Why do people buy? What makes a customer ignore technical or functional issues with a product to stay loyal to a brand they cherish? Why do they cherish it?
In their 2003 bestselling book Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods – and How Companies Create Them, Niel Fiske and Michael Silverstein outline a ladder of technical, functional and emotional benefits that companies should follow to create premium “masstige” goods that customers will “trade up” for. The phenomenon they studied has only grown since the authors introduced the concept, and the world of retail has dutifully followed the steps of this ladder for years.
But we believe the ladder has added a step in the last decade, one born from emotional benefits but raised to a new level of importance by today’s consumer. We believe it is this final step that explains why customers stay loyal and how brands can weather storms that will inevitably come in today’s ever-changing and demanding marketplace.
The first step in the ladder is that of technical benefits. Does your product perform as advertised? Many generic products can make this straightforward claim. (My BIC pen writes just fine, and a dozen can be had for $2.79). The next benefit step is functional. Are there true technical differences in the way your product functions? (My Uni-Ball Vision Elite Rollerball pen ($2.49 each) has a specially formulated ink that will not leak in an airplane cabin.) Still many commodities can claim functional differentiation. And the final step is the emotional benefit. Does your customer have an emotional connection with your product and by extension, your brand? (My husband will not easily part with his cherished $300+ Cartier pen, even for his wife’s constant note taking.) Our increasingly sophisticated consumer demands an emotional connection for products to command a premium price. She’ll happily trade down where it doesn’t exist.
But to truly capture the customer, and hold them sustainably over time (and through hardships), your brand and product must go beyond emotion to connect with what your customers stand for (and against). When you can climb to that next level of meaningful connection – articulating your purpose and connecting that purpose with your customer’s values – you have captured what we call their Heartspace, and they will cherish you.
In fact, they will forgive you issues with the technical and functional benefits of your product, because they believe in you and what you believe in. Customers will happily stand in line to pay full price for the first issue of a new Apple product, even though they know it will be riddled with technical bugs. Customers will excitedly wait in line to buy Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream’s first new batch of Salty Caramel ice cream, even after their manufacturing facilities second closing for Listeria contamination.
Companies do well to follow Fiske and Silverstein’s advice to create value and avoid being left behind in today’s New Luxury marketplace. Companies will do even better if they can climb to the next new step in the ladder and discover their purpose, and how it connects with their customer.
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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.