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FutureNow Article
Monday, Aug. 6, 2007

Copy Perspective Monday: What is “Substance”?

By Jeff Sexton
August 6th, 2007

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]

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Comments (5)

  1. Marketing substance…

    Among my favorite marketing blogs is GrokDotCom by the guys at Future Now. These are some of the brightest folks in the world at how to use the Internet most effectively for your business. And, while I’ve been friends with some of their employees…

  2. Know-how that results from do-how often trumps “common sense”. great point. Knowing when this applies is priceless.

  3. As the owner of a white MacBook (two, if you count the one we bought our daughter) who thinks the black one looks better, I find this article very much on-point.

    For me, Apple’s choice to price the black one higher was an annoyance; I actively rebelled against buying the more attractive black because I didn’t want to reward the company for forcing me to this unpleasant choice. So in the long run,the very existence of the option to waste money on something as superfluous as a better color actually chipped away at my brand loyalty.

    I wonder, though–what if they’d done something really horrible as the cheaper alternative–a really putrid pale brown, for instance? Would they have sold any cheaper ones?

    I used to own a car in a really terrible color. We made fun of it, called it “the green slime,” rationalized that it made it much easier to find in a parking lot (true but beside the point) and made fun of it. It was used, and it was the car we needed; we put up with the deep forest green.

    But maybe that’s because I don’t think of cars as something have much control over. Even when buying new, our need for immediate availability has trumped our color choice and we’ve never had a car in the color we would have chosen. Other than the green slime, we haven’t had to be stuck with any real losers, but just as an exaple, the last car I bought we took in a pleasant but unexciting red. I really wanted it in the stunning electric blue, but it was more important to me to grab one with a stick shift.

    So if a marketing campaign is geared toward my persona, color matters less than other functions. It maters, but it’s almost never a deal-breaker.

    Shel Horowitz, marketing cosultant and award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing that Puts People First and six other books

  4. you’re brilliant

  5. this is just plain silly

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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