The Five Whats

There’s a popular saying in marketing that is often credited to Theodore Levitt:

People don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill bit, they want the quarter inch hole.

But good marketing goes deeper than this. As Seth Godin says, good marketing involves speaking to the root emotion that a product or service will enable them to feel:

If you can bring someone belonging, connection, peace of mind, status, or one of the other most desired emotions, you’ve done something worthwhile. The thing you sell is simply a road to achieve those emotions, and we let everyone down when we focus on the tactics, not the outcomes.

Seth Godin, This Is Marketing

Life is marketing

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you are not in sales or marketing this advice doesn’t apply to you.

When you interview for a job, you are marketing yourself. When you ask for a promotion, you are selling the value of what you bring to the company. Pitch a new project at work, propose an architecture for a software platform—all examples of the pervasiveness of marketing in everything we do.

The Five Whats technique

I have a technique that I call the Five Whats, and it is inspired by the Five Whys: Start by asking what you are delivering on the surface to your customer or audience, and continue to ask what they get out of it until you arrive at the root emotion that your product or service enables them to feel.

Using the example of the drill bit, your Five Whats might look like the following:

  1. What does the customer get? (A drill bit)
  2. What does the drill bit give them? (A hole)
  3. What is the hole for? (Mounting a shelf)
  4. What do they do with the shelf? (Display their child’s trophies)
  5. What is the significance of displaying their child’s trophies? (To celebrate their child, and make the child feel loved)

In order to connect the thing you are marketing with what your audience wants, you must think several layers below what you are actually offering. Good marketing is not sleazy salesmanship. Good marketing is convincing someone else of something that you yourself must already believe: What you have to offer will genuinely improve their life in some meaningful way.