“Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”
“Focus on the benefits, not the features.”
“The more you tell, the more you sell.”
Someone says one of these in a meeting and everyone nods their head knowingly. These marketing truisms are held up as immutable laws every good marketer understands and obeys.
The problem with these rules of thumb is that they’re oversimplified. They’re often misleading, easily misinterpreted, and, sometimes, flat out wrong.
I’ll start with the recent study that inspired this post…
We all know sex sells. It’s why beautiful models are everywhere. This idea is so pervasive you’ll hear people with no involvement in marketing or advertising repeat it. Your parents probably say it.
But… it doesn’t work. Sex does not sell.
A recent metanalysis of over 80 advertising studies spanning three decades found ads with sexual appeal don’t actually sell any better than ads with no sexual appeal.
Sexual appeal ads are more likely to be remembered, but the company or product in the ad is no more likely to be remembered. People exposed to sexual appeal ads showed no greater interest in making a purchase than a control group.
Worse, this type of advertising may backfire. Study participants were more likely to have negative associations with brands that used sex appeal in their ads.
Does it work for some brands? Sure, but apparently that’s the exception, not the rule. Relying on “sex sells” as a formula for success, or even a safe bet, would clearly be a mistake.
What other falsehoods have we swallowed whole?
“Sell the sizzle, not the steak!”
People buy BMWs because BMW has sold them the sizzle, not the steak. People imagine themselves in a BMW, they picture it in their driveway. They think a BMW will make them happy and they’ll finally be successful.
If you can make people think about how they’ll feel with a BMW, they’ll subconsciously talk themselves into making the purchase. That’s what people really want so focus on that.
We’ve all heard this logic and wonder how we can sell our solution’s “sizzle.” We think, “That would be the key to a hit ad campaign.”
It’s true that with some of its more iconic ads BMW subtly sells a dream, emotion, or lifestyle. We think of BMW and we think of simple, pithy ads like this:
But, they’ve done decades of work, and spent billions of dollars, marketing the idea that BMW is a superior product. They didn’t come out of the gate selling sizzle:
Today, BMW can sell a sizzling dream because people are already aware that the “steak” is a well-engineered, full-featured luxury car with a track record of reliability. After decades and billions of dollars of very practical marketing and advertising, most consumers perceive BMWs as expensive, but worth the money. This is why BMW is able to skip over the “steak” and focus on the “sizzle.”
It would be a mistake for a small business to think that because BMW’s “sizzle ads” work for them, they should try to emulate that.
Rather than trying to tempt customers with appeals to their subconscious desires to be happy, popular, and successful, a much better piece of marketing advice is to make sure that:
- You sell the product,
- You sell the product’s product, and
- You sell the product’s product’s product.
The product is a car.
The product’s product is that it will reliably transport you from here to there in comfort and style.
The product’s product’s product, is that you’ll feel smart, sexy, and successful in your new BMW.
BMW has a strong enough brand that they can skip over the product (car) and the product’s product (performance, style, and reliability). The excitement of their recent “sizzle ads” (selling the product’s product’s product) is only adding fuel to a fire that’s already burning strongly. The “sizzle ads” help create a tipping point toward a purchase, but only because the product and the product’s product have already been sold.
Most small businesses aren’t playing the same game as BMW. You probably don’t have a hundred year old company with worldwide awareness, a stellar reputation, branded products criss-crossing the country, and billions of dollars to spend on ads.
You can certainly tempt someone with the dream (the product’s product’s product), but you’ve got to do an adequate job of selling the product’s product and the product or they won’t have any logic to justify the rational thought process that takes place prior to a significant purchase.
Along the same lines…
“Focus on the benefits, not the features”
It’s very easy to make the point that benefits matter over features with a simple example:
If you’re selling a weight loss book, you wouldn’t say:
It has 165 pages.
It’s printed on acid-free, archival quality paper.
It’s got a beautiful cover featuring a photo from a famous photographer.
That’s silly. You’d say:
You’ll look great when you lose 25 pounds in 3 months.
You’ll feel great about yourself when you finally get fit.
Your friends and family will be amazed and wonder how you did it.
It makes so much sense! You should sell the benefits of the information inside the book, not the features of the book itself. What idiot would sell the features of a book?
But, let’s say you’re selling a hiking boot:
You’ll be able to hike up even the tallest mountains!
Your feet will be protected from sharp objects and moisture.
You’ll be the envy of every hiker on the trail.
It doesn’t work quite so well, does it? People know the benefits of boots and they either like the style or they don’t. Now you’ve got to convince them that your handcrafted boots are worth twenty times what they would pay for a boot from Payless.
It might be better to focus a bit more on the “boring” features we’re told no one cares about:
We used the highest-quality, full-grain leather we could find. Properly maintained, these boots will last a lifetime.
Goodyear welt construction means you can resole these shoes when they wear out. No need to buy a new pair every few years.
We have a lifetime guarantee. If a stitch comes undone, send it back and we’ll promptly repair it or replace them.
Consumers are consciously, thoughtfully justifying their purchase with very practical lines of thought, just as much as they are subconsciously searching for happiness and fulfillment. Lately, we’ve begun hearing so much about how the subconscious mind controls our decisions that we’ve begun to overlook the importance of supplying rational reasons. Both are important.
To quote Michael Harris:
“Our subconscious/intuitive decision to buy is then communicated to the conscious mind via an emotion. The conscious mind then searches for rational reasons, and that’s how we complete the circle: We justify our emotional signals to buy with logical reasons.“
“Focusing on the benefits” and “focusing on the features” are both mistakes. Features and benefits go hand-in-hand. The more connected you can make them, the easier it is for the consumer to find the solid logic and reasonable justifications that precede a purchase.
I’ve seen companies so focused on benefits over features that I wasn’t able to figure out what they were selling after spending two minutes on their homepage (and then I was gone). If you focus too much on the benefits without logic that can be traced back to the actual product, you’ve watered down your copy just as much as you would with a boring bullet list of features.
“No one reads online. Focus on the visuals.”
I’ve heard people say that people don’t read online so the words don’t really matter. They say that the visual design of a page is more important. The page needs to look nice and words are just filler. The visuals and illustrations are actually doing the selling.
People read copy. They don’t read every word, but placing design above copy is like saying blue matters more than yellow. This is an example of people taking a research finding and taking it so far their conclusion is no longer supported by the evidence.
It’s closer to the truth to say that most people scan online. They scan images and they scan text. If you can catch their attention, they’ll slow down and look closer. They aren’t going to read every word you write, but that doesn’t make the words you use less important. The important thing is that your copy is relevant and interesting to them. I think Neil Patel said it best in his content marketing guide:
“So the argument that people don’t read simply isn’t true. What is true is that people don’t read things that aren’t interesting to them — whether that’s a magazine article or an ad. If something’s interesting and written well, people will read it; if it’s a topic that doesn’t matter to them, they won’t read it. It’s as simple as that.”
There are simple things you can do to ensure your important copy gets read like:
- Place your important points at the top of the page because the average visitor might only read 20% of the page
- People tend to read in an F-shape pattern online so try to place important points on the left rather than the right.
- Use concise headings and subheadings to convey interesting points that draw readers into reading the longer, more detailed paragraph text.
“The more you tell, the more you sell”
At the other extreme are people that say that visuals don’t matter and only the copy matters. These are often the people that promote long copy over short copy. There’s a staunch camp of people that believe “long copy always wins.”
For years I practiced the “the more you tell the more you sell” way of marketing because it worked. Why would I mess with what is working?
What I didn’t realize is that highly visual marketing also works. A 15 word landing page with a large image as the background beat my long copy control. My strict adherence to a rule of thumb was a mistake. If you search for “long copy versus short copy” you’ll see hundreds of examples of short copy beating long copy and vice versa.
This is because there isn’t an approach that is always best. Different approaches will be better for different scenarios. Relying on either extreme as the “only approach that works” would be a mistake. We need to be more flexible than picking an approach and always applying it. If you’re selling something complex or innovative, you’re going to have to explain more so you’ll need longer copy. If you’re selling something people are already familiar with, there’s no reason to state the obvious.
Basically, you take as much space as you need to communicate what you need to say. Nothing more. Nothing less.
It doesn’t rhyme or roll off the tongue, but it’s closer to the truth.
“You’ve got to be active on social.”
Nowadays, a lot of bad marketing advice is focused on social media. And, with good reason. Social media can raise awareness of your company. It can help a lot with branding. It can help strengthen your relationship with customers and build a loyal following. It can drive sales.
But is social media a must? Is it critical for every business to focus on social media? What if they only have very limited resources to devote to marketing?
Some products and businesses are better-suited for social media than others. For some businesses, social media may be a key part of their success, but for others, that time might be better invested elsewhere.
Our social media manager did some consulting work for a funeral home. The owners could not understand why no one was liking their Facebook page. They were considering starting up an Instagram account. They were convinced that social media should work because all the bad marketing advice they read said every business needs social media. This is an excellent example of a business that just isn’t well-suited for it. They’re going to see dismal engagement due to the nature of their business. Most people interested in that service aren’t looking to social media to find it. There were other channels that made more sense to focus on.
If you can get a better return on your time by investing in search engine optimized content, email marketing and marketing automation, or pay-per-click advertising, spending hours churning out new social media posts everyday doesn’t make sense. It also depends on what stage a business is at, the resources at their disposal, and how effectively it can be automated.
It’s important to keep it in perspective. Social media is a tool in a toolbox full of ways to create a powerful brand, nurture leads, and generate traffic. It’s not necessarily the magic key to success with online business any more than simply creating a website is.
If you’re investing time into social media everyday and not seeing returns, your time may be better spent elsewhere. Don’t continue investing in something that isn’t working just because everyone is saying you should. Trust your experience with your business over what the experts are recommending.
I’ll end this post with another trite truism: rules are made to be broken. Rigid adherence to rules of thumb isn’t a path to great marketing. The next time someone pulls out one of these lines, hear what they’re trying to communicate, but don’t let it stifle your line of thinking or doubt your own experiences.
Products, businesses, and markets are different enough that a one-liner can’t possibly capture all the range and nuance involved in all situations. What works for one target market, might not work for another. What worked 10 years ago, might not work today. What’s effective to sell one product, might not work for another.
Don’t be afraid to paint outside the lines and experiment. Failure is a huge part of marketing because it’s part of learning. Every failed experiment simply fleshes out and adds detail to your storehouse of information. The more complex and nuanced your mental models become, the better able you’ll be to apply the rules of thumb or cast them aside when it makes sense.