Features Tell, Benefits Sell

I gave a lecture to an undergraduate class at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. One of the topics I covered in my talk is the difference between features and benefits. The big point I made is the need to translate features into benefits whenever you communicate with somebody. This is the only way to reliably unleash the real value of a feature in advertising/promotion.

I have authored a couple blog posts on the subject already. The first post was an overview of the difference between features and benefits. The point I try to make in that post is features explain what something is while benefits explain why that is important to the person you are speaking with. I actually authored that post after I gave the same lecture last year.

The second post shared 10 questions to use in evaluating advertising. I tried to illustrate the use of the questions by evaluating some actual advertisements.

In preparation for the Shawnee State University class this year, and because the Strengthening Brand America website was recommended reading for the students in that class, I decided to reprise the second post and review some additional advertisements currently being placed in journals. My apologies in advance to the advertisers for using their advertisement as a learning tool; and my gratitude for their understanding.

Also, special thanks to Site Selection Magazine (a journal I read faithfully) which is the source I used for these example Ads.

In case you didn’t read the second post, here are the 10 questions again to refresh your memory –

 10 Questions

  1. Is the ad focused on communicating your promise?
  2. Does the ad make you want to learn more?
  3. Do you feel rewarded for taking the time to read the ad?
  4. Is the ad distinctive so you’ll stop to read it?
  5. Does the main idea in the ad focus on the promise?
  6. Is the main idea in the ad relevant to your target audience?
  7. Does the ad make you think and feel something?
  8. Is there drama in the ad that brings the benefit of the promise to life?
  9. Does the ad visualize the benefit of the promise?
  10. Does the ad include authentic reasons to believe the promise?

Each of the ads below is reviewed against these 10 questions. Obviously, the assessment is just my opinion. I would really like to have you share your perspective by leaving a comment. That will help make this post even more useful to the Shawnee State University students as a contribution to their learning experience.

  1. Yes, the promise is balance without compromise.
  2. Yes, the business tax reduction is an interest grabber.
  3. A weak yes.
  4. The visual is distinctive, but not universally appealing.
  5. Yes, the headline sets up a situation where a choice is often needed.
  6. Yes the need to compromise (trade-offs) is common in site selection.
  7. Yes, the visual is about feeling and the copy makes you think.
  8. Not much drama at all.
  9. Not really, the visual only deals with half of the promise.
  10. Yes, there are features listed but not presented in the context of a trade-off you can avoid.


  1. Yes, it is focused on Indiana promising a balanced budget.
  2. I might want to know more about how Indiana’s corporate tax rate compares to states without a balanced budget.
  3. No since no comparison with other states business tax rate is provided.
  4. The visual is distinctive since it is a state on a hanger.
  5. Qualified yes since the “in the black” headline and black dress visual have to do with the promise of a balanced budget. But, it doesn’t support lower corporate tax rate.
  6. Qualified yes. A balanced budget implies less expectation that a company will need to bear the burden of social services.
  7. The pun of a little black dress can be polarizing.
  8. Not really since there is no discussion on the problem a non-balanced budget creates.
  9. Only in the use of the color black.
  10. Tries to connect a balanced budget with lower taxes. But, according to the E&Y COST study Indiana’s total business tax is higher that some neighboring states (e.g. Iowa and Kansas).


  1. Promise is opportunity but ad is unclear on what that is intended to mean.
  2. Yes, enough features listed to potentially raise interest.
  3. A weak yes.
  4. The bright colored vignettes of work and play is interesting.
  5. Not without the reader investing time to interpret.
  6. Opportunity is relevant if explained.
  7. Weak in this area, nothing is emotionally grabbing.
  8. There is no drama.
  9. The visual drama does not uniquely suggest opportunity. It can be interpreted to mean many things.
  10. Simply having land available does not necessarily translate into opportunity.


  1. Yes, the promise is access to “big thinkers” and the ad focuses on that.
  2. Yes, the concept of having access to innovative talent is interesting.
  3. Yes, the fact of having more scientists and engineers per square mile is interesting.
  4. Yes, the design elements are unique in the category.
  5. Yes, the ad is all about big thinkers.
  6. Yes, having access to an educated talent pool willing to take risks is important.
  7. Yes, the phrase “states aren’t innovators people are” is both emotionally and intellectually engaging.
  8. Yes, particularly against the backdrop of the current political climate.
  9. The visual of the Governor as a big thinker is potentially polarizing and runs the risk of readers reacting along political biases.
  10. Yes and translates the feature of having “highly skilled and educated labor” into a benefit of “access to more of the top-level talent you need”.


Evaluating advertising is certainly a subjective activity. But, the process of evaluating an advertisement against a set of standard criteria leads to a productive discussion between an Agency (or in-house creative team) and the client. I certainly expect your answers to the 10 questions asked for each of these ads will differ from mine. The key is to understand the reason for the different answers from members of your team when evaluating your own ads. This will lead to productive modifications that will result in a better communicating ad.

I am a big fan of buy-ology Truth and Lies About Why We Buy authored by Martin Lindstrom. The book describes the science behind how we make purchase decisions.

Here are some memorable quotes from the book that are relevant to creating great advertisements.

“…emotions are the way in which our brains encode things of value, and a brand that engages us emotionally – think Apple, Harley-Davidson, and L’Oreal, just for starters – will win every single time.”

“…the filtering system in our brains has grown thick and self-protective. We’re less and less able to recall what we saw on TV just this morning, forget about a couple nights ago.”

“Or are they what I like to call ‘wallpaper’ ads – instantly forgettable, the advertising equivalent of elevator Muzak?”

I love the last quote and am concerned that many of the ads being created today are in fact the equivalent of elevator Muzak. This includes product, corporate, and destination ads.

Do You Agree With How I Answered The Questions For These Ads?

Please take a moment and share your thoughts. Are my answers consistent with what yours would be? How would you translate some of the features presented in the ads to benefits? Do you have examples of great advertising that would score well on the 10 question assessment?

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12 Comments so far

  1. Robert Cleveland

    September 27, 2012

    Thanks for posting, Ed! I don’t get nearly enough opportunities to look at copy these days.

    I think the drama in the Indiana ad is distracting from the message. Indiana’s fiscally constrained and effective government is so distinctive versus other states the use of the little black dress metaphor cheapens the message. I think this is especially true given the target for the ad, which is likely businesses considering entering or leaving Illinois and wondering what their taxes will do given it’s massive deficit and corrupt government.

    Could not agree more with your answers on Louisiana. This could be any one of a thousand industrial site advertisements I’ve flipped through in business magazine special sections.

    I think Michigan made a poor choice because this is is the same campaign they are directing at vacationers, but with a message adopted to business. They risk confusion and disengagement by the target. I may also be unique in reacting negatively to the claim of 86% reduction in taxes. 86% relative to what? Even after the reduction taxes could still be higher than neighboring states or high in the absolute. This feels deceptive and doesn’t do enough to address the state’s lingering negative equities of a high cost labor environment and union-controlled government.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Martin Calle

    September 28, 2012

    Thanks Ed for the invitation to comment on your post. Across the board here’s what I see. I see the same thing I always see when CPG brands formulate a product positioning based on product features and benefits. I see a legion of competitors all converging on exactly the same position saying the same thing differently. Which is what keeps ad agencies gainfully employed and not thinking very hard. (Hence the ad slant, ” I know at least half of my advertising budget works. I just don’t know which half.”

    I see several places here that therefore all immediately contribute to the formation of highly price-driven commodity categories – just as I do in pharmaceuticals, CPG, private equity and several other practice areas. “Come to my state or place and I’ll reduce your taxes while providing employees a great place to work … and by the way, we have a smart pool of potentially talented future employees.”

    Long ago I learned to walk in stupid everyday. To approach every assignment at Procter & Gamble and others as a blank slate. That way I could see the abstract selling propositions that were always so obvious they were not obvious to others who were solely focused on the cost-of-entry product or selling parameters that the market place and target audiences took for granted. “So now tell me something I don’t know about your product or offering that makes it even more relevant and resonant to me.” Of course Claritin is non-drowsy, but I buy it to get that “Clear Day.”

    As you say, I am the classic provocateur challenging those who run businesses to think beyond the status quo – which is how I’ve stood, or withstood the test of time at Procter & Gamble, one of the most knowledgable marketing companies in the world.”

  3. Susan Plunkett

    September 29, 2012

    Without going through all the questions I’ll tell you the brief impression I had of each ad:

    1. The Perfect Business Climate – potentially rapes and destroys pristine environment. I would pass on this ad.

    2. Indiana is the new black – no issue per se but I had to really read the ad to understand the meaning and context. Many consumers don’t like to read but this is passable.

    3. Welcome to opportunity – very business related but the images and layout don’t really match the thrust of the message in my view. Pass.

    4. States aren’t innovators – people are. Didn’t need to read the small print. I got a solid message and impression. On those ground alone this is the best ad of the set given here.

    Ads leave impression so whilst the detailed questions are useful for industry and/or panel scenarios, they don’t affect consumers. Consumers look and they ‘get’ a message (or don’t) within 5 secs. So, look at ads for 5 secs and look away – what did you glean? What was the thrust of the message? if you don’t know, the ad failed. Simple.

  4. Susan Plunkett

    September 29, 2012

    As a second post here Ed, I will refer to what I said in previous comment as the ‘5 second test’.

    You folk are largely discoursing ads from an in-house perspective and not a consumer one. You can therefore wax lyrical about all the inherent meaning stated in the ad after studying it and reflecting upon it’s content, but, once again that isn’t how a consumer or ‘user’ will deal with and interpret the ads. But of course what you hope is that your dissection and discourse [based on years of industry experience and understanding] will have created the best ads.

    Ask students to look at each ad for 5 seconds, turn it face down, grab a sheet of paper and write the thrust of the ad message down in one sentence. A GOOD solid add will result in students fairly easily summarising. The poor ads with too much fine print and unclear message won’t be easily or accurately summarised. You can add a couple of seconds if you like but no more than 7 because that’s all the time consumers will give before they move on, turn a page or click out if something doesn’t grab them.

  5. Bob Killian

    September 29, 2012

    I’m with Martin on this one. You have to move beyond benefits if all of your competitors are dressing up the same benefits.

    Research shows that one of the important factors in a company relocation to a new city/state/country is the opinion of the CEO’s wife. If she doesn’t want her kids to grow up with a Texas accent, Chicago will beat out Dallas. (That is, by the way, a real-life example.)

    To use numbers and percentages and bottom-line logic is a losing game. It is not, and will not be, a rational decision.

  6. Edward

    September 30, 2012

    Bob – Agree, distinctiveness is an important aspect of a great brand promise. When I lecture on what a brandi is, I describe it as a promise that sets an expectation of an experience. It must be relevant, competitive, authentic, clearly stated and consistently communicated. In interpret Martin’s counsel as a need to avoid category benefit statements and really understand the real consumer noticeable benefit so you can uniquely communicate it. At P&G, we refer to this as consumer insight. His Claritin example is an excellent one. The other classic example is that nobody wants a 3/4 inch drill bit, they want a 3/4 inch hole.

  7. Ed Roach

    September 30, 2012

    Frankly Ed, I don’t think any of them are inspiring.

    I suggest that you could take the logos, shuffle them and put them on any of the ads it wouldn’t matter, as none has a positioning strategy that differentiates them. They are all saying the same thing. Indiana strikes me as the worst. It says cheap.

    Show me the money. Show me businesses who’ve successfully moved to their state and how it changed their fortunes. Show me business people that resonate with business people. The ads speak to themselves not to (their audience).

  8. Susan Plunkett

    September 30, 2012

    Ed, you say “At P & G we…”. Are you still working at Proctor & Gamble?

    Consumer insights are revelations that consumers provide about their attitudes and preferences.

    There is a tendency to over-complicate discussions with overcomplicated phrasings. Consumer insights are, in the main, very straightforward.

  9. Ed Burghard

    September 30, 2012

    Susan – I retired in 2009 after a 33-year career at P&G.

  10. Susan Plunkett

    October 2, 2012

    I thought so….I was thrown by the other Edward posting.

    The comments feel overly P&G oriented. My own comments frankly wound up feeling like the stranger at a family party. I hope someone got something from what I offered.

  11. Ed Burghard

    October 2, 2012

    Given P&G’s expertise in advertising, the feedback is valuable. For perspective, looking at the commentors, only Martin is currently at P&G.

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