Features and Benefits, Telling and Showing

It’s not often that catalog copy blows me away—and let’s face it, it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to persuade you to pull out your credit card and make a purchase. But the copy for the latest Lands’ End catalog impressed me by exemplifying how effectively and easily copy can balance features and benefits.

Most catalog and online copy seems to emphasize product features: The dress has an empire waist; the table is made of kiln-dried wood; the drill has 195 inch-pounds of torque. That’s certainly important information. And if the consumer is somewhat knowledgeable about the product category, that along with the imagery may be enough info to close the sale.

But let’s say the consumer doesn't know whether an empire waistline best suits her figure, or that kiln-dried wood is less likely to warp and shrink than other wood, or just how much torque she needs for the projects she has in mind (clearly I have no idea about how much torque is the right amount of torque, which is why I’m being so vague here).

This is where the copy needs to focus on the benefits. Instead of simply stating “This dress has an empire waist,” you could show the benefit of said feature by writing something like “The flattering empire waist helps elongate the figure.” Ah, says the 5'2" shopper to herself, that dress will make me look taller and thinner—I’m sold.

Just as important, the 5'11" shopper says to herself, That schmatte will make me look like a beanpole; now I know to avoid empire waists altogether. Thank you, Ms. Copywriter. Why is preventing this sale just as important as closing the previous sale? Because it saves your company from having to accept a return for a product the shopper ordered and hated or, worse, losing that customer altogether because of her disappointment with the product.

(And yes, I’m aware no one in the history of humanity has ever thought or uttered the phrase “Thank you, Ms. Copywriter,” but a copywriter can dream, can’t she?)

Here are a few examples of how Lands’ End explains benefits in the context of features to drive a sale:

Princess seams sweep from the bodice into diagonal welt pockets that add a slimming element to the skirt. And the ponté fabric is structured yet soft. So it even smooths lumps and bumps. (Not that you have any.) I couldn’t tell you what a princess seam is, but who cares: It'll help me look slimmer, which is what I really need to know.

[The tee-shirts’] all-cotton knit fabric has ultra-fine ribs. Barely visible to the naked eye, those ribs give these tees exactly the right amount of body and shape. So they’re never clingy, never sheer, never skimpy. So a ribbed shirt will hold its shape and won't cling to my bra straps or nipples? Well, that’s definitely worth shelling out a few bucks more for.

And that’s just the sku/product copy. The Lands’ End catalog also judiciously uses callouts that even more explicitly connect the feature to the benefit. For instance: What makes piqué cool? The fabric has thousands of tiny vents. Which makes our Piqué Polo sort of like wearable air conditioning. As someone who breaks into a sweat as soon as the temps climb into the 60s (sadly, I’m not exaggerating), I’m dog-earring every page of the catalog with items made of piqué.

Granted, with products that are nonessential or purely decorative, it can be tougher to isolate the benefits. But every product has ’em. 

Take a 12" blue glass vase. Because it’s glass, it would make a great weapon for clobbering a burglar should your life come to resemble a Chuck Jones cartoon. But most retailers, alas, would shy away from that sort of benefit. So for this sort of product I might write that it will add color and height to a tablescape, for instance, or will brighten a room even when flowers are in short supply.

Okay, it’s not brilliant. But it’s better than one of my pet peeves, which I come across all the time: the loading up of adjectives in lieu of substance. Don’t tell me that the vase is “striking, eye-catching, and lovely”—there’s a photo, and I’ll be the judge of whether the vase in it is indeed any or all of those things.

Novice fiction writers are constantly admonished to “show, not tell.” You could say that emphasizing features is telling, while explaining benefits is showing. Contrary to what those writing teachers say, you can’t avoid telling altogether in a work of fiction; sometimes you have to move things along with a simple "For two months the fugitives remained absent" (Wuthering Heights) or "she said." But you do often need to show as a way to get the reader/consumer to buy what you’re telling and selling, whether it’s the prowess of a protagonist or the suitability of a vase. 

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