Why do people buy products and services?

What do they find valuable?

Harvard Business Review set out to answer those questions and identified 30 elements of consumer value in the products and services we buy:

why people buy products

If you can identify the value(s) of the product or service you’re selling and then articulate that value (using copywriting), you will sell more. It’s just science.

These Elements of Value are divided into four categories which parallel Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The categories span from simple elements of functional value (like Saves Time or Makes Money) to more complex, abstract forms of value like Affiliation and Belonging.

Take a second to think about that. Have you ever bought a product or service that made you feel a sense of affiliation and belonging? A good marketer will identify that potential reason for buying and then write compelling copy which communicates that value to potential customers.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a close look at each of these elements of value so that you can incorporate them into your marketing (starting with better descriptions of your products and services).

Want to learn more about persuasive writing?
Check out Words That Sell, a workshop from theCLIKK!

Why They Buy: Reducing Effort

Back in 2005, Alan Adler debuted his AeroPress coffee maker at an industry trade show. Coffee connoisseurs have been buzzing ever since (and not just because of the caffeine).

The marketers selling the AeroPress know that this product is unique and desirable largely because it Reduces Effort. They know that…

The AeroPress isn’t just a coffee maker.
The AeroPress is simplicity.
The AeroPress is speed.
The AeroPress is convenience.

I only meant to finish my point, but… that’s decent ad copy right there!

A marketer somewhere created the AeroPress copy and creative below. Notice the three items circled in red:

reduce the effort why they buy

If you sell a product or service that can Reduce Effort for its buyers, be sure to find ways to communicate specifics like:

⏭ Speed to Results
“Makes 1 to 3 cups in about a minute”

🎒 Wide Application
“Ideal for kitchen, camping, and traveling”

✨ Convenience
“Cleans in seconds”

If you want to sit back and absorb a ton of stuff like this without reading anything…

Check out theCLIKK’s on-demand workshop Words That Sell!

Like any CLIKK workshop, it’s designed to be actionable… just listen along and follow our lead!

Why They Buy: Avoiding Hassle

For about as long as I’ve known what marketing is (which is longer than I care to admit), a housekeeping company in my neighborhood has been mailing this brochure to homes around the area:

Why They Buy Avoiding Hassle

They’ve used this same brochure (more or less) for more than 20 years.

Would it pay to freshen up the image in this brochure? Umm, probably so. For a handful of different reasons.

It might even make sense to adjust the messaging after all these years. But I can tell you why they didn’t: it’s brilliant copy.

This housekeeping company is sharply aware that the value they’re selling is Avoiding Hassle. This copy does two things:

🤕 It attacks the pain point.
Cleaning your house is a pain in the butt. Duh.

🤔 It provides a rational reason to buy their service.
“Life’s too short” is a sly way of selling your own time back to you.

And it does both of those things in EIGHT WORDS.

Genius. Don’t change a single letter.

Why They Buy: Reducing Cost

Be careful with this one, y’all—because so many brands, including some of your direct competitors, are stuck in a bloody race to the proverbial bottom.

If you can be the Walmart of your category (profitably), then go for it. The rest of us will need better, more creative ways to communicate the cost-reducing value of our products and services.

The essential distinction here: products that reduce costs, NOT products with reduced prices. Let’s market the former, not the latter.

If you’re marketing Reduced Costs, it means that Your Thing saves customers money later or elsewhere, no matter what Your Thing originally cost and no matter what else Your Thing does. This is good. This is added value.

But if you’re marketing Reduced Price, it effectively means that Your Thing’s only pitch to consumers is “you can pay less for this, I guess.” This doesn’t present a single form of affirmative value; worse, it commoditizes Your Thing into Another One Of Those, where price is the only clear competition.

Real-life example: hoodies, which are part of my daily uniform in the winter. Hoodies are commoditized—you can get ’em anywhere, for any amount of money—but I recently bought one from American Giant, where I spent over $100 (and would happily do so again).

I took the leap for two reasons. First: the AG hoodies do seem comfy and I’m gonna be wearing one all the time. But second…

reduce customer cost image 2

Notice how the copy above expands the meaning of “quality.” American Giant hoodies aren’t just quality while they last; they’re quality because they last, and way longer than a typical hoodie. The math makes a great case… they just had to slow me down enough to realize it.

Well done, y’all.

Why They Buy: Quality

Let me tell ya: there is no adult beverage more refreshing in the hot summer than a Kentucky Mule. That’s a Moscow Mule with bourbon instead of vodka.

Mules are made with ginger beer. (If you’ve not had ginger beer, imagine ginger ale with a mean streak.) For the past year or so, Fever Tree has been my go-to ginger beer brand and Quality is the primary value both in Fever Tree’s marketing and, more importantly, in the product itself.

But let’s acknowledge: communicating Quality can be tricky for marketers.

Yes, everyone understands what Quality is and everyone knows it’s a good thing. Here’s the challenge: when all is said and done, people have to spend THEIR money before they can test YOUR promise. So that promise of quality needs to be compelling (and stay compelling after they see the price tag).

Fever Tree’s marketing has internalized the idea that, no matter how honest, any descriptions of Quality are bare assertion until the customer tries the product. So they keep it short, sweet, confident, and calculated (image below):

If ¾ of your drink is the MIXER, make sure you use THE BEST.

Yes, their ginger beer is a little more expensive. But that little piece of copy gives you all the excuse you need to splurge on your favorite cocktail. 🥴

Why They Buy Quality

Why They Buy: Variety

I cut my teeth in the marketing business (gnarly metaphor, no?) working for Booksource, a company that sells trade books to K-12 schools. Y’know, titles like To Kill a Mockingbird and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and so on.

Mentioning a pair of examples might give you an idea of the company, but they would have marketed themselves in much the opposite direction.

They would say that you (a K-12 school) can select from more than thirty thousand titles when you (still a K-12 school) choose Booksource as your book vendor. That hook is still stamped into my brain, if I may mix metaphors.

The point:

1️⃣ They know their competitive advantage (Selection and Variety).
2️⃣ They know their customer cares about it (it’s a major source of value).
3️⃣ So they use it in ALL of their marketing. And there’s no shame in that.

Why They Buy Variety

Why They Buy: Sensory Appeal

This one is tricky because it applies to you even if it doesn’t.

If you sell something like coffee, flowers, or fireworks, Sensory Appeal is an obvious form of value. People buy those things specifically to enjoy how they smell, taste, look, and go bang. It’d be silly to ignore those kinds of details when marketing those products.

But what if you sell shovels, or accounting services, or information? There’s no sensory appeal there. In some cases, there’s no sensory anything because the product never takes physical form!

What’s a marketer to do?

First, try to realize that sensory appeal is just a tool of good copywriting, no matter the exact subject or purpose of that copy. Writing just “pops” better once you can curb the abstractions and describe things as though they existed concretely and physically.

I’m sure Kevin could say a lot more about that. For now, my point is that sensory appeal can help marketers sell nearly anything, even when the product has no (obvious) sensory appeal of its own.

theCLIKK sells info products, so we’re a pretty decent example of that. But here’s a cold-traffic ad we’ve run (successfully) for this very newsletter:

Why They Buy Sensory Appeal

Do we sell cocktails? No. But by comparing theCLIKK to a cocktail, we get to borrow the language and hijack the sensory appeal: pink drink, cold in your hand, fruity and boozy in your mouth.

Way better than trying to “picture a newsletter.” 😴

It’s Friday and a cocktail does sound nice, so two final foods for thought:

🤨 Think outside the box. There might be an appeal you’re missing. For example: a ton of people go gaga over the smell of books, bookstores, and libraries. I don’t get it, but it really engages them.

📸 People don’t buy things on the Internet. People buy pictures of things on the Internet. After all, that’s the only way we can picture anything at all… and in any mental image, sight tends to dominate the other senses. So never neglect your product photography—and if your product (like ours) can’t be photographed, use other imagery to make a specific point or to show a customer who has “drunk your potion.”

Why They Buy: Being Informed

Knowledge is power, so information is advantage.

You can’t sell knowledge (per se), but you can sell information… and information should be sold knowing it gives its consumer an advantage.

I could wax Brazilian poetic for days about selling info—it’s a thing I do—but it might be more productive to share a masterful example and let you soak it up. The Wall Street Journal ran this sales letter, entitled “Two Young Men,” for more than 25 years. Our abridged edit of it, just to give you the idea.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Dear Reader:

Twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men.

Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion. They were still very much alike. Both men, it turned out, had gone to work for the same company after graduation and still worked there.

But there was a difference. One man managed a small department of the company. The other man was the company’s president.

Have you ever wondered what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? The difference lies in what each person knows, and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.

And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: to give its readers useful knowledge that they can apply in business.

I cannot promise you that success will be instantly yours if you start reading The Wall Street Journal. But I can guarantee that you will find The Journal always interesting, always reliable, and always useful.

______________________________________________________________________________________

The whole letter is only a couple of pages, so I encourage you to read it over. Two things to notice when you do:

🛤 The WSJ letter parallels both Andy Raskin’s 5 Elements of a Brilliant Sales Narrative and David Frey’s 12-Step Sales Letter (our #3 and #1 Greatest CLIKKs of 2020, respectively).

🎩 Writer Martin Conroy pulls off a hat trick with this letter. He (A) clearly illustrates the advantage of information while also (B) making the scale of that advantage compelling. Yet he still (C) describes his “two young men” with familiar, relatable language that allows a broad audience to imagine themselves while reading it.

Why They Buy: Human Connection

Mastercard is the proud parent of one of the longest-running, most successful ad campaigns in history. If the name ‘Priceless’ doesn’t ring a bell, these twelve words probably will:

There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.

The ‘Priceless’ campaign is a unicorn in big branding for its degree of consistency, not just over an incredibly long period of time (23 years and four CMOs) but also across cultures and languages.

Clearly there’s some kind of “secret sauce” in the Priceless campaign… but what is it? Why has this campaign worked so damn well for Mastercard?

I’ll tell you why: it allows Mastercard to market a high-level value instead of a lower Functional value. The higher on the pyramid, the more people care!

Before the Priceless campaign, Mastercard was fighting a Functional battle—not just against competitor Visa, but against the public perception of credit cards as frivolous tools of the wealthy and as the middle class’s financial equivalent of hard-drug addiction. Remember Dave Ramsey?

So Mastercard hired the folks — chaps? — at English agency McCann Erickson, who dug into market research and found this great big sparkly nugget of insight (as summarized by their own Nina diSesa):

“We thought that [consumers] would say, ‘Ugh, credit cards—the devil’s tool.’ But people said, ‘Nah, credit cards are fine. It’s other people who abuse credit cards.’ When they bought things they couldn’t afford it was usually for the good of the family. They bought a TV so everyone in the family could watch TV together. They had noble reasons for buying things they couldn’t afford. [The marketers realized] that Mastercard was a good way to pay for the things that really mattered.”

Go back and read that again, with special attention to the words abuse and noble. That’s the contrast at the heart of the Priceless ads, even if it’s buried a few layers deep (y’know, like a heart).

Yes, of course, people want to avoid the painful pitfalls of credit-card debt… but they want other things more, and that was always the seat of Mastercard’s opportunity. They asked themselves: what’s the best thing to want in life, and how can Mastercard’s credit help people “buy” it?

Human connection is the “Priceless” value here. That’s the main theme of the ads, always shown but never spoken, and the ad formula has endured for more than two decades with minimal deviation.

That “ad formula,” by the way, is just three simple ideas stacked together:

— the “Grocery List” with three real items (and prices)
— the fourth (priceless) item is some form of Human Connection
— Some Things Money Can’t Buy vs. Mastercard (circle it all together)

It all starts with the simple beauty of the campaign’s first ad in 1997: a father talking with his 11-year-old son when he takes him to a baseball game. They’ll remember that afternoon for life, and Mastercard made it possible. How could $91 of credit-card debt possibly compete against that time?

Now that, right there, is some marketing jiu-jitsu: Mastercard opened the ‘90s with an uphill battle against consumer fears and objections and closed the ‘90s shooting wishful fish in a high-interest barrel. And yes, I can mix all of those metaphors because the campaign really has made that much difference to their success.

Why They Buy: Connecting and Integration

Lucky for us, these two elements of value kinda go together. Efficiency! 😎

Just remember that, big-picture, we’re still in the Functional elements of value at the bottom of HBR’s pyramid. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Let’s start with Connecting. That term is pretty broad… people, puzzle pieces, and flights all “connect” in different senses of the term. But in this case, it refers to the value of closing distance between people (literally or figuratively).

Think back to the beginning: in the caveman days, doing anything with your fellow Neanderthals required you to be there. If you wanted to trade with someone, you had to stop what you were doing and physically move your body to wherever their body was. And then grunt, I think.

If you think about it, couriers and mail services are the market’s original Connectors. It’s not a stretch to say that “moving stuff so other people don’t have to” is the essence of those businesses. The value of this type of Connecting is undeniable when you consider that any modern economy would be impossible without numerous forms of it (at all times).

Just remember that products and services can facilitate all different kinds of connections between people. The telephone, for instance, Connects people in a totally different way—and the old AT&T ad below clearly understands that (though I’m gonna pass on the vaguely creepy slogan).

If we want to say that Connecting is closing the distance between people, then Integration is closing the distance between problems and/or solutions.

A quick, practically clichéd example of a product with Integration value: the Swiss Army knife. Even though none of its gadgets is especially good, there’s a ton of value just having all of those things together in a compact, user-friendly thing. It’s nothing if not a “greater than the sum of its parts” product.

But since I was just talking about phones, I’ll leave you with the ultimate modern example of marketing a product’s Integration value: the original iPhone. Here’s Steve Jobs’s introduction of it from 2007:

“Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. The third is a breakthrough Internet communications device. But these are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone. Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”

If you’d like to dig deeper into the iPhone’s Integration value, check out this article we published six months ago, around the iPhone’s 13th birthday. The article doesn’t mention Integration value (or HBR) by name, but that’s still most of what the article is about. 🙃

Why They Buy: Reducing Risk

I should warn you: this is where The Feels start to come into play.

We’re still in the Functional bottom of HBR’s pyramid of consumer values, but Risk is a funny thing because it’s logical and emotional at the same time. It’s something we calculate and debate and plan around, but also… did your nerves tighten up a little when you saw the word Risk?

(OK, I’m definitely using the red text to play it up. But you get it.)

The good news for business: because Risk (Reduction) lives on both sides of the Functional/Emotional fence, it presents more opportunities for marketers. Some uses are more obvious than others, but all of them make some sense when you know the two key elements of risk:

 

⚠️ RISK = 🎲 Probability of 😭 Bad Outcome

 

These are the two dials on your Risk-Marketing Etch-a-Sketch, and you can draw some impressive ideas just by fiddling with these two pieces.

Let’s take a semi-obvious example which has a newer, less obvious twist…

🚑 Auto Safety! Car crashes are low on Probability, high on Bad(ness of) Outcome. Traditionally, auto marketing appeals to Risk Reduction by showing how their car makes the outcome less bad. If they can’t prevent all accidents from happening, at least they can reduce the damage in those accidents by building safer cars.

But automakers have been starting to market the other side of the coin as well. By now, car features don’t just reduce risk in the event of a crash, by minimizing the damage; they actually narrow the chances that a crash will happen in the first place. This is a relatively new hook for car companies, and a compelling one (not gonna lie, it factored into my last car purchase).

Subaru’s not alone, but they get this:

“We believe the best accidents are the ones you avoid.”

avoid risk marketing

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