Are You a Feature Creature?

The benefits of benefit-first thinking

Thinking outside the box is a great exercise, but are you thinking about the right thing? 

In advertising, there is an old formula for presenting a product to the world: wrap it in a tidy box and promote its features.  The earliest documented instance of an ad stepping outside this box may have happened nearly 100 years ago, when this ad promoting benefits over features ran in the Reno Evening Gazette on August 18th, 1923: 

“When you buy a razor, you buy a smooth chin—but you could wear a beard. When you buy a new suit, you buy an improved appearance—but you could make the old one do. When you buy an automobile, you buy speedy transportation—but you could walk. But when you buy plumbing, you buy cleanliness—for which there is no substitute!”


This wasn’t groundbreaking in concept, just in execution. Look beyond advertising and you’ll see people “selling” benefits all around you. A musician playing the violin on the street corner. A baker opening the door so the entire neighborhood can experience the aroma. Throughout history, benefits are showcased in storytelling. Different cultures develop myths and pass down tales to help rationalize complex phenomena or feelings. Often, these myths illustrate the benefit of an idea, a way of life, etc. 


Sometimes the people closest to a product or idea get so close to “the thing,” to the complexity of it, they develop a blind spot when it comes to the benefits. Take business owners who know their products and services inside and out. This knowledge is a cornerstone of their identity as a professional in their trade, and from my experience, it’s incredibly impressive. When it comes to selling what they do, too often the focus on these ins and outs shifts to the foreground. The way you install something. The materials you use. They all matter. But they’re not what matters to consumers, at first. 


Like that ad from 1923, an old marketing adage with murky attribution best describes the idea of leading with benefits. The idea is straightforward, “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill bit, they want a quarter-inch hole.” Author Seth Godin takes it a step further by suggesting that no one wants a hole. They want a shelf or a hook placed. And they don’t even really want that. They want to hang their art. Display their collection of knick-knacks. The list goes on and on.


In reality, a product as simple as a quarter-inch drill bit is a catalyst for fulfillment.


Let's Consider:

So, what’s the benefit of this post? It’s an invitation to take a hard look at your offering to the world. To ask, “What’s the actual value someone gets from what you do or make? What’s the catalyst for fulfillment?” I’m sure you know the answer. Don’t just be a feature creature. 

Matt Maguy is co-founder at JXM, an advertising agency located in Massachusetts.