Marketing writing: why features smell and benefits sell

Time and time again I look through all my posts here on HTWB and see references to the old “features and benefits” issue in marketing and commercial business writing. But still, people ask me what I mean, how it works, why it matters, etc.

A long time ago in one of my earlier books, articles, blog posts et al about marketing writing (and in subsequent ones) I came up with this rather clumsy phrase which despite it containing a rhyme – surprisingly – many people have taken up with a smile and much gusto:


Why is this so relevant when it comes to writing for marketing or even other, less sales-focused business writing?

Because it’s true (OK, metaphorically.)

In many ways I feel guilty even posting about this topic on here when the “features versus benefits” issue has been wallowing around in marketing and advertising circles for not only years, not only decades, not only generations, but probably not short of centuries now, too.

But still, there are some people who don’t understand the difference. And many of these are people who are trying to market products and services into an increasingly complex and, indeed, overworked marketplace in which folks are so bloody tired of hearing about features, they just want to scream. Why?




Easy. Yet why are so many marketing exercises blighted by the features virus, when it ain’t so hard to turn a feature into a benefit which actually does stand a cat’s chance in hell of selling your product or service fairly and squarely?

Here’s how to do it

I’ll go back to a pretty basic example, once again extracted from one of my earlier books (I don’t do complicated, OK?) Here we’re talking about a garden chair:

Feature: AL-alloy metal frame with HK-147 PVC compound, polyurethane seat and back rest

Benefit: You can relax in comfort knowing that its sturdy frame and durable seat back are not only comfortable, but also that they’ll last for many years

Feature: Fade-proof coating withstands sun and heat up to 35°C constant for 72 hours. Factory tested for efficacy

Benefit: Looks good for years to come even in strong sun and sizzling summer temperatures, thanks to fade-proof, factory-tested coating

Feature: Delivered in flat pack with full assembly instructions. Pack suitable for long-term storage prior to assembly.

Benefit: Arrives in convenient pack for you to store for the winter… then assemble in minutes, ready for spring!

But what if features are objectives, not nuts and bolts?

No problem. You simply apply the same criteria to the objectives as if they were nuts and bolts: what’s in it for the recipient? Some examples…

If you want to inform people (feature), their benefit is that they increase their own knowledge resource.

If you want to train people (feature), their benefit is that is improves their skills and abilities to do their jobs better and gain skills which will be useful for them in their future.

If you need to rebuke people (feature), their benefit is to understand that no-one’s perfect but you can learn to overcome a problem and so be better at your job.

If you want to entertain people (feature), their benefit is to feel appreciated and valued.

If you want to energize/motivate people (feature), their benefit is to see why it’s worth their while to go the extra mile and be recognized for it.

And how does this fit in with current 21st century “marketing think?”

Answer: it fits right in there so tight it can’t even squeak. Just as it always has where marketing and – let’s face – a great deal more in the way of business communication is concerned. No matter how much old advertising and branding strategies have been dissolved by the here, now, up-your-nose (and very welcome) nature of online marketing in particular, the old features versus benefits issue hasn’t changed one tiny jot.

So if you need to write for marketing or even more general purposes, remember my clumsy little mnemonic


Make sure your marketing writing sells, not smells:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

Marketing writing: the benefit of the benefits

Often within a marketing mission you’ll be dealing with what appears to be dozens of features which turn into at least several benefits. Usually that is an illusion, because even an apparently unrelated selection of benefits will probably have a common denominator, and it’s the common denominator that’s going to get – and retain – your audience’s attention, not a shopping list of different, lesser benefits.

I once wrote a series of videos for a large chain of real estate agencies which offered numerous attractive features that its competitors couldn’t match. The problem was how to focus those features into benefits, and then into one useful message.

Each of those features was translatable into a benefit in its own right (well trained staff = people who know how to give you the service you want … online mortgage calculator = find out in seconds how much you can borrow … interactive website offering virtual home viewings = potential buyers can log on and tour your home, so you don’t have an endless stream of strangers schlepping around it … etc.)

However, expressing it all that way would not have worked. Lots of benefits amount to just that – lots of benefits – which have a way of diluting each others’ impact.

Look for the umbrella benefit

One key “umbrella” benefit, though, not only gets attention – it also provides a central focus for what your mission and your message are all about.

And in many cases, that represents what the advertising world calls the “USP” – Unique Selling Proposition. The key “umbrella” benefit is what makes your message worth paying attention to – “what’s in it for them.”

In the case of the real estate agency chain, it was the fact that because of all these wonderful features/benefits, they took the stress out of selling your home.

Under the “umbrella” benefit, then, the other, smaller benefits serve to substantiate and support it. And that’s OK. What isn’t OK is when you find that someone has sneaked in and added stuff which has little or nothing to do with the main issue.

What if there are no obvious reader benefits?

Sometimes of course, there are no obvious key benefits for the recipient of the message, e.g. “I need more money to finance my business and I want to borrow it from you.” Here you need to look a bit harder, but usually it’s still possible to drum up something. If you use “Request for further finance” as the subject heading in a letter or e-mail to the finance company then it’s clear there is absolutely nothing in it for them, so you’d better be a good customer and regular payer to stand a chance.

However, what about “Capital required to launch sought-after new product” … or even a play on the heartstrings with “Request for further funding to secure company’s future and employees’ jobs.” Both of those offer the reader something, at least, which is always better than nothing at all.

For example…

Let’s say you need to write an article about your product for a newsletter that goes out to retailer managers who sell your product and others’. Remember, your basic premise is to increase their product knowledge but your key – if subliminal – objective is to increase their enthusiasm for your product rather than your competitors’.

Here’s how to bring out the benefits in relation to the retail managers’ needs:

1. They’re busy and don’t get a lot of time to read. So you need to make your article very crisp, short, sharp and to the point. Whatever you do don’t waffle or you’ll lose them. Respect their time pressures and use this angle in your article. Stress how your product’s ease of demonstration saves counter staff’s time. Point out your streamlined re-ordering facility that just takes one click on the website. And so-on.

2. Their key role in life is to please their customers. So don’t write about your product as if your reader is going to use it. Remember your reader is only going to sell it. By all means tell them how well the product will perform for their customers, but relate that to how pleased their customers will be to have bought it from them. Talk about your product/brand loyalty schemes and how they keep bringing the customer back to their stores. Talk about your direct mail customer follow-ups that mention the retailer concerned. Etc.

3. They’re not the only ones who will sell your product. They are likely to have employees to whom they will need to pass on this information. So keep it simple and stress the ease of demonstration, key points for store employees to point out, etc.

4. They like to go home before midnight. This is related to the time issue, of course, but also means they will dislike products that require a lot of administration, special storage, inconvenient delivery times, etc. So it’s worth underlining the convenience of your company’s way of doing business, as well as the product itself.

5. They are decision makers in terms of how much, but not if. This assumes your product is on their company’s approved list – which for this example we assume it is. So your objective is to encourage larger orders at the same time as a larger volume of sales. Here it would be useful to talk about the high-impact advertising and PR campaigns you’re running to drive customers into their stores.

Easy. Just remember, no-one is going to care how wonderful your product’s or service’s features are until they know its benefits … what’s in it for them.

More benefits for your marketing writing:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

Marketing writing: what’s in it for you?

As you know, the key objective of the vast majority of marketing missions is to bring about some kind of change.

This can be active, like a change in behavior (buying office stationery products from your store rather than your competitors’, using your software products/training programs/coaching services instead of someone else’s, adopting your proposals for a new marketing strategy, etc.) or it can be passive – a change in perception (looking more favorably at a large employer within a community, promoting a celebrity or expert via the media).

99% of the time, to get anyone to change their way of thinking or behaving requires some kind of incentive. Very few people will change anything about themselves without a good reason for doing it, and that reason has be good for them – no-one else. This means that if you are going to persuade anyone to change their views or their actions as a result of absorbing your message, it has to offer some sort of implied or actual reward.

Do yourself a favor. Take a felt-tip pen and a piece of white paper, and write this down:

What’s in it for them?

Now pin the piece of paper up on the wall of your office or workspace. That’s your motto whenever you compose anything that forms part of any marketing mission you undertake.

Another point which runs on from here is that there is absolutely nothing new about this notion.

The evergreen stalwart of “what’s in it for them” – a derivative of the equally old “features and benefits” story – has nothing whatsoever to do with the latest Business School philosophies and everything to do, simply, with human nature.

People do not move out of their comfort zones unless there is something in it for them. And why should they? Very few animals embrace change because change usually means facing the unknown, of which most creatures are scared. So change with no obvious compensation suggests insecurity, threats to the status quo, upsets within the hierarchy, disunity within the herd, vulnerability to predators.

Business gurus try to persuade us that corporate change is good, and in most cases, of course, they’re right. Without change we’d still be living in caves and growing turnips for a living.

Change is scary and outside people’s comfort zones

However ordinary folks are sceptical of change and for good reason. In a corporate context, far too often in recent years the word “change” has been used as a smelly smokescreen that really means job cuts. “Change” in a marketing context often has been used as an equally smelly smokescreen permitting manufacturers to sneak in price rises. “Change” and its stable mate “progress” have been used repeatedly to shame us all into regularly buying new bits of technology whether we need them or not.

Yes, yes, I know that’s what keeps the wheels of commerce turning. But we need to work with the tide of human nature, not against it, if we’re going to achieve the objectives of our marketing missions.

Okay, as business people ourselves we all work to earn money and we understand that our role often does mean engaging in marketing missions that help organizations to downsize, raise prices in line with inflation, create demand that sells more product, etc. etc. But no matter how good we are at our jobs we’re never going to re-engineer human nature.

That’s why I believe that for any marketing mission to succeed it has to supply what human nature needs – something worthwhile in it for the recipient, no matter how subtle, to create the impulsion and motivation needed to overcome people’s innate resistance to change.

Features smell – benefits sell

For the sake of your marketing mission’s success, we need to take a good, long look at the old “features and benefits” story. Sales trainers have been attempting to drill this into the brains of sales men and women for decades. It’s what advertising copywriters learn, or should learn, before they attempt to write their first classified ad in a local newspaper.

Features smell, benefits sell. That’s another sentence you won’t read in the lecture notes from any self-respecting business school. But I like the way it both rhymes and expresses an important point.

For anyone who still doesn’t know the difference between the two, here goes: features are what something is, benefits are what it does for you.

Now if you apply that to your marketing mission – say an advertising project like a mail order or online shopping ad for a garden chair – it’s very easy to pick out which is which…

Features                                                                                                                                                             Benefits               

AL-alloy metal frame                                                                                You can relax in comfort – knowing

with HK-147 PVC compound,                                                                   its sturdy frame and durable seat

polyurethane seat and                                                                            back are not only comfortable, but

back rest                                                                                                                 they’ll also last for many years


Fade-proof coating                                                                                  Looks good for years to come even

withstands sun and heat up                                                                    in strong sun and sizzling summer

to 35°C constant for 72 hours                                                           temperatures, thanks to fade-proof,

Factory tested for efficacy                                                                                              factory-tested coating


Delivered in flat pack with                                                                    Arrives in convenient pack ready to

full assembly instructions                                                                   store for the winter… then assemble

Pack suitable for long-term                                                                                in minutes, ready for spring!

storage prior to assembly


Easy. Just remember, no-one is going to care how wonderful your product’s or service’s features are until they know its benefits … what’s in it for them.

Some serious help that’s in it for you:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English