Moving beyond functional benefits

As a brand designer and manager, the question of “what should be the brand’s proposed values and benefits?” may frequently come to your mind. Indeed, finding the correct values and benefits that could attract new audiences and reinforce the relationship between the business and its current customers is the key to building an enduring brand. Interestingly, if you bring this question to business owners or C-level executives, most of the time, you will receive answers associated with the functional benefits that their brands are offering. This should not come as a surprise. For business owners and executives, the offered functional benefits are usually their direct answers to distinguish their products or services from the rest of the market. However, moving into the modern day, should functional benefits remain the core proposed values and benefits for a brand? My take? No. In this article, I will give you a brief comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of benefits. Furthermore, I will also advise on what you can do to shift to and employ other more advanced benefits.


In the realm of branding, different types of benefits play distinct roles in conveying value to consumers. Functional benefits, rooted in a product or service's performance, are often the core message of brands. Still, they face challenges in differentiation and recognition over time due to technological advancements and market saturation. Emotional benefits, perceived by users, add depth and richness to a brand, influencing their connections and longevity. Self-expressive benefits, closely tied to luxury products, enable users to project status and personality, fostering loyalty. Social benefits, emerging in modern branding, involve community engagement and shared experiences, strengthening brand-user relationships. As functional benefits become less effective, brands should turn to other benefit types as their core values. Effective brand strategy involves understanding end-users' perceptions and aligning with the business's goals to shape a meaningful and enduring brand identity.

Different types of benefits

Functional benefits

Functional benefits are benefits that come from the performance of the product or service. Usually straightforward, functional benefits often act as the core message of brands and businesses, even in the modern day. Think of P&G’s Tide and its “perfect cleans” advertisements or Apple and its “security” message when it first introduced Face ID. Although they are easy to understand, functional benefits could hardly become a significant differentiator for brands, especially in the long run. Why?

The answer is innovation. As technology progresses and better products emerge, dragging older or similar products into a “red ocean,” companies struggle to keep the proposed functional benefits as the core of their message to the audiences. Even when no better products come out, the appearance of copycats (or “me-too”) businesses could also affect a business’s ability to maintain the status of their proposed benefits. Furthermore, from an end-user’s perspective, as brands push each other to the limit, their proposed functional benefits become harder to recognize. Think of Apple’s message. How much more “security” is “safer”? Or, in the case of Tide, how “clean” are “perfect cleans”?

Another issue is the risk of an overly strong association with a specific functional benefit. This argument may sound strange to many, but hear me out. While it’s undeniable that a strong association with a functional benefit could help a business achieve a large margin in the market, in the long run, such an association will hamper the brand’s growth when it looks toward expansion or when there is a significant change in the market. Take IBM as an example. During the early days of computers, IBM was the number one computing solutions provider for businesses large and small. However, due to this prominent reputation, the brand soon found itself unable to expand into the consumer-grade computer market, losing a large portion of the market to competitors such as Dell or Hewlett-Packard.

Emotional benefits

Unlike functional benefits, emotional benefits are not conveyed directly by the brands but are perceived by the end-users. Think of Volvo and BMW. End-users feel safe driving a Volvo but feel exciting rolling on the road with a BMW. Without a doubt, emotional benefits add richness and depth to the brand and reinforce the connection between the brand and its end-users. Furthermore, emotional benefits can help products and services move away from being just a commodity. This alone could help products, especially products in the FMCG (Fast-moving Customer Goods) category, survive for a long time on the market.

Despite being unable to convey directly, brands can actively help shape the emotional benefits inside the mind of end-users. This can be done by combining a well-crafted brand strategy and positioning with consistent marketing and communication efforts. A prime example would be Evian and its “Another day, another chance to feel healthy” tagline. Another prominent example would be Coca-Cola and its campaign (in partnership with Wieden+Kennedy in 2009) to “open happiness.” Success in shaping emotional benefits could bring back tremendous long-term benefits for the brand and the business behind it.

Self-expressive benefits

Closely related to emotional benefits are self-expressive benefits. More prominently seen in luxury products such as high-end fashion, jewelry, or premium services, self-expression benefits help end-users convey their social statuses, personality, or philosophical beliefs to others. Take Lexus as an example. For many, a Lexus car acts as a symbol of career success. This fact is particularly true in Asia and emerging countries like the BRICS. Another example would be Lancôme. Compared to many other brands, such as Vaseline or Jergens, Lancôme stands out as a symbol of sophistication, exoticism, and mystery.

Like emotional benefits, self-expressive benefits deepen the brand’s connection to its end-users. When done right, self-expressive benefits can help a brand maintain its position in the market for a long time while creating a solid and loyal customer base (sometimes a cult of advocates) that guarantees a stable profit.

Social benefits

Modern brands allow end-users to experience the functional, emotional, and self-expressive benefits and become part of an exclusive community. Take Sephora as an example. When purchasing and using Sephora’s products, the end-user can choose to become a part of the Beauty Insider community that the brand established. Opting in will allow the end-user to have endless conversations with the Sephora staff, product managers, and other end-users. This, in turn, not only reinforces the connection between the end-user and the brand but also creates the opportunity for like-minded advocates to connect.

Unlike emotional and self-expressive benefits, brands and businesses can actively craft and convey their proposed social benefits through community-building efforts. Think of Harley-Davidson. From their early striving to survive the competition from other automotive brands at the time, Harley-Davidson shifted a significant part of its marketing efforts to organizing events that allow Harley riders to meet and interact with others. This helped sow the seed for now well-known HOG (Harley Owners Group), a community for Harley riders worldwide. Through HOG, Harley owners can interact with like-minded owners, participate in or even organize their own events, and receive invitations to exclusive Harley-Davidson events, deepening the connection between Harley and its end-users.

Brands can also create social benefits through product innovation and social actions. Take Lush as an example. Through its products and packaging policies, Lush positioned itself as an “ethical” business that is “cruelty-free” and “environmental-friendly.” By purchasing and using Lush’s products, end-users can become advocates for protecting the environment.

Moving beyond functional benefits

The hint lies with the end-users

From the explanation and the examples I’ve given above, it’s clear that functional benefits are no longer long-lasting and that modern brands should turn to other types of benefits as the core proposed values in their messages to the target audience. However, one critical problem remains: How can you, as a brand designer and manager, discover or reposition the brand to better convey these benefits?

The hint to this question lies with the end-users. During the first stage of your branding project, try to learn as much about the end-users as possible (and don’t immediately start your branding project with a logo). In addition to the usual questions to help you craft your personas or identify the communication gap, you should also do your best to answer these questions: What makes the end-users choose the brand? Are there any features of the brand or its products and services that contributed to their decision? Why do those features matter? How do those features enhance or reinforce the users’ emotions, social connections, and self-expressiveness? And so on. You can find answers to these questions through surveys, focus groups, etc. Traditional marketing research and segmentation methods or frameworks such as VALS may also offer some insights or help direct you to the correct answers.

And also with the business

Having insights into the end-users and their perceived benefits won’t be enough to help you craft a concrete brand strategy. Insights into the business, especially the business’s vision, mission, and short-term and long-term goals, are also essential. Discovering where the brand is currently and where it wants to be next will help you decide if a specific benefit should be pursued. Remember that no matter how brilliant a perceived benefit may sound, if the business is shifting away from that direction, that benefit should not be a part of your strategy. For example, if your client is considering expanding or moving to the B2C market, emphasizing B2B-oriented benefits will not help the brand (IBM was a prime example for this case). Instead, find a suitable benefit that aligns with the business’s direction moving forward.

Some last words

Now that you’ve understood the different types of benefits and how modern brands should shift away from conventional functional benefits, it’s time for you to start helping clients to shape their next brand strategy. Start with researching about the end-users and sitting down with your client to discover more insights into the business. Help your clients to figure out what the priorities are and help them to organize efforts to shift their communication to the agreed direction. Encourage your client even if they cannot see any immediate short-term returns. Remember, even big brands like Harley-Davidson and Volvo took a long time to get to where they are now.

That’s it from me. What about you? Do you think brands should also move away from functional benefits?

Published on
June 19, 2022