Dog food must be getting better. More nutritious and, of course, delicious.

Americans spent more than $24 billion on dog food last year. The average price has skyrocketed, and so has the gourmet nature of ingredients, like sweet potatoes, elk, and free-​range bison.

And yet, I’ve never seen a dog buy dog food. Have you?

Dog food might be getting more delicious as it gets more expensive, but we actually have no idea. We have no clue whether dogs enjoy it more, because we’re not dogs.

But we can be sure that dog owners like it more.

Because dog food is for dog owners. It’s for the way it makes them feel, the satisfaction of taking care of an animal that responds with loyalty and affection, the status of buying a luxury good, and the generosity of sharing it.

Some dog owners want to spend more on the dog food they buy. Some want gluten-​free dog food, loaded with high-​value placebos.

But let’s not get confused about who all this innovation is for. It’s not for the dogs.

It’s for us.

A marketer for a dog food company might decide that the secret of more dog food sales is to make a food that tastes better. But that requires understanding how a dog thinks, which is awfully difficult.

It turns out that the right formula is to make a dog food that dog owners want to buy.

The purpose of this example isn’t to help market dog food better. It’s to understand that there’s almost always a disconnect between performance and appeal. That the best price/performance combination is rarely the market’s choice.

There are two voices in our heads. There’s the dog’s voice, the one that doesn’t have many words but knows what it wants. And there’s the owner’s voice, which is nuanced, contradictory, and complex. It is juggling countless inputs and is easily distracted.

Like the dog owner who is choosing based on 100 factors (but not taste), the people that marketers seek to serve care about a range of inputs and emotions, not simply a contest for what is cheapest.

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-​inch drill bit. They want a quarter-​inch hole.”

The lesson is that the drill bit is merely a feature, a means to an end, but what people truly want is the hole it makes.

But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. No one wants a hole. What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.

Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is, when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall, now that there’s a quarter-​inch hole.

But wait… they also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.

Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires the work.

Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess, and that it feels safe and clean.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-​inch drill bit. They want to feel safe and respected.”

Bingo.

People don’t want what you make; they want what it will do for them. They want the way it will make them feel. And there aren’t that many feelings to choose from.

In essence, most marketers deliver the same feelings. We just do it in different ways, with different services, products, and stories. And we do it for different people in different moments.

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. Who’s it for? and What’s it for? are the two questions that guide all of our decisions.

The good news is that we don’t need to rely on the shiniest, latest digital media shortcut — we have even more powerful, nuanced, and timeless tools at our disposal. We tell stories. Stories that resonate and hold up over time. Stories that are true, because we made them true with our actions and our products and our services.


This is an excerpt from my new book, THIS IS MARKETING. Click to read some reviews and see a video presentation and more.