Means End Theory: People Don’t Buy Features Or Benefits

Create relevant messages, know what customers value in your product or service… every marketer should embrace means-end analysis.

A Means End Theory Anecdote

At the ski shop we sell these uber cool bluetooth helmets from K2. You can synch the earpieces to a device like an iPhone, and listen to music or pause the melodies to answer an incoming phone call. I wouldn’t buy one because I consider the sport my refuge from the onslaught of technological-interconnectedness. However, personal preference aside, these helmets fly off the shelves each season like fudgicles in a sweltering summer afternoon.

Yet one particular sale stands out from the rest. A mother and son (probably 10-12 yrs old) walk into the shop. They’re going to Gore, and Billy needs a helmet. Billy trys on a few brands finally arriving at the K2.  He is tickled pink by the thought of listening to tunes, and chatting on the phone while skiing. If Billy’s going to be the envy of all his friends he’s got to have it. Mom rolls her eyes at the price but consents.

Then Billy, god bless him, does some selling for me, “Mom, if I’m wearing a helmet shouldn’t you too?” She’s holding his helmet, and puts it on for kicks, but being too small it cocks backwards funny like. At which point I mention we might have a larger size, not to mention Gore is a huge mountain, if the two should get separated it would be easier to get ahold of each other with bluetooth enabled helmets. Although she trys on a few more helmets, Mom also settles on buying herself a proper sized K2 helmet.

If you’ve been reading carefully you’ll notice that features and benefits are only part of the story as to why Billy and his Mom bought the bluetooth helmets. For Billy the benefit of listening to music or making phone calls translated into “envy from his friends,” otherwise known as enhanced self-esteem. Whereas the benefit of a quick phone call for Mom meant she can check in on Billy to know he is safe.

What Is Means-End Theory?

Billy and his Mom demonstrated what is known in consumer behavior as Means End Theory: People buy features that bring them benefits that get them closer to valued end states.

These are the possible Means-End Chains for Billy and his Mom:

Means End Chain Map

Underlying values are the motivating factor in a consumer purchase. Therefore effective marketing messages that sell will connnect a benefit to values like security, achievement, belonging, fun, enjoyment, etc.

Means-End Theory In B2B

Speaking in terms of only features and benefits tends to remove emotions from the purchase equation. In B2B advertising, overemphasis is placed on benefits with valued end states being downplayed. Why does this occur? Because many B2B marketers operate under the assumption that B2B purchases are rational. In reality, decision makers are influenced by emotive propositions , in some cases more than they would be as individual consumers.

Means-End Marketing Applications

Mean End Theory is important to marketing on two fronts.

I touched on the first already, MEC provides a way to structure messaging. Identify a feature, linking it to a benefit that fulfills a personal valued-end state.

For example, IBM has transitioned itself from a hardware maker to an integrated systems provider. This Applications On Demand video reflects that approach. IBM provides a number of features: server, database administration, etc. These benefit HDR, whose employees have time more time to focus on the company’s core tasks (functional benefit). The message could have stopped there, but IBM clearly distinguishes itself in this ad as a company that is easy to do business with (an intangible, fundamental need of HDR). That valued-end state likely has the most and strongest connections to the multitude of features and benefits provided by IBM.

Second, you may be able reverse engineer the product/service. Knowing the valued-end state allows you work backward to build new features, or create new products and services of value. Using the means-end approach to gain customer insights is an important way to mitigate the risks of marketing failures in the product design and positioning phases.

Uncovering Means End Chains Using Laddering Interview

Where MEC is the visual representation of consumer associations, laddering interviews are the process by which those insights are derived. Typically, these involve in-depth, one-on-one interviewing techniques that are meant to uncover relations between attributes and associations with the self. For the purposes of this article I won’t mention how to carry out these interviews, saving that for a later date.

That’s All Folks!

Read any marketing literature, or the mass of blogs devoted to the topic and a key theme throughout is relevancy. Missing are the practical applications of how to achieve that end. Since it explores underlying values, Means-End Theory is an important scientific tool for creating relevant messaging and services that influence customer purchase decisions.

Posted in Consumer Behavior Tagged with: ,
6 comments on “Means End Theory: People Don’t Buy Features Or Benefits
  1. Logic says:

    Hello see we have told to sell on benifits however after reading tou K2 helmet story I clearly read how this product sells. What I like best about the story is that the price was not the main issue a consideration but not the main focus. This is refreshing we are so over the 9.99 cheap cheaper concept. We like those that buy on purpose and need so thank you for sharing.


  2. Jesse Kanclerz says:


    I’m glad you enjoyed the K2 helmet story. It clearly demonstrates the links between features, benefits and valued-end states, and that people buy based on their own unique value propositions. Means-End Chains are useful in discovering the strongest associations that groups of customers share.

    That said, MEC is a powerful tool to help companies, and their sales teams to move away from selling only on price. When you understand the driving motivations for buying it’s that much easier to make price a secondary issue.

    Thanks for commenting Logic.

  3. I appreciate your blog because of unique and informative content which is very useful for everyone. Thanks for sharing such useful information.

  4. we have first terms of features benefits. everyone depend to their goal.

  5. liezel says:

    @ Jeremy:
    More like someone’s saying a certain soap is good for her skin and she haven’t used it even once I agree with you there.

  6. Liam Duffy says:

    I agree, benefit, feature, emotional trigger..

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