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When do I lean on a functional benefit versus an emotional benefit?

Lindsay Says

The relationship between functional and emotional benefits can be perplexing, and leaders frequently struggle with it.

Sometimes I see my clients shoehorn their products into an emotional context without understanding their functional benefits. Other clients rely on functional benefits to the complete exclusion of an emotional resonance.

For those of you who can’t see past your functional benefits: you can identify emotional benefits for your product or service, no matter what it is. And it’s worth it, because emotional benefits have a unique power to improve your brand and your bottom line.

For those of you enamored with emotional benefits: there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a functional benefit. Functional benefits that are differentiated and deliver on unmet needs provide credibility and are essential to a successful business.

When to Focus on Function

There are situations when focusing on a functional benefit is the way to go:

  • If it is the only thing that differentiates you.
    Consider GooGone, a household cleaning product. Its functional benefit is removing anything sticky from any surface. This specific benefit sets it apart from generalized cleaning products.
  • If your customer does not yet give you permission to give her an emotional benefit.
    This is often the case with new offerings. For example, Nike did not launch with an emphasis on seizing victorious moments; they wouldn’t have been taken seriously. The aspirational “Just Do It” became their tagline in 1988, more than two decades after Phil Knight sold his first pair of shoes. In its early years, Nike often focused on the functional benefit of speed, supported by a convincing reason to believe: their shoes were extremely light.

Own It

If you fall into one of the above situations, and you decide to focus on a functional benefit, it is imperative that you own that benefit.

In other words, if the only thing that distinguishes you is a product attribute, then you must absolutely knock it out of the park with how excellent that product attribute is – not incrementally better, but dramatically better. Here are some examples of brands that truly own their functional benefit:

  • Target owns superb design among mass retailers.
  • Brooks owns fit among running shoes.
  • Amazon Prime owns speed of delivery among Internet retailers.
  • Survey Monkey owns turnkey experience among online survey tools.
  • 24 Hour Fitness owns always open among gyms.

Companies put a lot of effort into developing and marketing functional benefits, and with good reason, as the examples above illustrate. Functional benefits can be powerful brand assets.

Keep Owning It

Top brands do not rest on their laurels with respect to owning their functional benefits;they continually build on. For example, Amazon Prime increases its already-dominant speed of delivery by adding same-day delivery for certain items, and by creating its own delivery mechanisms in lieu of reliance on the postal service.

Support Function with Emotion

Even if you thoroughly own a differentiated functional benefit, pushing further can only help you in the long run. Instead of replacing a functional benefit, an emotional benefit can reinforce its effect. In fact, it’s near impossible to find a functional benefit that does not eventually ignite an emotional reward. For the brands listed above:

  • Target – superb design: You feel triumphant at getting high design for a low price and aesthetically pleased when surveying your home full of lovely items. victorious
  • Brooks – precise fit: You have a joyful running experience because of the perfect fit, and peace of mind that your body is well-supported.
  • Amazon Prime – delivery speed: You experience instant gratification and a feeling of power for getting something so quickly.
  • Survey Monkey – turnkey experience: You enjoy controlling the details of your survey without it taking your whole day.
  • 24 Hour Fitness – always open: You feel a sense of authority over your schedule because you can work out literally any time you like.

The Power of Emotional Benefits

While functional benefits provide heft and credibility, emotional benefits have special potency:

  • They drive financial premiums.
    Emotional benefits command higher prices. Look at Lululemon: their flattering athleisure apparel makes customers feel hip and fit. Lululemon yoga pants are $98 and usually sell out before interest has waned; similar pants at Old Navy are $19, but the cut isn’t as flattering and therefore doesn’t make the wearer feel as attractive. Whose margins would you rather have – Lululemon’s or Old Navy’s?
  • They are longer-lasting and thus provide more competitive insulation long-term.
    Even the most distinctive functional benefits can be duplicated by competitors, or fall out of favor as the market evolves. In the case of 24 Hour Fitness, at any moment Gold’s Gym could decide to expand its hours. Whereas Adidas could come after any functional benefit of a Nike shoe (or shirt or jacket or running shorts), and Nike still owns the emotional benefit – and hard-earned market share – of seizing victorious moments.
  • They take advantage of biology.
    Humans are emotional beings. We make decisions on a gut level more often than we’d like to admit. The rapidly expanding field of neuromarketing is based on research that shows we make decisions with our reptilian or “old” brain. This is the part of our brain that we rely on for survival, and it functions very quickly, below our consciousness. Then we use our neocortex or “thinking” brain to (much more slowly) rationalize the decision our old brain has already made. Emotional benefits appeal to the quick, instinctive reptilian brain, while functional benefits appeal to the slower, rational neocortex.

Identify Your Emotional Benefits

I challenge you to do this exercise for your product or service: look at each functional benefit and identify the emotional end reward for your customer – the emotion they experience as a result of the functional benefit. Do this even if you don’t plan to market with it right now. You can brainstorm now and implement later. Phil Knight didn’t market with “Just Do It” out of the gate, but his long-term vision helped him make product decisions every step of the way. Now instead of a simple shoe company, Nike is an apparel behemoth listed at #18 on Forbes’ World’s Most Valuable Brands list, and recently announced as the #1 most valuable apparel brand, globally.

Choosing Where to Lean in Your Marketing

Lean on a functional benefit if you are brand new, or if it is truly the only place where you differ from your competitors. If you do so, you must own that benefit definitively and continually invest in your product to make your benefits more compelling and more differentiated from your customers’ other options.

Lean on an emotional benefit as a long-term strategy to drive your creative, your product improvements, and your margins.

Whether your spotlight is currently on your functional or emotional benefits, in the end both are important: functional benefits bring credibility and a foot in the door, while emotional benefits lead to competitive differentiation and ultimately a more attractive P&L.

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