Move from Functional to Self-Expressive Benefits

Help people express themselves, so they can be cool at Zara, successful in a Lexus or creative with an Apple.

There is a compulsion to focus in on functional benefits. It comes perhaps from the legacy of the Rosser Reeves unique selling proposition that brought us the candy that “melts in your mouth instead of your hand.” A functional benefit is appealing. Our instinct, especially if we reside in the high tech or a B2B sector, is to assume that customers are rational and will be swayed by functional benefits.

Further, when asked why customers buy this brand or avoid that one, we assume they will give functional reasons. The resulting insights often have an inordinate influence on strategy. But we have too much evidence from behavioral economists and market researchers that shows customers are far from rational. We see it every day. Even an airline, when buying a plane, will, in the end, be influenced by their gut even with piles of proposal details in front of them.

“When a brand provides a self-expressive benefit, the connection between the brand and the customer is likely to be heightened.”

In most contexts, customers lack the motivation, the time, the information or the competence to make decisions that will maximize performance outcomes and project functional benefits from other brand associations. Even worse, strategies based on functional benefits are often strategically ineffective or limiting:

  • Customers may not believe that a brand has a functional advantage because of competitors’ conflicting claims, and they may not believe the benefit represents a compelling reason to buy the brand.
  • If the functional benefit represents a point of differentiation, competitors may quickly copy it.
  • The benefit may not represent a basis of a strong, long-term relationship because there is no emotional attachment.
  • A strong functional association confines the brand, especially when it comes to responding to changing markets or in exploring brand extensions.

A Crest that is about toothpaste will be less able to win in other categories than a Crest that enables people to feel healthy and shine confidently in social settings. Thus, it makes sense to move beyond functional benefits and consider self-expressive, social and emotional benefits as a basis for the value proposition.

Self-Expressive Benefits

Brands and products, as symbols of a person’s self-concept, can provide a self-expressive benefit by providing a vehicle by which a person can express his or her self. “When I buy or use this brand, I am___.” A brand does not have to be Harley-Davidson to deliver self-expressive benefits. A person can be cool by buying clothes at Zara, successful by driving a Lexus, creative by using Apple, frugal and unpretentious by shopping at Kmart, or adventurous and active by owning REI camping equipment.

Using a Schwab account is a signal that a person can manage an investment portfolio. When a brand provides a self-expressive benefit, the connection between the brand and the customer is likely to be heightened. For example, consider the difference between the brand connection of using Lancôme, which may heighten one’s self-concept of being sophisticated, exotic, and mysterious versus using Jergens or Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion.

Social Benefits

The drive to have friends, colleagues, family and groups with common interests is intense and can generate immediate and long-term rewards. People are not only fulfilled with social relationships, they are influenced as well. Many brands have the capability of participating or even driving social benefits. “When I buy or use this brand, the type of people I relate to are ____.”

There are several types of social benefits. The Hyatt brand has focused on enabling a social feel and experience. Sephora created a community with Beauty Talk that provides a social dimension to the brand. Others can involve affinity groups: “When I go to Starbucks I am part of a closed club of aficionados, even if I don’t interact with any.” Still others can involve aspirational groups: “When playing with a Titleist Pro V1, I am among a group that contains some really good golfers.”

Emotional Benefits

An emotional benefit relates to the ability of the brand to make the buyer or user of a brand feel something during the purchase process or use experience. “When I buy or use this brand I feel___.” Thus, a customer can feel safe in a Volvo, excited in a BMW, refreshed with Coca-Cola, or warm when receiving a Hallmark card. Evian associated itself with the satisfied feeling that comes from a workout with its “Another day, another chance to feel healthy” tagline. takes the stress out of the car buying experience.

Emotional benefits add richness and depth to the brand and the experience of owning and using the brand. Without the memories that Sun-Maid raisins evokes, the brand would border on commodity status. The familiar red package links many users to the happy days of helping mom in the kitchen (or the idealized childhood for some who wished that they had such experiences.) The result can be a different user experience, one with feelings and a stronger brand.


Two tips for avoiding the functional benefit trap:

  1. Create a strong brand personality. Most brands with personalities deliver beyond functional benefits.
  2. Aspire to deliver multiple benefits. Providing both functional and emotional benefits is more effective than just one of the two. Photo: unverdorben jr / Shutterstock

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