The 4 Levels of Features and Benefits

You’ve heard it before: When advertising your product, stress benefits instead of features. But it’s a little more complicated than that. To be accurate, what you can say about your product doesn’t just fall into one of those two categories – features or benefits. Experienced marketers know that there are actually four levels here: features, advantages, benefits, and ultimate benefits. The more you understand and use all four levels – and not just focus on benefits – in your advertising, the more effective it will be.

Let’s take a close look at these four levels:

1. The lowest level is features. A “feature” is what a product is or has – something that literally describes it. For instance, one feature of a tire might be that it is steel-belted. Another might be that it is double-ply. A feature can sometimes be just as good a selling point as a benefit – even if the prospect doesn’t understand what it is! For instance, when I was a kid, I remember seeing brochures for new car models coming out that boasted about “rack and pinion” steering. The carmakers hyped this feature so much, people started asking dealers, “Does the car have rack and pinion steering?” Yet, I bet not one buyer in a hundred really knew what rack and pinion steering was. (I still don’t, to this day.)

2. Next, there are advantages. An “advantage” is a feature of your product that competitive products don’t have. You know that to get consumers interested in your product, you must show how it is different. Well, the advantage is that point of differentiation. For our tire example, the advantage might be that our tire is the only steel-belted radial tire that is also double-ply.

3. Moving up the hierarchy, the next level is benefits. A “benefit” is what the product does – and how the consumer comes out ahead as a result of it. Going back to our tire example, the benefit of a steel-belted, double-ply radial might be that the tire grips the road tighter and increases safety while driving. Or that if it gets punctured by a nail, you can drive on it for another 100 miles before you have to change it.

4. At the top of the product-description hierarchy is what I call ultimate benefits. An “ultimate benefit” is “the benefit of the benefit” – the most important way in which the product improves the user’s life. Ultimate benefits include saving money . . . saving time . . . making money . . . success . . . self-esteem . . . security . . . safety . . . joy . . . pleasure . . . happiness. In business-to-business marketing, a benefit might be “reduces energy costs.” The ultimate benefit can then be “you’ll be a hero within your company.”

In other words, if you achieve the benefit (reduced energy costs) for your company by purchasing the product, senior management will look upon you favorably. Remember the TV commercial that showed a baby sitting in the middle of a Michelin tire? That’s a good example of an ultimate benefit. Simply put: “If you buy our tires, you won’t kill your baby.” So if “ultimate benefits” are at the top of the hierarchy, does that mean you can use them without bringing in benefits, features, and advantages? Absolutely not.

To make your copy richer, deeper, and more credible, you have to use all four levels of product description. Ultimate benefits are extremely powerful, but they are too generic – not specific enough to be used alone. To give your advertising specificity, you must also state the specific benefit (e.g., “reduces energy costs by 50%”) that delivers the ultimate benefit (“you’ll be the hero of your company”). And though features are at the bottom of the hierarchy (and lots of marketing seminars urge you to stress benefits instead of features), you can’t ignore them.

Why? People are skeptical that your product can deliver the benefits you promise . . . because everyone is promising those same benefits. When you show how a particular feature delivers the benefit, it becomes more believable to the prospect. For instance, if you tell the buyer that your computer system never loses data, he thinks, “How can that be?” But when you describe the feature – that there is a built-in tape drive, and that the system automatically backs up to that tape drive daily – your claim becomes more believable. Believe it or not.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. For information, click here)