Brand Strategy 2: Maslow’s Marketing Pyramid

Effective storytelling means conveying relevant brand truths to your audience by telling a story about them. So how do you tell the right story? In Part Two of our strategy series, we define the three levels of story and how to find the right story type for you. With the right story type, you can tell your audience what your product has to do with them.

“Storytelling” is very hot right now. It can seem overrated. But it solves a very particular problem in the minds of the audience: namely, “What does this product have to do with me?” The goal of all honest, effective advertising is to help people fully understand why the product fits their needs.

Storytelling doesn’t just save you advertising money you would have otherwise squandered on a too-general audience, but it also sets you up to speak clearly and directly to their felt need.

This is where storytelling becomes really powerful.

In the future, we’ll post more in-depth about storytelling. For now, just know that a story connects people with your product. It does this by acknowledging their problem, talking about why it’s a problem, and then helping them solve it.

So how do you find the strongest place to start your story? You find the highest connection with your audience by working your way up the pyramid.

The pyramid looks like this:

  • Top: Values
  • Middle: Benefits
  • Bottom: Attributes

You’ll find the strongest place to start your story by starting at the bottom of the pyramid, with attributes.

Attributes Versus Benefits

Let’s start with this: Is it an attribute or a benefit? (We’ll talk about values in the next section.) Simply put, attributes are about the product, where benefits are about your audience.

Attribute messaging:

  • Attributes are self-focused and are usually not compelling. Like that guy on a date who thinks he’s hot stuff, some people only talk about themselves. They leave no room for others to join in the conversation.
  • Attributes are what you hear when people talk about “quality, service, and price.” Or when BMW talks about the technology around their anti-lock brakes. And they do all this without talking about the customer or their problem.
  • There’s not much advantage to attribute messaging, since your competitors are likely to say the exact same things about their products. In order to differentiate, advertisers end up talking about combinations of attributes to try to stand out. This is a classic mistake that just serves to further confuse the listener, viewer, or reader of the ad, requiring extra research the audience is not willing to do.

Benefit messaging:

  • Benefits talk about the audience and are more compelling. They let the audience know that the product is for them—that it’s relevant—by talking about their use case.
  • Benefits usually focus on one attribute and apply it to the situation of the user.

But we think people will automatically get it

We overestimate how well people translate our attributes into benefits or values.

“But when I talk about my product, everyone will just know it’s for them. Why would I want to pigeon-hole my product into just one audience?” This is a common objection to storytelling, but it assumes that, when a customer sees your product, they instinctively know that’s what they’ve been looking for. It assumes they’ll stop their busy lives, put down their phone, forget about the stress at work and at home, and pay attention.

This may be true if you’re talking about a laptop battery that never runs out, or a $50 part you can add to your car that will make it fly. But these kinds of products are rare. In most cases, people are too busy thinking about other things to interact with your messaging. Your ad is clutter, to be ignored.

It’s hard to get people to focus on substance when they don’t know why. It takes a little relationship first.

That’s why we don’t want to make people think too much. Instead, we meet them where they’re at. This usually means we start by talking about them, not us. That’s where benefits and values really shine.

Turn Attributes into Benefits

What’s the best way to find benefits? Map out attributes, exhaustively. And then go through them, one-by-one, and see how those attributes of the product would benefit a the audience.

Next, see if there are any other attributes that support that benefit, and group them together.

Values

Values are higher than benefits in the pyramid. They represent right and wrong; good and bad. For your audience, your product may actually help them live out their values. Here’s an example, using anti-lock brakes:

  • Attribute of the product: “This BMW has superior anti-lock brakes.”
  • Benefit to the audience: “This BMW’s anti-lock brakes will help you avoid hitting a deer on the road, so you won’t have to swerve, possibly spinning off into a ditch.”
  • Values of the audience: “This BMW’s anti-lock brakes will help you keep your family safer from road hazards, making you a better protector of your family.”

These themes show the difference between approaches.

  • The attribute talks about the product, leaving it to the audience to build a story around the product.
  • The benefit builds a story around the audience member’s life, showing her the relevant truths in a way she can apply, making her much more likely to buy if the story really is about her.
  • The values story is about how this product actually helps him realize his desire to protect his family, but more than that. It actually reinforces his self-image as a real man, who can protect his family.

When to Use Them

When to use attribute messaging: When you’re a gas station or are selling a commodity where there’s no real advantage to buying from you versus someone else.

When to use benefit messaging: When your product or brand is different enough that you think you might be able to get more margin for your product.

When to use values messaging: When your product will impact how people see themselves and when your product helps people to live out their values.

As you develop your storytelling strategy, think about these major messaging differences in ads. Look at ads and try to figure out which one is being used to sell to you. Look at billboards and bumper stickers…whatever you see. And start to develop that sense. If you do, you’ll be able to better manage creative and develop more effective storytelling strategies.

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