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Marketing to Overcome Barriers – When Selling Benefits Just Isn’t Enough

June 8, 2011

People who work in sales and marketing are trained to think in terms of benefits, and rightly so. While features may tell us about a product or service, they inform more than they motivate; buyers are motivated by benefits.

Consequently, marketing messages and sales presentations tend to focus on benefits. Selling becomes a process in which the seller identifies needs in the buyer, leads the buyer to an understanding (or deeper appreciation) of the benefits offered by a product or service, and closes the deal. Conventional sales wisdom teaches us that a properly qualified and adequately informed and focused buyer will purchase our products or services, as long as we are able to distinguish ourselves from our competitors and overcome his objections. On the surface, this seems rational, and the process usually works. But when benefits-oriented messages fail, they often fail due to the marketer’s oversight of a very important subgroup of buyers, on whom benefits messaging has no effect.

The error stems from thinking of “objections” as hurdles which the seller can ignore or overcome, whereas some buyer objections indicate very real barriers that stand between the buyer and the benefits he not only understands, but genuinely wants. Because we do not understand that this set of buyers already understands the benefits our products or services offer, we continue to barrage the market with benefits messages. It’s as if the buyers in this group are yearning to tell us, “Stop! I get it! I want to buy, but I can’t!”

Sometimes, the market is not divided into only two groups: those who understand the benefits we offer and those who don’t. Sometimes, there is also a very real and potentially large group of buyers who face a barrier that is virtually insurmountable, from their perspective. These buyers understand and want our products or services, and they will act if we can find a way to help them over the barrier.

When such subgroups exist in our market, it is our responsibility to identify them, target the barrier, and remove it. Then, once the barrier is removed, we need to develop a new set of marketing messages that clearly tells this subset of our market, “you are free to act; the obstacle has been removed.”

Many successful marketers have already learned this lesson. Harley-Davidson recognized that a large portion of their potential market understood the benefits of owning a motorcycle, but stopped short of purchasing, because they lacked the confidence to ride. So they created Riders’ Edge®, the Harley-Davidson Academy of Motorcycling. The Rider’s Edge experience begins with a New Rider’s Course that offers both in-class lessons and practical riding techniques. It also includes a Skilled Riders Course and a Group Riding Course for more experienced riders. Rider’s Edge effectively removed the barrier to motorcycle ownership for thousands of would-be riders. Similarly, BMW recognized that a large number of qualified buyers, who could easily afford the purchase price of the car, were unable to buy, because the potentially high cost of certain repairs would simply put ownership out of reach. They responded with BMW Ultimate Service®, which covered not only factory-recommended maintenance, but many replacement parts such as brake pads, discs and wiper blades. Both companies developed marketing campaigns that touted the new barrier-free options, and both harvested big gains.

Low-end consumer products have found barrier-removal techniques for their markets, as well. For years, mobile phone companies fielded complaints about their long-term contract requirements. Consumers understood the benefits of owning cell phones, they simply were not willing or able to commit to a long-term contract. Virgin Mobile and other companies developed no-contract, pay-as-you-go plans that opened cell phone ownership to whole new markets, and even made them viable gift options.

Planet Fitness saw an untapped market of buyers who didn’t want to be judged for being non-muscular, out of shape, or just plain overweight. These buyers fully understood the benefits of better fitness, and they had the money and desire to purchase, but social barriers prevented them from joining most health clubs. Planet Fitness created the Judgement Free Zone®, and developed marketing messages that appealed to their new market (even if they offended “the meatheads” and “the lunks”).

In each of these cases, the market understood the benefits. And most likely, the selling companies had heard the market’s complaints for years. In each case, the companies recognized that piling on more benefits messages would accomplish nothing, and treating the obstacles like objections was futile. Instead, these companies were able to distinguish legitimate barriers from objections, develop barrier-removal strategies and messages, and create new markets, capitalizing on the knowledge that – sometimes – benefits aren’t enough.

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