This Valentine’s Day Create an Emotional Connection

Brand laddering can move customer feelings for your brand from “like” to “love.”

Illustration by Tony Healey

Julia Carcamo is president and chief brand strategist at J Carcamo & Associates, specializing in brand and marketing strategy. She is also the co-founder of espNOLA, a Hispanic marketing and engagement agency. Learn more at and


Shifting from being a good marketer to a great one could be as simple as reframing your point of view from one of representing your brand to the customer, to representing your customer to the brand. Making that shift will enable you to create a brand that customers will love, not just buy.

This is where brand laddering comes in.

Starting with the features, moving up to the benefits (of those features), and ultimately the emotional value customers gain, the process connects attributes to emotional motivations in order to elevate the brand from a collection of benefits to an emotional connection that puts your brand above all others.

If you ever studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’ll find this process very familiar. While Maslow divided the hierarchy into the general categories of basic needs, psychological needs, and self-fulfillment, brand ladders are divided by the rungs of attributes, functional benefits and emotional benefit. Some also add social.

Attributes are self-explanatory as the features of the product. Functional benefits are why you’re differentiated in the market and consumer’s mind (or your unique selling proposition). Benefits can be emotional or stature related. Emotional benefits provide customers with a sense of purpose, while social benefits relate to the stature customers possess in the eyes of their social circle.


5 Thoughts on Laddering Your Brand

1. Define your audience. Determine your ideal customer by examining any research or customer contact stories.

2. Solidify your strengths. Brainstorm all possible brand attributes and features, but focus on the ones you believe give you a competitive advantage. Take care to build that list of attributes and benefits from your customer’s perspective rather than your own.

This list will provide you with the framework for focus group research. LISTEN and take note of the words customers use, features they are mentioning, and how they feel they benefit. Keep challenging the benefits until you can move into a rich zone of emotional space you can win with and own. The goal is to find your unique place in the mind of the customer.

3. See things through the consumer’s eyes. Try not to reach for abstract emotional benefits or what Brandgym founder Davit Taylor calls “brand ego-tripping.” The now-famous Dove Campaign for Real Beauty fell into this trap early on. When the company initially developed a campaign to get women to stop judging themselves harshly, women were unimpressed. They found the campaign patronizing. The trap the brand fell into was its top-down approach taking the theory of beauty and wrapping it in the product. When they looked from the outside (consumer) in, they were able to reach the emotional elements. They started with the product and its benefits but subsequently followed the ladder up to the emotions.

4. Climb that ladder. Laddering can aid in determining the most compelling messages and imagery for your brand. By exploring your brand’s ladder, you connect with customers in ways that can lead to loyalty, profitability, and (in some cases) investor confidence. Much like physical ladders can aid you in reaching higher, so can a brand ladder.

5. Find the functional benefits. Laddering can also aid in the introduction of new concepts or products.

In 1975, no one knew what a dryer sheet was or how it would revolutionize everyday home laundry. Procter & Gamble underwent the laddering process to understand how to introduce the product and create this new category. The company started with the ingredient and an easy-to-use sheet as their attributes. They then identified the functional benefit (of those attributes), which was wrinkle-free clothes. The functional benefit was their doorway into the shopping cart.

As the product gained acceptance, the messaging moved up the ladder to continue placing the product higher in the customer’s minds through more substantial benefits. In their case, it was the benefit of attractive clothes (because they are wrinkle-free) and finally up to the highest emotional benefit of “feeling pretty.” As the messaging moved up the ladder, Bounce could move its messaging away from the attributes that could (and were) easily copied to own a space in the consumer’s heart.