close up  of a drill going through a wood board
PHOTO: Simon Caspersen

One of the most popular but flawed marketing clichés is credited to Theodore Levitt, who became a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School in 1959. He said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

This saying, according to another legendary Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen, is a reminder that consumer products should satisfy a need that has “… a social, a functional, and an emotional dimension.” He urges marketers to think of a consumer as someone who “hires” a product to solve a problem.

However, Levitt’s idea predates ecommerce, which has changed the way we research and evaluate goods. When people buy mid-to-high-priced products online, they do care about the drill, not just the hole. They look exhaustively at specs, dimensions, photos, unboxings, ratings and reviews before rejecting — or cautiously believing — what marketers claim about the hole.

And online, people don’t just want any quarter-inch hole. They shop as if there is a Hole-y Grail that only the most persevering shopper will find. When there seem to be infinite permutations of every single item, all offering the same hole, then it pays to understand the drills. 

Marketers might have to give more attention to the drill if they want to be competitive in ecommerce. In this third installment of a five-part series on product information management (PIM), I want to talk about what this drill vs. hole debate means for modern marketing. PIM systems tend to be a repository for information about the drill, while digital asset management (DAM) platforms contain content about the hole. Too often, those sets of information seem disconnected to buyers. This is an issue of the content, not necessarily the marketing technology itself.

When You're Marketing Low-Risk Holes

As of late 2019, ecommerce represented only 16% of retail sales in the United States. COVID-19 has certainly inflated that share, but I believe there is a major obstacle to further growth of ecommerce. People don’t trust marketing content. In fact, a study by the 4As, an advertising trade association, found only 4% of Americans think marketers behave with integrity (ouch!).

Sometimes, shoppers take the risk of being deceived. Let’s say I want to buy a “low-risk” item like a household stain remover. We’ll call it Stain Rain. The marketer makes bold claims about how Stain Rain can remove red wine, pet accidents, bacon grease, red sauce and anything else you can name. Their pitch is to “Make it Rain on every Stain.” I know, those guys are so corny.

Do I know or care what’s in Stain Rain? No. I just want to remove stains, Stain Rain caught my eye on Amazon, and I’m willing to risk $8 to find out if it works. Stain Rain is selling me the quarter-inch hole, not the quarter-inch drill. Because Stain Rain is a low-risk purchase, I’ll take the chance that Stain Rain is exaggerating about the hole.

Related Article: Marketing Has a Trust Problem. Can DAM Help?

Or Marketing High-Risk Drills

Now, let’s imagine that someone in Silicon Valley invents Stain.Robo, an internet-connected, autonomous rover plus drone that algorithmically finds and removes stains. Its brand promise is to “Make a cleaner world, one laser beam at a time.” It costs $400 and, yes, it obviously cleans things using lasers.

At this point, you can’t convince me that I’m just buying the hole — the removal of stains. I’m hiring Stain.Robo to make several different types of holes. Although I’m not surprised that Silicon Valley has invented this “disruptive” product, shouldn’t I be dubious that the robot can do what’s claimed? I mean, $400 is a lot of money for something that $30 worth cleaning goods can also accomplish. Perhaps Stain.Robo fulfills some emotional needs (e.g., having a mobile DJ a la Parks and Recreation), but at the end of the day, I still need it to clean things.

So, I’m going to look much closer at the product specs, cleaning modalities, reviews and the safety issues around having an indoor mini drone that fires lasers. As the price rises and the marketing claims become grander, a buyer will become less focused on the hole and more focused on the drill. The problem is, looking at a product this high-tech, I might have no clue what the product information (as opposed to the marketing content) is telling me.

Now swap in bicycles, power tools, cars, high-tech electronics, etc. for Stain.Robo. When you’re going to drop hundreds if not thousands of dollars on a hole, a good marketing pitch isn’t enough. The drill must somehow justify what the marketers claim.

Related Article: 5 Reasons Why Ecommerce Fails

Subjective vs. Objective Product Information

Digital marketers translate objective product information into subjective content. We don’t change the chemicals in Stain Rain or the frequency of Stain.Robo’s lasers. We receive a fixed drill from engineering and then talk about the social, functional and emotional dimensions of the hole it makes.

Usually, though, marketing content overhypes the hole. You watch the promo video of a mountain biker doing things you will never, ever do on that bike. You see the clothing model and realize you won’t look quite like that in the shirt. You see Stain.Robo in a multimillion-dollar home and realize that, even with every stain lasered into oblivion, your home still won’t look like that.

In ecommerce, we may need to give more attention to the drill. When the subjective content deviates too far from objective product information — or is given in absence of that information — buyers rightfully grow skeptical.

Why should I believe this product is the Hole-y Grail the content promises? What about this drill makes superior holes, and why does it fit my particular use cases? If only I could go to a store and interact with Stain.Robo myself.

Related Article: We Need to Get Our PIM Houses in Order

Drills and Holes Both Matter for Marketers

Here’s the big takeaway. When we sell high-value, complex products online, whether it’s a bicycle, smartphone or Stain.Robo, we need to invest more in educational content. To build trust, we need to teach buyers about what the objective product specs mean and connect that into content about holes. The information in PIM and DAM systems must work together rather in silos (or at odds).

In ecommerce, you can sell low-risk goods by selling the hole. As the risks for consumers rise, however, the drill becomes equally important. Help shoppers make connections between objective specs and subjective benefits, differentiators and outcomes. And please don’t try to clean stains with lasers.