Getting to the Root of Features and Benefits

Sometimes the simplest ideas are among the hardest to grasp.

This is certainly true with one of the most important concepts in copywriting, a concept first proposed by John E. Kennedy over 105 years ago.

His revolutionary idea is ― stated in modern terms ― that if you want to sell a product, you sell benefits, not features. This sounds simple enough. But one of the most frequent questions I get from beginning copywriters (and some not-so-beginning copywriters) is “what exactly is the difference?”

And an unstated part of this question is “why is it so important?”

It’s important because features don’t usually stir emotions. Benefits do. As an AWAI-trained copywriter, you know your prospect buys (donates, votes, or signs up) for emotional reasons.

So understanding the difference between features and benefits really means knowing how to sell your idea best.

Numbers vs. benefits …

For one of the most compelling examples of using benefits and not features you have to rewind to 1997. Around about that time — and for years afterward — most personal computer ads said things like the computer had a Pentium III 600 MHz chip with 512KB L2 cache.

Mean anything to you? More important, do you really care?

Then along came “Think Different®.” Excuse the poor grammar — the campaign launched Apple Computer’s steady rise to becoming one of the richest corporations in the world.

These ads didn’t sell features. They sold image. If you weren’t a “run-of-the-mill” computer user — if you “thought different” like Einstein, Jim Henson, or the Dalai Lama — Apple was your computer of choice.

The benefit of being an Apple user was clear: You’re in a special, elite class of computer users. But the ads’ “fine print” carefully explained what you could accomplish as a member of this elite class — additional benefits.

“Think Different®” was followed closely by the “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads. These ads highlighted the many benefits of owning a Macintosh … humorously, but clearly.

The marketing geniuses at Apple understood that numbers do not move people to buy. Ease of use moves people. Fun. Family. Freedom from viruses. These things move people.

Take a few minutes and have some fun. Search “I’m a Mac” on YouTube. You’ll enjoy what you see. But look at these ads as a copywriter. See how clearly and effectively they stress benefits, benefits, and more benefits.

Which type of computer is superior — Macs or PCs? Not important. But the accent on benefits makes the Mac ads superior by far.

Drilling down from features to benefits …

So what really are the differences between features and benefits?

Features are what the product or service has. They’re the speed of the processor. Or the number of issues in a subscription. They’re color, size, and shape. They’re how a knife is made … or number of sessions in Bootcamp.

Benefits are how those features can change your life. Benefits apply on different levels: ordinary or superficial benefits, deeper benefits, and core benefits.

Ordinary benefits are those immediate improvements a feature brings to your life. Deeper benefits are those that have a strong impact on your success or on your life. They’re what I call the “satisfied sigh” aspect of a product.

Core benefits go even deeper. They’re the long-lasting emotional and psychological impact the product has. They’re often not obvious and take greater thought to tease out of the feature/benefit mix.

An effective strategy for discovering the more important benefits is this. Start with a feature and ask, “How does this feature make my prospect’s life easier, safer, more profitable, healthier?” That’s your ordinary benefit.

To take the next step ask, “How does this ordinary benefit make my prospect feel about herself, her life, or her position in the world when she first experiences it?” This is the deeper benefit.

The final step is to take that deeper benefit and ask, “How does this deeper benefit impact my prospect’s long-term view of herself? How does it change the way other people feel about her?”

Let’s look at two examples I mentioned earlier and see how features turn into the different levels of benefits.

Let’s start with a Wusthof chef’s knife.

Feature Ordinary Benefit Deeper Benefit Core Benefit
High carbon steel with PEtec Edge Retains edge 30% longer. You can concentrate on cooking and not worry about the knife’s sharpness. Friends will recognize that you’re a skilled, knowledgeable cook.
Full tang triple riveted handle Knife feels balanced in the hand. Better precision cutting with less fatigue. You will recognize that you’re a skilled, knowledgeable cook.

And what about Bootcamp?

Features Ordinary Benefit Deeper Benefit Core Benefit
Marketing/Copywriting giants as General Session speakers Seeing speakers like Brain Kurtz, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Bob Bly, and others up close. These speakers tailor their presentations to the needs of copywriters just like me. I’ll learn copywriting secrets I couldn’t learn anywhere else!
Numerous sessions Choosing exactly what I need to learn. I’m using my time wisely and for my greatest benefit. I’ll leave Bootcamp feeling closer to reaching my goals.
Professional copywriters as presenters Learning directly from working copywriters. They’ll share secrets & strategies with me that have bolstered their own success. I’ll reach copywriting mastery faster.
Job Fair Possibility of getting a paying assignment. I’ll make lasting connections with real marketers. Lasting confidence in my self-promotional efforts.
Networking meals Chatting with other copywriters and Bootcamp presenters. I’ll share and gain knowledge with other copywriters. Confidence, encouragement, lifelong friendships and associations.

I chose to highlight Bootcamp this week not just because I think it’s a great way to bolster your copywriting career. I did it because it’s a prime example of drilling down from features to benefits.

You can take any product or service and drill down like we just did. Take your time doing it. Write down your idea. Once you’ve identified all the levels of benefits, let your list sit awhile. Come back to it and see how you can strengthen it.

A little bit of effort here can make a big difference in how compelling your sale is.

Last bit of advice: When you’re drilling down from features to benefits, it pays to “think differently.”

I’d love for you to learn more about the 2012 FastTrack to Copywriting Success Bootcamp and Job Fair and its myriad benefits. Click here.

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Published: June 18, 2012

2 Responses to “Getting to the Root of Features and Benefits”

  1. Will, great article, thanks. Always good to have fundamentals to review and this features/benefits distinction is as critical as clearly identifying audiences. For what it's worth, tne element I found that belongs between features and benefits is capabilities. (i.e., features --> capabilities --> benefits.) Product managers and engineering types I've worked with for years often have a hard time distinguishing features and benefits, but part of their difficulty is because capabilities falls in between the two, but a capability isn't a benefit...what the capability provides IS the benefit. So to use the classic drill bit example: drill bit feature=sharp tungsten steel edges; capability=drills holes quickly in all kinds of materials; benefit=saves time and money by having just one do-it-all drill bit to create holes in all kinds of materials (vs. having to buy many different drill bits for different materials and hunt for the right one depending on the material.)

    Bill MakleyMay 22, 2013 at 10:46 am

  2. I'm a shopaholic so I already knew the difference between benefits and features and yes I agree benefits are what makes shopping FUN! It's what gives you "the RUSH!" Right down to your twinkling toes or that very core of ones self. You're getting "that something" that's going to put you on top! If your customer feels this good you will get a sale every time! Every time! Unless of course they have no money. Then in that case you ain't getting NO SALE! No matter how good of a sales pitch you have.

    The Missy-Jo BlueOctober 22, 2014 at 1:02 am


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