Last week’s article on Style vs. Substance, kept driving me back to one question: “What is substance?”
It seems a pragmatist would insist that anything the customer is willing to pay for automatically becomes substantive. And while I abhor the reductive sophistry in such definitions (tell me “quality” means simply “meeting standards/expectations” and I’ll be tempted to punch you), I feel this particular definition is worth accepting — at least provisionally, and for the purposes of a thought experiment.
With that settled, I want you to think of your least favorite color. Now, how deeply discounted would a car of that color have to be before you’d buy it? For the sake of the experiment, assume you can’t flip or trade the vehicle; you’ll have to own and drive it. Let’s say it’s a $30,000 car in a butt-ugly rust color (or whatever turns your stomach). Would you take that car for $24,000, knowing you’d have to drive it?
Is color worth $6,000? Does $6k make color substantive?
Closer to home, how many of you have bought a black MacBook? Last I checked, it was about $200 more than the comparable white version and the only “substantive” difference is a $50 hard drive upgrade. Apple hasn’t had any problems selling them at this price. I own a white MacBook. I talked myself out of the “outrageous” surcharge for the black one, and I kick myself every day for not recognizing color as a substantive element of my laptop.
Moving past color, what about, say, feel? Does a slick-shifting gearbox count for anything on a car? Is that a substantive difference? It won’t show up on a speck sheet. Same thing with steering sensitivity and precision. How about the bank vault-like thud of a Mercedes door? Sure, that thud conveys more than feel; it indicates build quality, right? Well, Toyotas are commonly thought to have better build quality and they don’t have that thud. So the door heft is more Teutonic style than anything else; it conveys quality on a purely emotional level.
But that’s just it. Buying decisions are driven by emotion, and style affects us emotionally. So, of course stylistic differences have a huge impact on how and what we buy — as much on major purchases like homes and cars as it does with jeans or cologne. Solid doors can be more convincing than consumer reports.
And that leaves just one question . . .
Why do we differentiate between logically substantive differences and style? Because self-identity involves our emotions at a far deeper level than what one might call superficial style. If saving several grand on an ugly car means I can pay for private schooling for my kids, then style takes a back seat to being a good dad — that’s the stronger emotion. If I see myself as a level-headed guy, paying a price premium for a Mini Cooper may not to cut it, unless I can justify it on the grounds that it’s actually a practical car with surprising interior room, great gas mileage, and solid performance. Because all those things are true, the Mini has sold well. Even still, Minis are predominantly bought by people with a dominant Myers-Briggs type of “SP” or “NF”; Spontaneous and Humanistic temperaments, people with few hang-ups over needing to be “logical.”
As a (Competitive) “NT,” I’m not exactly Johnny bean-counter and the $150 difference wouldn’t pay for much schooling, but I still talked myself out of the black Macbook, whereas I would have had no problem paying that $150 for a “logically substantive” upgrade such as a faster processor or more memory. My emotional response to the cool black color of the high(er)-end MacBook gave way to my emotional need to make a rational decision, thus validating my identity as a “reasonable” guy.
So what’s the bottom line? Don’t just focus on the product or even on your customers’ superficial demographics. Focus on the customer’s self-image, then use that insight to decide what’s substantive to them. If it turns out a “stylistic” quality is substantive for your customers, then style-heavy copy might be the best way to persuade them and convey value.
[Editor's note: Stay tuned next week as Jeff Sexton, Future Now copywriting instructor and Persuasion Architect, guides us through Copy Perspective #4, "Time vs. Money" (which was to have run that this week, but substance couldn't wait). You can also read more posts from Jeff at his personal blog jeffsextonwrites.com.]