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Linking Products and Consumers: The Consumer Benefit Ladder Approach
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Sept. 19, 2008
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LINKING PRODUCTS AND CONSUMERS:
THE CONSUMER BENEFIT LADDER APPROACH
Why do people buy anything? Because of the value the product, service, idea, or
experience provides. As with beauty, however, value is in the eye of the beholder. Consumers
determine what they value, firms do not, thus, the notion that marketers offer a value proposition
to their target markets. Marketers must determine what people value and how their firm can
deliver and communicate value to their chosen customers. How do we uncover what value our
product might offer consumers? There are many techniques for doing so, but in this note we will
concentrate on one: the consumer benefit ladder.
The consumer benefit ladder (CBL) is derivative of a long-standing technique used in
sociology and psychology called “laddering.” The idea is to get people to reveal more than the
obvious or the socially acceptable reasons for doing what they do. The guiding assumption is that
personal values drive much of one’s behavior. The laddering process is iterative. A researcher
asks an individual questions about his or her behavior; each question is based on the answer to
the previous question. Increasingly, more substantive motivations are revealed. The laddering
metaphor is apropos because the process is akin to climbing the steps on a ladder—with each
step, one gets closer to the goal. The resulting ladder is formally referred to as a hierarchical
value map (HVM). For the purpose of this note, we will keep things simple and focus on the
marketing application of the psychological tool.
Products have features (or attributes) that yield benefits—functional benefits derived
from the product itself, and emotional benefits realized by the consumer. The benefits a
particular customer seeks depend on the customer’s motivations for buying. According to the
theory behind the laddering concept, those motivations are driven, ultimately, by the customer’s
For details on the formal process in a marketing context, see Mark E. Parry, Strategic Marketing Management
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002); John Norton and John Reynolds, “Application of the Means–End Framework:
Triadic Sorting, Laddering, and Developing the Hierarchical Value Map,” Darden Business Publishing Technical
Note UVA-M-0343, 1989.
values. Emotional benefits, motivations, and values are elusive; they are not in the product itself.
Rather, the attributes of the product and the functional benefits derived from consuming the
product are connected to emotional benefits derived from the experience associated with the
product. Whether those benefits are valued depends on whether and how they link to the
customer’s stable, enduring values. Values are considered to be an end, and features and benefits
are considered sequential means to the end. Examples of values include self-fulfillment, security,
being well-respected, and so forth.
CBLs capture the linkages among attributes, benefits, and consumer values, and can take
many forms. Just about every marketing consulting organization, advertising agency, and
marketing firm has its own version. Figure 1 presents some popular ones.
Figure 1. Four examples of CBL frameworks.
1 2 3 4
Values Values Values Values
Emotional end benefit
Benefit Consequences Consumer benefit
Product attribute Product attribute Product feature Product attribute
An example of the second framework is, “Snickers are packed with peanuts (feature or
attribute), which means they provide energy (functional benefit), which keeps me going
(consumer benefit), which makes me productive (something I value).”
The Laddering Process
Structured interviews are used to reveal CBLs. Consumers are asked what attributes are
important to them in a specific product category. Then they are asked why those attributes are
important. Successive, probing questions continue to ask why until the respondent cannot think
of any more answers or until the answers become repetitive.