Brand Laddering: The Framework for Specific Product Benefits and Credibility

One of the big myths of marketing is that a “good product” sells itself.

The legend is just that – a falsehood – because of the many factors, like distribution and brand awareness, which must happen before sales occur. The more important issue, framed as question, is: What does a good product even look like?

To answer that query, we need to review a “brand benefit ladder,” a framework, which allows us to understand the ways a product attracts consumers. This ladder has three levels:

  1. Attributes: The physical features of the product or series of products, which may refer to technical benefits or specific strengths like the maximum speed of a sports car, the size of a flat screen TV or the weight of certain type of commercial printing paper.
  2. Functional Benefits: This category involves the deliverable objective of a product or brand. For example: Teeth whitening strips have a clear function, intertwined with their technical benefits. In comparison, a sports car has obvious attributes, but that does not mean its functional benefits make it comfortable for a companion or good fit for a message about automotive safety.
  3. Emotional Benefits: In this case, a product or brand goes well beyond its functional performance. Take, for instance, Coca-Cola Zero: This sugar-free beverage has an identifiable market aimed towards men who do not want to feel like this drink is in any way “feminine.” The product is the anti-metrosexual, sugar-free, original-taste solution. It is about a state of mind, a passion, and an aspiration. This dimension illustrates how a brand connects with consumers on an emotional plane, by introducing heritage, family values, reassurance, vitality, enjoyment and other qualities.

These three dimensions build the brand benefit ladder, in its traditional layout. It is a simple yet powerful framework, which can be used in building a brand from start to finish. It may also be a diagnostic tool, to verify whether a product’s messages are credible and relevant to customers.

In fact, one of the most powerful uses of the laddering method involves building or enhancing a brand’s legitimacy. Each of the benefits can be tested for relevance and believability, to ensure that the message is credible from a customer point of view.

The success of that message will depend on a consistent look and feel (e.g. tone of voice, colors), or form/ delivery mechanism (e.g., a tablet vs. a gel pill, vs. a liquid, vs. a spray) or an endorsement (e.g. by lending authenticity to a product through the image of another brand or famous person).

In the past three years, leading edge, sophisticated marketers readapted this model to include a fourth dimension: The societal benefits.

This category focuses on a brand’s influence in its respective community, what its role as a corporate citizen is and what its relationship with the environment should be.

The drivers or influencers for this model are not built on short-term trends; they are the result of long-term, expected effects of things we are only now seeing.

As an example, we have Millennials, which are already an important portion of the population and of the marketplace: A soon-to-be leading group with even greater impact, from a social and economic point of view.

From my own experience, in a study on beverage consumption that I conducted with Francisco Pestana from Advisium Growth in Barcelona (Spain), we noticed that Millennials, who are the driving force behind global spirits brands, are also keener than any other consumer segment in trying locally brewed craft beer, and even more attuned if the brand has a track record of sourcing only in its local community.

We also discovered that Millennials are more likely to disengage from a brand, which is not a good corporate citizen. Metaphorically, while they are not seeking he “greenest” brand, this generation will exclude from their repertoire a clearly ‘un-green’ choice.

On the other hand, there is a growing segment of the population, which is looking for ‘greener’ products and brands. In that regard, the so-called LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) segment is a fast-growing $500 billion USD community, which is willing to pay for a premium for a healthier and more sustainable solution.

For them, it is critical that workers are employed in humane conditions, where companies use energy efficient manufacturing resources, and products that rely on recycled and organic materials, sourced in conflict-free zones.

Finally, these long-term changes are also described in one of the most recent books from Prof. Philip Kotler, who already envisions a new type of branding, called Marketing 3.0, where a company needs to deal with their social responsibilities, and what he calls the environmental imperatives of branding.

How do we build societal benefits in our brands?

First and foremost, by being sincere, because faking them can be easily spotted. The second step is to assess what is relevant to our customers and whether that fits with our brand positioning.

The third step is to think of ways of giving back to the community, or enabling citizens in their pursuits. (I was recently in London, moderating a workshop in which we co-generated ideas to reduce food waste, by using apps and envisioning a more diffuse Internet of Things; by getting neighbors to work together to find a common solution to an everyday personal problem, which impacts everybody.)

This makes for a compelling, relevant societal benefit, when placed in the right context.

So, what is your brand doing for your community? That is the question every executive should ask about a product, company or brand.

Filiberto Amati is the Founder of Amati & Associates, a group of Innovation Catalysts, Branding Architects and International Experts that works with a variety of multinational companies and top consumer products throughout the world.

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