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Are You Selling What Your Customers Are Buying?

You’d think it would be obvious. It isn’t.

By Clive WilsonPublished 3 years ago 10 min read

Competition for new and repeat customers is relentless for any business, but particularly on the high street. It has never been more important to understand what your customers want to buy, as opposed to what you want to sell.

It’s a simple enough concept to grasp, yet when we start a business, it seems to elude us completely as we get wrapped up in what we want to sell.

In one of his many presentations, the late Steve Jobs explained why it’s so vital to understand the customer experience first and work back from there to develop the technology. The same thinking should apply to the business of selling: focus on what your customers are likely to want to buy and work back to determine what to sell.

Shopping is an emotional experience

They say we make our decisions from the heart or the head. Buying a new exhaust system for your car is definitely a ‘head’ decision (although the drain on your bank balance is likely to evoke an emotion or two). Whereas booking a holiday is a 99% ‘heart’ decision — and then we use our head/logic to justify the cost.

But shopping of any type is emotion-driven because we are so sensitive to every aspect of it, not just what we buy. We’re heavily influenced, even subconsciously, by how what we’re buying is presented, where we’re buying it from, who we’re buying from, the time of day, the lighting, the sounds, colours, aromas, the weather. The list goes on.

Understanding how people experience this complexity is extremely difficult, and only the retail giants with bottomless pockets get anywhere near working out the science, and always so they can use it to their advantage.

However, all is not lost for the average, small business, as mainly what’s required is an understanding of what your customers want. unfortunately, so few business owners are able or even want to understand this concept.

Take a walk along your local high street — any high street — and look closely at every single business. It’s easy to spot which camp each of them sits in.

Camp A: These try to understand what their customers need. They put enormous effort into the complete customer experience. The people, the surroundings, the product presentation, etc. They employ and train excellent staff who like helping people, which, in turn, helps to bring the customer experience together to make shopping as appealing as possible.

Camp B: These do nothing. All they do is sell products (or services) because they don’t understand, or don’t care, enough about what customers want.

The high street is littered with a mixture of both, and those in Camp B appear not to care even if a direct competitor is doing a better job. Look at pubs or restaurants in particular. Often the differences are patently obvious.

First impressions count. Do they?

We all know the saying, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” It’s a generalisation and it’s over-simplifying what really happens.

It’s true that we’re quick to judge, but we also innately believe in second chances because we can’t help ourselves. We’re often pleasantly surprised by what we find by venturing inside when we initially thought better of it. When on holiday, a less-than-salubrious-looking bistro/café/tavern/bar/diner (delete according to your country) will often serve the most incredible food.

What does your logo say about you?

This ‘first impression’ can apply as much to your logo as it does to the decor and layout of your shop. Often, a customer’s journey begins with them seeing your logo.

New and smaller businesses typically use their logo as a vehicle to tell people exactly what they do, rather than using it as an ‘identity badge’. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it’s interesting to observe that as businesses grow and their brand becomes more established in society, they feel less inclined to explain themselves with a complicated logo.

Malagos Chocolate is an award-winning, independent chocolate producer based in the Philippines. Established in 2003, they focus on ethical and sustainable farming to produce their premium chocolate.

Their logo is striking, but complex and detailed, delivering a simple message that leaves you in no doubt as to what they do.

Then there’s Cadbury: a giant in mass-market chocolate for over 200 years. Ok, their logo is a fancy typeface (actually, it was originally hand-written by John Cadbury and is known as a ‘wordmark’, but has recently been redesigned at a cost of around £1million, yet looks almost identical), but it’s still just the name of the company and doesn’t need any further explanation for you to know what it represents. You immediately ‘see’ chocolate and probably want to eat some.

Many of the world’s largest companies have a simple wordmark for their logo instead of a fancy or complex logo. For example Amazon, Samsung, Canon, Sainsbury’s, Sony and Google.

To help protect the workmark from being copied, it will often be created using a unique typeface, cut specifically for the organisation, but it’s still, basically just a word.

For your own business, consider this: at what point will you stop using your fancy logo to tell people what you do, and start relying on the strength of your the product and service (later to become your ‘brand’) to carry the message by itself?

If you have confidence, but not significant start-up investment for a logo design, it’s best to start by simply telling people what you do, as an effective way to communicate what’s on offer.

There’s an undeniable truth to this, as can be seen with a Surrey (UK) based business: ‘The Himalayan Knitting Company’ (sadly no longer in business).

I suspect they put no more thought into this than simply using the company’s name, yet each of the four words is essential here. They each play a part in naming, identifying, and describing the business.

“It does exactly what it says on the tin”

The British company, Ronseal, founded in 1956, selling its own unique brand floor and wood seal. They created a strapline in 1994 as part of an ingenious marketing campaign, and it’s still in use today.

You buy a tin of antique pine-flavoured wood stain expecting it to be easy to apply, dry quickly, not leave your house smelling like a toxic wasteland, and leave your floor looking beautiful. That’s exactly what it does. Using “It does exactly what it says on the tin”, Ronseal is ‘selling’ the fact that you shouldn’t be at all surprised by how good it is.

Their intention was to stop people from even considering buying a competitor’s product and running the gauntlet of having to guess how good it will be.

Controlling the customer experience

Think about your own experience when booking a holiday (remember when we could do that?). You begin by deciding where you’d like to go. The holiday company books your flights, a transfer, and a hotel. You hand over your hard-earned money, and there; you have a holiday.

Well, not quite.

Yes, the elements they sold you are a flight, transfer, and hotel, but that’s not what you actually bought. You bought two weeks of freedom, joy, relaxation, fun, family time, rejuvenation, and escapism. Do you see the difference?

In fairness, holiday companies have possibly been the quickest to grasp this concept. Just look at the dreamy, alluring way their TV ads are created.

They’re all about what you’ll experience, not the individual elements they sell you. The flights, transfers, and hotels are just the means to an end.

How the big players do it, and what we can learn

BMW — it’s all about the experience. BMW has always understood the notion of ownership and why we buy.

Their advertising campaigns have primarily revolved around how driving a BMW will make us feel; something we can make ourselves feel good about, playing to our ego and the sense of enormous pride we’ll project onto others.

BMW adverts say very little about the car’s features, benefits, and technical prowess in favour of concentrating on what we’ll experience.

In the 1970s, BMW launched the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ campaign. They followed this with ‘Spirit Of Freedom’, ‘A Family’s Journey’, ‘Every Moment Counts’, and the spectacularly emotive ‘Joy’ campaign.

Since the 1970s, BW has continued to use a handful of powerful, emotion-creating slogans that are 100% about what you buy, not what they sell you:

“Sheer Driving Pleasure”

“The Ultimate Driving Machine”

“Spirit of Freedom”

The ‘Joy’ campaign, launched in 2009, is an education in playing to our emotional responses (the clue is in the title). The advert is well worth a watch. Just don’t blame me if you end up buying a BMW because of it!

Marks and Spencer — food porn: Marks and Spencer is at the top of its game with emotive marketing. Their long-running series of “This is not just a…” campaigns, launched in 2005, have become part of our everyday life. In the UK, at least.

Affectionately referred to as ‘food porn’ ads, they had us all believing there really was something very different about the products we could buy only from M&S.

The chocolate pudding:

M&S expertly manipulated our insatiable desire for luxurious chocolate with their “This is not just a chocolate pudding, it’s a Marks & Spencer chocolate pudding” adverts.

  • Note: this is not an M&S cake, but you get the idea.

Filmed in close-up slow-motion with clever lighting, Fleetwood Mac’s evocative ‘Albatross’ playing in the background, and the velvety tones of a familiar voice-over actor describing the cake’s gorgeousness in a style as luxurious as the dessert itself.

What they sold us was a chocolate cake with a gooey centre. What we bought was pure, naughty indulgence and a few moments of luxurious, guilt-free excess. And they did it over and over again with multiple food products until the phrase became idiomatic.

This is all well and good, but for the average high street business, it’s all a little ridiculous and way beyond reach, but it shows what’s possible and how we’re all so easily influenced by this type of creative marketing.

Knowing what your customers are buying

At the opposite end of the scale are the businesses who have no understanding, nor the slightest interest in what customers are actually buying from them.

It’s not uncommon to see high street shops with products neatly stacked, labelled, and priced, but no information about what they are or what they can do for us. Somehow we’re supposed to just know.

Empty restaurants with tables laid and ready, and smartly dressed staff standing idly and trying to look welcoming/busy, but with very little thought given to the experience, the customers will have if they come in.

It’s challenging, I get it, but how many restaurants have you seen come and go, that opened with an unwavering belief that just because they’re a restaurant, customers will flood in and keep coming back? That’s simply not how it works.

Taking steps to make a difference in your own business

Success lies not just in understanding your customers’ needs and the experience they have when they buy from you, but from actively doing something about it in your own business.

Find a way to really understand your customers. Whether you own a high street shop, a bar, a restaurant, or even an eCommerce website; think about why they would want to buy from you in the first place and how your products or services will help them. Walk yourself through every step of the journey you expect your customers to take.

Ask yourself: do your products or services satisfy a need? Do they solve a problem? Might they get the customer out of trouble? Do they make people happy?

Dr Paddy Lund, a famous Australian dentist (Google him, it’s a fascinating story), transformed his business by focusing on, what he called, ‘the critical non-essentials’. He also said:

“Business should be designed to give happiness.”

Try being a customer yourself. Watch and listen to what’s going on around you. If it’s a bar or eatery, watch how customers are greeted (it can be shocking) and shown to their table. Watch how the staff are with each other and how attentive/responsive they are with the customers.

Talk to your customers directly and ask for honest feedback, good or bad. It’s amazing how many restaurant owners never experience what really goes on in their own restaurant/bar or, for example, how many customers on any given night are the gold that is a return customer.

Sell the sizzle, not the sausage

It’s a metaphor, of course, but let me explain. Apologies to the veggies.

In the UK alone we buy around 2 billion sausages per year, yet there’s nothing whatsoever appealing about raw sausages. They look pretty disgusting.

We buy sausages only because of the intoxicating aroma they create as they cook, followed by the unique, mouthwatering taste that comes from a sausage that crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. We most definitely buy the sizzle. Unless you’re a non-meat eater, you’re probably salivating right now thinking about them.

Customers happen one-by-one

Avinash Kaushik, entrepreneur, author, Google evangelist, and data analytics guru, once said:

“The first time someone buys from you, it’s pure luck. Only when they buy from you a second time, do they become a customer.”

If every business owner kept this observation front and centre of their mind, it would positively transform everything about their business.

Originally published by author on Medium


About the Creator

Clive Wilson

I write with an inquiring mind about marketing, business and what life can teach us about life, and I take very little at face value.

You can find more about me at

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