Laddering is a market-research technique used in consumer marketing that seeks to explain why people buy and use products and services. Small-business owners, you too can utilize laddering to create successful new products, services, and marketing campaigns that tap into your customers’ emotional desires.
Laddering connects the emotional desires of your potential customers or clients to the attributes of your product or service. The ultimate goal is to link your brand to a value. For example, Starbucks=quality, Keen=outdoorsy, Harley-Davidson=freedom. The most successful brands connect with more than one value (Apple=cool, user-friendly, beautiful).
Thomas J. Reynolds and Jonathan Gutman developed laddering in 1988, and they based it on Gutman’s Means-End Theory. (For their in-depth explanation of laddering, you can read the article they wrote in 1988 for the Journal of Advertising Research.)
There are four steps in laddering:
2. Functional benefits
3. Higher-order benefits
4. Emotional benefits
Each step is connected to the next step, and all four steps are important in understanding why people buy a product or service.
How Laddering Works
Laddering is used in your market research. With laddering, customers are interviewed individually, using a sequence of questions that begins with a product’s or service’s features. In simple terms, here is how laddering works:
First, ask: “Which feature do you like best?”
Second, ask about the feature’s benefit: “What does the feature do for you?”
Third, ask about the higher benefit: “What does the benefit do for you?”
Fourth, ask about the emotional benefit of the higher benefit: “What does the result mean to you?”
Once you’ve exhausted one feature, go through the steps with other features.
Laddering In Action
Here’s an example of using the laddering steps, in research being conducted for a client named Craig who provides graphic-design services. This is an interview with one of Craig’s clients, who manufactures exercise equipment:
What do you like best about Craig’s work?
What does his beautiful design do for you?
“It makes our ads, Web pages, and exhibit booths stand out.”
What do standout ads, Web pages, and exhibit booths do for you?
“They make us memorable.”
What does being memorable do for you?
“It makes it easier to get meetings with important potential customers.”
What do meetings with important potential customers do for you?
“They keep me in business.”
Do you see what just happened? The client has connected the hiring of Craig with being able to stay in business. (Remember that emotional benefits are personal. The same feature may lead to a different emotional benefits for different people, so generally, the more people you interview, the more accurate your results.)
So what do you do with this information?
A common technique in advertising is to reverse the laddering results: begin at the top with the abstract concept and work down to the features. Using that method, an ad for Craig’s design services might look like this:
Headline: DO YOU WANT TO STAY IN BUSINESS?
Copy: Are you struggling to get a meeting with The Big Prospect? Craig Design makes it easier, because people remember Craig’s work. Craig Design will make your marketing campaigns stand out, creating ads, Web pages, and exhibit booths that are beautiful.
Hire Craig. Stay in business.
Laddering gives you the raw material you need to build a potent marketing campaign. Your goal then is to methodically help customers step up the ladder. When customers reach the top, you have given them an emotional connection to your product’s or service’s features.
Have You Used Laddering?
Tell us about it in the comments below.