The Customer Benefits Ladder. Everyone’s talking about it. Alas, it has had many names over the years. Sometimes it is part and parcel to a product manager’s “features and benefits,” languishing somewhere in a PowerPoint. Other times, an ad agency writes a creative brief, because the plainspoken truths have been lost amidst acronyms and inter-corporate gobbydeegook.

If you don’t have a customer benefits ladder for each product or service, then create them. If you think you have one, but the nearest salesperson has no clue what you’re referring to, get all over it.

The customer benefits ladder uses simple phrases, free of jargon and what you might think are common “industry terms.” Your teenager can read it. Boring, yes. But he can read it and generally feeds back what it is getting across.

Most important is the “emotional benefit” at the very top of each ladder.

The case study

Here’s the story of a simple feature that will be introduced by a long-trusted brand of cookware: Each pot and pan handle will include a molded silicon grip. The brand manager who dreamed it up hustles to grab the train across town. To hang out with creative people at the ad agency on the funky side of town is always respite from the madness and drudgery of her office. They needed her input to design the new packaging. She loved their blue jean, bean bag culture.

Once upon a time, her old-school but streetwise first boss told her, “Nothing important happens inside the office.” He scolded brand managers who didn’t have monthly travel expenses. “Get the hell out of here. Go home, talk to your dog about your product. You really believe anyone in this place knows what the next great thing should be?”

Settled on the subway, she smiles, recalling what an odd and amusing old duck her boss had been. Little of what he said back then made any dent until she took her second job. Then, her worldview inverted. The MBA went out the window, while her first boss’ passion for their products and his savage pragmatism came to the forefront.

An inkling of inspiration almost returns. She jots down some thoughts for the advertising folks…

  1. Product feature: Silicon grips on the handles.
  2. Product benefit: Silicon doesn’t get hot or melt.
  3. Customer benefit: Grabbing the handle won’t burn you or make you drop the pot.

Now, what is the real emotional benefit? What really matters to the guy buying this? He’s not a chef but enjoys cooking. He’s not married, but would like to be. He’s not afraid of getting his hands burned, but in focus groups, men were more outspoken than usual about her sleek, silicon-handled pots and pans.

Getting real about product benefits

“What is the real emotional benefit of this product feature,” she tasks herself to answer.

  • Knowing your family will be safer working in the kitchen (mostly your dog)
  • Safer, easier cooking—with no potholders!
  • Smooth, fashionable grip also looks “cool.”

She doesn’t need to re-read her list. None of them seem 110%. Her old boss would know which word to cut and which to add. He’d know before she had started.

Make a break in the action…

Are your website and marketing materials more than two years old? Think about it. You may say the site or brochures are new because a new look and feel were applied or there was another print run. But when was the last time you had someone sit down and read it? Someone having no vested interest in your company at all? Then, have them read two competitor’s websites.

Does that sound too elementary? It never ceases to amaze me when I re-read work I did only a few months ago, let alone a year ago. The market moved. Competitors updated themselves. Or, the brand I have on my plate has new things to say.

For me, this starts with the Customer Benefits Ladder. Once you have very short, crisp and simple statements that cut to the chase of the real features and emotional benefits, you’re on your way to delegating the development of more and more fresh content to marketing and sales.

Get a grip! Returning to our story, which of our brand manager’s three possible “emotional benefits” is the best one?

What would you write?