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Are You Selling What Your Customers Are Buying?

Are you selling what your customers are buying?

The relentless competition for new and repeat customers is, well, relentless, particularly on the high street, so it has never been more important to understand what your customers are actually buying, not just what you sell them. As customers ourselves, we’re always aware of the difference between what we want to buy and what a retailer is trying to sell us, yet when we start a business, this concept seems to elude us completely.

Shopping is an emotional experience. The emotions are responsible for the zillions of decisions we make at lightning speed that help us determine what we buy, where we buy, when we buy, and from whom. Understanding these complex emotions and how they’re influenced by time, lighting, sound, colour etc. is difficult at best, and only the retail giants with bottomless pockets can get anywhere near working it out, using it against us to their advantage.

For the bulk of small businesses, one of two things happens. Some try to understand the basics of what their customers need, and they make the shopping experience as appealing as possible. They put enormous effort in, employing and training excellent staff to bring it all together. Others do nothing whatsoever because they don’t understand or don’t care enough.

It all begins with the first impression so let’s start by looking at what your logo says about your business as it’s often one of the key starting points on a customer’s journey in terms of the impression it creates and what they deduce from it.

Some logos are complex, colourful and detailed, and some are very simple. Consider this question; as your business grows, at what point do you stop using your logo to tell people what you do, and start relying on the strength of your brand to carry the message by itself?



The power of ‘brand’ is a whole other subject, but I want to use it here to demonstrate the difference between not being able to use it (starting-out), believing you can use it when it doesn’t exist (overconfidence) and actually being able to use it (established).

New or smaller businesses generally feel the need, and correctly so, to tell people exactly what they do directly within their logo or identity. As fewer people have heard of them this helps to quickly and clearly convey not only who they are (company name), but also what they do (sometimes also within the company name, but usually in the strapline), so that it’s immediately apparent and all delivered (visually) in one neat package.

There’s nothing at all wrong with that. Still, it’s interesting to note that as businesses grow and their brand becomes more established, they generally feel less inclined to explain themselves with a complicated logo and strapline. Have you noticed how many of the world’s largest companies don’t use a logo in the traditional sense? Many tend to revert to using just their name in a simple typeface. For example; Amazon, Samsung, Canon, Sainsbury, Sony and, of course, Google.

The London Chocolate Co is a small, boutique, specialist chocolate maker. Established in 2006, they serve a niche market of customers. Their logo is striking but complex and detailed, delivering a strong message that leaves you in no doubt as to what they do. Then there’s Cadbury; a giant in mass-market confectionery, who has been making and selling chocolate for nearly 200 years. Ok, their ‘logo’ is a fancy typeface, but it doesn’t need any further explanation and, when you see it, you immediately ‘see’ chocolate and probably want to eat some!


From day one, some new businesses steadfastly believe that their ethos; their position in the market; the quality and strength of their product and the money they’ve invested in the design are, collectively, enough to create a minimalist identity which they wear like a badge of honour and expect everyone to ‘get them’.

I won’t share any examples here, but we’ve all seen these pretentious ‘brands’. Sometimes they work-out, sometimes they don’t, not long term anyway. They try to shortcut the process of establishing a brand in order to be able to join the elite club whose members occupy the relatively tiny space of instantly recognisable brands, ignoring that this takes time, effort, more time, more effort, and so on.

Are they deluded? Maybe, but one has to admire their determination to believe wholeheartedly and without uncertainty that they need create nothing more than an identity, and the power of word-of-mouth and reputation will do the rest. Of course, to carry this off, you need balls of steel and a lot of money behind you to be this confident. It’s not for everyone.

If you have confidence but not massive start-up investment, it’s best to start by telling people exactly what you do rather than place too much reliance on the name and nature of the business being an effective way to communicate what’s on offer.

There’s an undeniable truth to this, as demonstrated by ‘The Himalayan Knitting Company’ where, one could argue, “it does exactly what it says on the tin”. This is Ronseal’s brilliant strapline, and it was created precisely because they don’t want their customers to have any surprises. You buy a tin of oak-flavoured floor stain, expecting it to be easy to apply, dry quickly, not leave the house smelling like a toxic wasteland and leave your floor looking beautiful. That’s exactly what it does, and Ronseal is ‘selling’ the fact that you shouldn’t be surprised by how good it is. An ingenious marketing campaign that began in 1994 and was designed to stop people from even considering buying a competitor’s product and run the gauntlet of having to guess what it will be like or how good it will be.

However, for the majority of businesses, the complete reverse is true as it’s the ‘surprise’ that has to be pre-sold. It’s the essence of what people buy from them, as distinct from what’s being sold to them, together with how it will leave them feeling. The latter, in particular, needs to be deeply understood by the business owner yet, all too often, this is entirely missing.



Think about your own experience when booking a holiday. You begin by finding what you want and where you want to go. The holiday company sells you some flights, a transfer and a hotel, but it’s not what you bought. You bought two weeks of freedom, joy, relaxation, fun, quality time, rejuvenation and escapism. In fairness, holiday companies have possibly been the quickest to grasp this concept because of the relatively high cost of holidays. As a result, these days we see more holiday/break/get-away adverts that focus on what you’ll experience, not what they sell you.

BMW, however, has always understood this. 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 a sense of enormous pride that we project onto others. BMW adverts generally say very little about the car’s features, benefits and technical prowess in favour of concentrating their efforts on what we buy and what we will experience from doing so.

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

The latter is an education on playing to our emotional responses (the clue is in the title), and it’s well worth a watch here:

BMW Joy Campaign

BMW Joy Campaign on YouTube – just don’t blame me if you end up buying a BMW after watching it!

Marks and Spencer is a past master at this type of marketing, with their long-running series of ‘This is not just a…’ campaigns, launched in 2005. These had us all believing there really was something very different about the products you could buy only from M&S. They actually sold us a chocolate sponge with a gooey centre. Still, they managed our expectations to such a degree, with their ‘This is not just a chocolate pudding’ adverts (affectionately referred to as food porn ads), filmed in close-up, slow motion, stunning lighting, with the velvet tones of the voice-over and Fleetwood Mac’s evocative ‘Albatross’ playing in the background, that what we bought was pure, naughty indulgence and a few moments of luxurious, guilt-free excess.

M&S knew precisely how to play to our emotional responses as well as how and where to set our expectations before we make the purchase.

This is all well and good but, for the average high street business, this is all a bit ridiculous and way out of reach. I just wanted to demonstrate what’s possible and that we’re all influenced by this type of advertising and marketing.



The problem is that at the opposite end of the scale, representing the vast majority of businesses, there is no concept or understanding of what customers are actually buying when they buy.

You see shops in the high street with shelves filled with products neatly stacked, labelled and priced but no information about what they are or what they can do for you. Empty restaurants with tables perfectly laid and smartly-dressed staff standing about trying to look welcoming and/or busy, but with very little thought given to either the benefits the customer will gain or the experience they will have by becoming a customer. How many restaurants have you seen come and go because they had the unwavering belief that just because they’re a restaurant, customers will flood in and keep coming back?

Many rely solely on their location to capitalise on massive foot-fall that drip-feeds customers into their shop or restaurant. How often have you wandered into a shop that looks like it might have something of interest to you, only to have the shop assistant (sometimes the owner) greet you with some inane, thoughtless greeting-question such as; “You alright?” or “You ok there?” Aside from the well-meaning but mildly intrusive question, it demonstrates a faked interest in you. More than anything though, it demonstrates their complete lack of understanding of why you have come into their shop, presuming only that, as you’re there, you’ll probably buy something. A far better approach would be genuine interest, a smile, and asking the question; “are you looking for something in particular that I can help you with?

Websites are no different. Granted, you don’t have the luxury of meeting the visitor in person but, making it more difficult for visitors to understand what you do, what you can do for them, or how they might benefit from buying from you, is no different from asking; “You alright?” when face-to-face.

Try to find a way to understand your audience – the people visiting your website. Think about why they would want to buy from you in the first place and how the products or services you provide will help them. Do they (your products or services) satisfy a need? Do they solve a problem? Do they get them out of trouble? Do they make them happy?

LiveChat on a website is one way to successfully engage website visitors as you can entice them to ask you questions and, as there’s usually a real person sitting at your end of the LiveChat session, they will frequently strike-up a conversation. Questions are good. Salespeople see questions as a positive opportunity as they demonstrate a need or a problem that needs to be fulfilled or solved, and therein lies a sales opportunity.

You may want to try investing in call-recording technology (such as CallRail) and listen to the conversations your staff have with customers/enquirers. Work with your team to help them better understand what people need and why they buy from you. If you and your staff understand this, customers will come back.



If you own a restaurant, walk in one evening and experience how you’re greeted first-hand – even though they know it’s you (although you could wear a disguise!). Sit at a table near the door and order some food. Watch and listen to what’s going on around you. Watch how other diners are greeted – it can be shocking to see how front-of-house staff will greet the diners, confirm how many the table is for and then just walk away, menus in-hand, like an over-enthusiastic tour guide leaving their guests trailing behind. Watch how the staff are with each other and how attentive/responsive they are with the diners. Talk to your customers and ask for honest feedback. It’s amazing how many restaurant owners never make an effort to experience what actually goes on in their own restaurant or, for example, how many customers on any given night are that holy grail of return customers.

Clearly, success lies not just in understanding your customers’ needs and the experience they have when they buy from you, but from doing something about it in your own business. You’ve heard the phrase; “sell the sizzle, not the sausage”? It’s a metaphor, of course, but to take it literally; we buy around 2 billion sausages per year in the UK alone, yet there’s nothing whatsoever appealing about raw sausages or the way they look. We buy sausages only because of the intoxicating aroma and the unique taste you get from cooking or barbecuing them until they’re crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. We most definitely buy the sizzle and, unless you’re a non-meat eater, you’re probably salivating right now thinking about them.

In closing, 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 stark observation front and centre of their mind, it would positively transform everything about their business.

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