The Benefit Ladder

Over the years, we’ve partnered with clients from various industries, including technology, finance, and retail. What we’ve learned is that whether you’re a consumer technology company or a large financial institution, one thing is always true: when you’re standing on the inside, it’s hard to separate what you do (functions and features) with the value you’re providing to your customer base (benefits).

When we’re retained to help a brand with strategic messaging and market positioning, something we’ve found works is the Benefit Ladder.

What  is the Benefit Ladder?

The Benefit Ladder, derived from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, moves from physiological needs at the bottom to self-actualization at the top. You can use this structure to map out firms in the industry using key messages (which are often indicative of positioning) around functions and features at the bottom of the ladder all the way up to high level benefits at the top.

At the bottom is where you find companies who describe the nuts and bolts of what they do: the language is typically more granular and specific around the features of the product or service they are selling. At the top of the ladder, companies tend to talk more about lofty benefits and how their offerings are solving “bigger picture” problems.

Messaging or positioning in a category will often move “up the ladder” as the category matures. When it starts, if the function of the product or service offers something new (example: mobile phones = ability to make a call wherever you are) that function in and of itself is attractive to consumers. Then, in an attempt to differentiate from other players, companies start to stress specific features (again, mobile phones: we have the broadest coverage; our sound quality is so good, you can hear a pin drop.) Once everyone offers the same features, then companies begin to stress various benefits. Ultimately, the category gets to the emotional end-benefits that correlate with self-actualization: confidence, security, happiness, fulfillment, satisfaction, connection etc. (mobile phones: always in touch with those you love = connected).

Generally speaking, there’s no inherently right or wrong place on the ladder. Development of the category, unoccupied territory, brand equity, user relevance, and creative opportunity are all reasons to choose a particular place on the ladder.

Perhaps it’s something you can use at your company, or with a project you’re currently developing. Let us know what you think!