Features as benefits; or, Would you like some facts with your fish?

July 6, 2010

Recently, Whole Foods introduced “a color-coded ranking program” that marks the fish they sell according to how sustainably it was raised and/or caught.  They want to provide their customers with as much information as they can about the exact features of the fish.  As they wrote in a recent blog post about the color-coding,

We know what it was fed and what it wasn’t fed: we prohibit antibiotics, added growth hormones, and poultry and mammalian byproducts in feed. And with our strict standards we minimize the impacts of fish farming on the environment. All of our seafood is free from added preservatives. You won’t find seafood farm-raised to these standards anywhere else.

Responsibly FarmedBut do consumers want all that color-coded information?

“It’s not about you, it’s about them”, conventional marketing wisdom goes.   Stop telling them how many diggles your widget has—tell them they’ll “Feel the joy of more time with your family.”  Articles, courses and textbooks abound that counsel businesses in how to tune into consumers’ needs, and ways in which they can describe how the product or service being sold will meet those needs.  This is often called “benefits language.”

At its best, benefits language helps translate a business’s features into a tangible experience the consumer, or potential consumer, can easily understand.  For example, a feature of windows such as “extensively tested, top-rated insulation materials” becomes the benefit of “year-round comfort.”

At its worst, benefits language condescends to the customer, telling her what her experience will be instead of showing her the facts and letting her decide for herself. Sort of like the personal ad that crows, “You won’t be disappointed.”

This WWII-era Coca Cola ad, for example, tells you flat out that coke helps you connect with neighbors—a benefit completely unrelated to the features of the substance the company wants you to consume.

Features Are Benefits

But there are times, of course, when the consumer is looking for features or facts about a product.  This is especially true in a world where consumers are wary of a corporation’s promises – discovering your child’s toy contains lead pretty much negates any benefit claimed by the marketer.

So when do consumers want the facts and when do they want the fantasy?  Here’s what I’ve noticed:

It helps to translate features into benefits if you’re selling:

  • An electronic device—most people won’t grok the technical language. It’s true—most of us just want to know what we can do with the darn thing.
  • Therapy—though  the distinctions between behavioral, transpersonal and psychodynamic mean something to psychology students, the rest of us mainly want to hear that we’re going to feel better. The same goes for other personal services, like coaching, massage, or acupuncture.
  • A how-to information product such as a book, ebook or audio program.

It helps to include feature data if you’re selling:

  • A car, house, or any major purchase, especially one involving physical safety
  • High-end food Gourmets want to know and tell the features of their fare
  • To an educated, health-aware market—more and more, people want to know what goes into the stuff they buy

Now back to those fish.

Whole Foods color codes the items in their fish counter according to sustainability rankings that parallel the facts card at leftSeafoodWatch because for their audience, this feature is a benefit. The more conscious and the more educated the consumer, the more information they’re likely to want details. Trader Joe’s, too, with their extensive catalogue copy speaks to knowledgable, middle-class consumers who, more than ever, want to know the features of the food they buy.

What the heck happened to that neat distinction between features and benefits?

I asked Leila Khatapoush, sustainability consultant, and president of the board of the directors for the Sustainable Business Alliance what she thought about sustainability and consumer demand for information, or, features of a product. She said that more than ever, “…consumers are demanding to know about the entire life cycle of a product—where it comes from and where it’s going once we’re done with it.”

With this information, they’re buying knowledge as well as image. Knowledge itself has become a benefit. It satisfies a need for data. If we were to translate into benefits language, we might say, “the confidence of knowing you’re informed.”

Nowadays, Khatapoush continues, it’s all about telling a story. “Green marketing is about telling a story about where the product comes from and where its remnants will go.” So we buy tales with our talcum powder; sustainability stories with our sports car, and yes, facts with our fish.

As a company, how do you determine the balance of focus on features and benefits?

As a consumer, how does this balance impact you?

Please share your thoughts below.