there’s also a notable lack of explicit benefits in the messaging.
For example, it’s got an ‘in-display fingerprint’, but there’s no translation of that into the benefit of higher convenience or a more streamlined and attractive look to the phone. The same goes for the ‘Snapdragon 845, up to 8GB RAM’. The target audience already knows that this means the phone will be fast. And because OnePlus knows its audience, the processor’s name is all that needs to be said.
Level three: functional benefits
Way back in the 20th century, Mr Muscle made one thing clear: it was a cleaning product that could tackle the toughest of domestic dirt. Today, it’s pretty much the same story. Although the original flesh-and-blood Mr Muscle (Gerald Home) has been replaced by a cartoon avatar, the messaging is still all about power and results.
There’s little mention of the features – we don’t know, for example, what ingredients in Mr Muscle cleaning products make them so effective. We do know how they help us. The ‘clean less, live more’ tagline is one of several benefit-led but very practical messages that brings home the value of investing in a powerful product. You save time, you save effort, and you have a better experience doing an unenjoyable chore.
Level four: the feel-good factor
John Lewis and Partners
Emotional benefits range from aspiration and exclusivity to feeling cheerful or having confidence. John Lewis manages to run the gamut across this entire spectrum, engendering a complex and powerful emotional response from its customers. Trust, confidence, cachet and kudos – it’s all in there.
Marketing-wise, the brand is known for its TV ads, emotive shorts that are heavy on music and imagery and light on hard-sell messaging. Although they’ve varied over the years, an enduring theme is longevity and partnership – John Lewis is the brand you can turn to at every life stage, whether you’re Elton John or an imaginary everywoman.
Their reputation for quality and service is well-earned, and looking back through time, you can see how they’ve progressed up the benefit ladder during their 150-year journey. Once upon a time, they were offering new-for-old gramophones with a free Gramophone Guide – definitely a lower-rung approach with a functional benefit appeal.
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