Features & benefits – symbiotic rivals?

Almost every copywriter will have heard the phrase “features over benefits” before, and almost every copywriter will know what it means — where you are asked to promote a product or service, you should always highlight the benefits over the features. Thus; a kitchen should be sold on the basis of “easy to clean” rather than “features double-coated surfaces”, likewise, a Blu-ray player should be promoted on the basis of “impresses your friends” rather than “comes with touch-screen remote”, and so on.

Where a piece of copy is directed at the average consumer, it can’t be denied that this rule carries a certain degree of logic: in the vast majority of cases, the customer will neither know — nor care — about the technical features a service or product boasts. The likelihood is that they will want to know what sort of improvement it will bring to their life; in what ways they will benefit from the product or service.

The problem however, is that there will always be a minority of consumers for whom the above does not apply. In many cases, we will find ourselves addressing a savvy consumer; the sort of person who will not be fobbed off with emotional talk about how the product “makes them feel”. In this instance then, contrary to copywriting gospel, we might want to reverse our tactic: we may want to emphasise the features over the benefits instead.

Unfortunately, this new rule presents a problem of its own: how do we know when to highlight features over benefits? In most cases though, I think this issue can be easily resolved. When a product or service is tailored to a niche marketplace, the odds are the consumer will want feature-rich copy rather than benefit-laden content. Typical examples include — an 800m telephoto lens, an industrial-grade lathe, or a high end laundry service; all products which would, almost by intuition, seem to demand something a bit more technical than “puts a spring in your step”.

So far then, it seems fair to deduce the following: benefits over features for generic mass-market items, but features over benefits where niche market items are concerned. No doubt, this is a good set of rules to apply in general; we can see how there are two basic types of consumers, and that these consumer’s needs are inversely related. But I still think this approach can be improved upon. Rather than focusing solely on features or benefits, it would make more sense to include a degree of both at once.

The reason why I think we should mix in features and benefits together is simple: ordinary conversation usually contains an element of the two, and so any piece of copy that mirrors the same tendency will likely come over more natural as a result. And that any good piece of copywriting should aim for naturalism over artificiality is hopefully clear enough in itself! Let’s take a couple of examples to see how everyday conversation involves a mixture of features and benefits…

If I was to talk about my upcoming holiday with friends, it would be very unusual if I only emphasised the features of the holiday — low cost, inclusive meals, plenty of places to visit, low crime levels, hot weather etc. It would also be strange if I only focused on the benefits — saving money, cultural enrichment, physical safety, getting a good tan, etc. A typical conversation about my forthcoming holiday would likely include a mixture of features and benefits: “I can’t wait to go to LA, apparently the weather is lovely there, it will be amazing”. “There’s so much to do in London, I’ll be too busy to even notice the cold weather”.

We can break it down like this…

London

Feature: lots to do/plenty to see. Benefit: too busy to notice the poor weather.

LA

Feature: warm weather. Benefit: having a good time.

From the above examples, something else should become apparent: features and benefits are not only interdependent, they are tied in a one way cause-effect relationship — the feature always brings about a particular benefit. This additional fact should also highlight why it often feels unnatural to come across a piece of copy that only includes one or the other. Since language is built upon of cause-effect statements, any writing that includes only causes or only effects is likely to strike us as unconventional if not anti-grammatical.

Of course, producing naturalistic copy should not entail mixing together features and benefits in an even split. When producing content aimed at a niche market, we will probably want to err on the side of features, and for a more general piece of copy aimed at the mass market, we will probably want to emphasise the relevant benefits. Whichever ratio we decide upon however, I think the end result will be the same: writing that is authentic rather than artificial.

So are features and benefits really rivals then? Hopefully I’ve shown that they can co-exist, and actually form a symbiotic partnership.

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