Let’s talk about differentiation. What does your business offer, a product or a service? Should you be marketing tangibles or intangibles?
Tangible things are, well, things. You can see them, taste them, hear them. They take up space and have mass. Intangibles might be services, knowledge, or something else valuable that you can’t literally experience with your senses.
Marketing the two takes different methods, but it’s not as clear cut as you might think. The best marketing approaches, no matter what you’re offering, start with getting this right.
Today we’re tapping into some classic wisdom about marketing goods versus services, the tangible versus intangible. Spoiler alert: there is no versus. As economist and former editor of Harvard Business Review, Theodore Levitt, wrote in “Marketing Intangible Products and Product Intangibles,” originally published in 1981, “Everybody sells intangibles in the marketplace, no matter what is produced in the factory.”
Marketing product intangibles
Take one product, automobiles, for example. The most powerful marketing for a car recognizes that what’s really being sold is not the object itself but status, good environmental stewardship, or safety — all intangibles.
Another example is shoes. A customer doesn’t decide to buy a pair of Birks based on their physical attributes alone. The choice is also about comfort and image and the occasions they’ll wear them for, none of which can be held in your hand. Marketing messages that speak to these intangible needs will work.
“Consider this when marketing tangibles or intangibles: Everybody sells intangibles in the marketplace, no matter what is produced in the factory.”
Marketing intangible products
Now let’s reverse it. Say you’re an investment counselor, an architect, or a software designer. Maybe your business is catering or recruiting. Your customer cannot physically touch what you do. Yes, catering comes close, but if getting food were the only selling point, they could just go buy some takeout and be done with it.
These customers cannot experience what you offer before they experience it, as Levitt points out. How can you help them trust that you will deliver the benefit you are promising?
One way is to use tangible symbols of the intangible in your business marketing and company branding. An investment counselor’s headshot shows a professional dressed in a suit, not Saturday morning’s workout gear. An architect’s office displays awards won and industry magazines featuring photo spreads of their completed projects. A caterer’s website features photos of the glitzy events they have produced for other clients.
What experience are you offering a potential customer? What will it be like for them to interact with you? What emotion will you evoke? These are the reasons people buy. Buying decisions are seldom based purely on a rational assessment of the benefits. In his marketing classic, Selling the Invisible, business writer and speaker Harry Beckwith says, “Appeal only to a prospect’s reason, and you may have no appeal at all.”
Potential customers are fearful, risk averse, and in need of affirmation of who they want to be, Beckwith points out. Powerful marketing campaigns, no matter what the product or service, allay fears, lessen risk, and create positive emotions. And they usually do that by skillfully paring the tangible and intangible.