Do You Walk Your Talk?

  |  September 19, 2003   |  Comments

Make an emotional connection with prospects -- identify your brand with a human need.

I recently wrote about how people aren't able to buy unless they feel an emotion compelling them to buy. This means a large part of your Web site's responsibility is to instill confidence to make prospects willing to click the "buy now" or "contact us" buttons.

Meta-needs infuse emotion into the buying process. How do you identify the appropriate meta-need? Which meta-need fits your product or service? You can't just pluck a meta-need out of the air and declare, "let's use this one." The meta-need must be rooted in a fundamentally felt need. If your product doesn't satisfy a fundamentally felt need, the meta-need you communicate sounds absurd to customers. You'll be dismissed as blatantly manipulative.

How to identify meta-needs

We developed a methodology for discovering your meta-need during the uncovery phase. In uncovery, we work hard to identify and describe your core values. We write it down on a little piece of paper once we've found it and put it in our pocket. Then, we ignore it until the end of the uncovery process.

We then examine your product or service and list all the features. For each feature, we try to identify all possible benefits. This is done in two steps:

  1. After identifying each feature, we ask "which means?" until we've reduced the benefit to the simplest explanation possible. Example: more RAM means a faster computing experience.

  2. We ask, "Which need does the feature fulfill?"

Maslow listed four levels of satiable needs: esteem, love, safety and physiological. Self-actualization is excluded for now as it's an insatiable need (which is what drives the meta-needs).

Say you sell a mattress. Features revolve around quality and quantity of springs, cushioning, coils, etc. But what need does a coil or spring fill? All these features may make it easier to sleep comfortably and peacefully. We've identified the basic need: sleep. The next step is to learn what benefit sleep provides. Sleep provides rest. But rest isn't a meta-need; rest is a means to function the next day on a physiological level.

Hold on!

If we went only this far, we'd produce a better campaign than most competitors who scream about coils, cushioning and price. Those competitors probably stopped at "features" until some marketing person insisted on stating the benefits (and management's eyes glazed over). Their messaging explains their technology, but expects consumers to know enough to fill in the details.

It's a common form of marketing myopia, a result of expertise and too much intimacy with the product or service. We forget our customer is neither an expert nor intimate with what we sell. Let's assume better mattress marketers tell you how well rested their mattresses make you feel. But how many attempt to communicate what the mattress will mean to your life?

Deciding which meta-need fits

Here's where the going gets tricky. Remember that little piece of paper we put away earlier? Take it out now. We'll examine the possible meta-needs and decide which best fits your values. This is the most human part of the process. It's driven by intuition, experience and talent. To breathe life into a product or service, you can't only tell people you're about a meta-need. Demonstrate how and why you're about that meta-need.

Whether funny, intellectual or dramatic, you must stand for that meta-need in all you are and do. Appealing to and identifying with fundamental human needs makes prospects with that same meta-need feel connected. The customer chooses your product or service to self-actualize. Most Harley-Davison riders, in how they relate to the brand, make a profound statement about their self-identification.

The process is an analytical, methodical way to identify the correct meta-need for your product or service. In using this method, you might be tempted to minimize the value of the human equation. Don't let that happen!

My colleague B.J. Bueno went through this process for a mattress client. He developed an entire communications strategy based around the concept, "sleep well at night, so you can live your dreams by day." B.J. intuitively understood sleep is about being alive the next day. Aliveness is on the list of meta-needs and should "feel right" for most of us.

Stay true to your meta-need.

Once you identify the meta-need you're communicating, never sway from its values. One of Coca-Cola's fundamental values is tradition (derived from the truth meta-need). Coca-Cola has always been the "real thing." Pepsi, on the other hand, communicates to a "new generation." When Coca-Cola launched New Coke, they abandoned their values. Coca-Cola knew New Coke out-performed Coke in taste tests. New Coke beat Pepsi in taste tests. Nevertheless, New Coke bombed. If New Coke tastes better, why was it an abysmal failure? Coca-Cola made the fatal mistake of losing touch with their values.

Coke doesn't outsell Pepsi because it tastes better (in blind taste tests, people prefer Pepsi). It sells because Coke drinkers identify with Coke's values: truth and tradition. Many Pepsi drinkers (who identify with change) drink an occasional Coke, but few Coke drinkers betray their brand. When Coca-Cola introduced New Coke, it communicated its customers needed and wanted change. Were that the case, they might as well belong to Pepsi's new generation.

Don't allow a marketer or agency to define values you hold dear and will never waiver from. The value must be one you will communicate, consciously and unconsciously. It must offer something your customers can identify with.

Pepsi knows its identity is about the meta-needs of playfulness, beauty (youth) and newness (excitement). Pepsi's Web site attempts to be about fun and excitement. The values are congruent with the brand.

Ever company must recognize its values. No one's immune from losing focus. McDonalds once communicated fun and effortlessness. Now, it babbles about price. Once you start competing on price, you lose. Eventually, someone will have a lower price and defeat you. Fight for the hearts, not the wallets.

Have you defined your values? Have you articulated them to your staff and your customers? Does your Web site communicate those same values?

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Bryan Eisenberg

Bryan Eisenberg is co-founder and chief marketing officer (CMO) of IdealSpot. He is co-author of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times best-selling books Call to Action, Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?, and Always Be Testing, and Buyer Legends. Bryan is a keynote speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as Gultaggen,, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others for the past 10 years. Bryan was named a winner of the Marketing Edge's Rising Stars Awards, recognized by eConsultancy members as one of the top 10 User Experience Gurus, selected as one of the inaugural iMedia Top 25 Marketers, and has been recognized as most influential in PPC, Social Selling, OmniChannel Retail. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of several venture capital backed companies such as Sightly, UserTesting, Monetate, ChatID, Nomi, and BazaarVoice. He works with his co-author and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at

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