Laddering Techniques in Qualitative Research

A Primer on Laddering

Ask someone what a focus group is, and she'll probably describe its iconic trappings –the one-way glass, the name tags, the curious moderator. But there's also an invisible component so powerful that practically no focus group can do without it. That component is called laddering.

But what is laddering?

Laddering is a qualitative research interviewing technique meant to identify the emotional benefit of a product or service. But usually, consumers don't know how to express emotional benefits. Laddering helps tease this out.

Laddering is important for two reasons. First, because benefits are what drive consumers to make purchases. Second, you can use the output of this technique to inform a variety of initiatives, such as positioning statements, value propositions, advertising communications, and product development.

But before we get into what laddering is, we need to understand the difference between features and benefits.

Laddering Techniques in Qualitative Research

Features vs. Benefits

A feature is a characteristic or attribute that resides with a product or service. Benefits, by contrast, reside with the consumer. They are the positive outcomes of features. In other words, features are what the product does, and benefits describe what's in it for the consumers.

A few examples: A seatbelt is a feature; safety is a consumer benefit. Memory foam is a mattress feature; a good night's sleep is the consumer benefit. A five-blade Gillette razor is a feature; a close shave is the benefit.

There are different kinds of benefits — functional benefits and emotional benefits.

A functional benefit is a functional utility that a consumer gains from a product feature. Our five-blade Gillette razor benefit — a close shave — is a good example of this.

An emotional benefit arises when a product gives the customer a positive feeling. It's what a product says about the user, or how it makes him feel. For instance, our five-blade Gillette razor may impart the self-expressive benefit of "masculinity." Another example: The owner of a Rolex watch may enjoy a feeling of "success."

The strongest brand identities rely on their emotional benefits — think Apple, Nike, Gatorade — because those are much harder for other brands to compete against. Functional benefits, by contrast, are much easier for competitors to hack.

Laddering Moderators use laddering to help them identify the functional and emotional benefits that consumers care about. It's a 3-step process that starts with identifying an appealing product feature and ends with the respondent telling the moderator how that feature makes him feel.

The line of questioning is simple, and as follows:

  • What product feature do you like best?
  • What does that feature do for you? What is its functional benefit?
  • How does that functional benefit make you feel?

Let's assume we're talking to consumers about their love of Corona Beer, and our job is to understand how to speak to them in an emotional way. Our line of questioning may go something like this:

First, we identify an appealing feature:

Moderator: What do you like best about drinking a Corona.

Respondent: I like that the beer is brewed in Mexico.

Next, we identify the functional benefit:

Moderator: Why is beer brewed in Mexico important to you?

Respondent: Because I'm getting the authentic taste of Mexico.

Finally, we identify the emotional benefit:

Moderator: What's special about the authentic taste of Mexico?

Respondent: When I drink a Corona I feel like I'm escaping to a relaxed and exotic place.

Advertisers can use "relaxed and exotic" as the basis for Corona communication — say, portraying drinking a Corona as analogous to relaxing on a beach. It's also a key point of difference from other beer brands, such as Coors (a Colorado Rockies experience) and Samuel Adams (an old-world Boston experience).

And there you have it — Laddering, the most important probing technique in qualitative research.