What are you selling, really?

If you’re a creative business or cultural enterprise, you are selling goods or services to customers, whether it’s graphic design, fashion, architecture, music, crafts, theatre, film or books.

But what are you selling, really?
Or to put it another way, what is it that the customer is really buying from you?

It’s often the case that there is a difference between what you think you are selling and what the customer is actually buying. In purchasing your goods or services, customers are also often buying into a ‘lifestyle’, a ‘feelgood factor’, a ‘talking point’, a ‘community’, or a ‘story’.

The most aware businesses fully understand precisely what the customer is buying from them and increase their prices in line with the increased value that customers obtain.

For example, Tom Peters quotes the Harley Davidson executive who said: “What we sell is the ability for a 43 year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.”  You might say they are selling the experience of being a weekend “Hell’s Angel”. Maybe you could call it a “feel-bad factor”! A naive observer might think they simply sell expensive motorbikes.

In the cultural sector, London’s Victoria and Albert design museum researched customers’ views and recognised that one of the greatest attractions of the museum was its cafe. What visitors want is to see some of the exhibits (it’s too overwhelmingly big to see everything) and to have some tea and cake with friends. Controversially and bravely, Director Elizabeth Esteve-Coll adopted the marketing slogan “An Ace Caff with quite a nice Museum attached.” It’s not what the Museum is supposed to be about – but it’s exactly how many visitors see it and the slogan resonated with them.

Hong Kong fashion design company Dialog Ltd ran a project called Hope Tees that designed and manufactured t-shirts to raise money for a worthy cause. The customer was buying much more than a simple garment: they were investing in hope. Hope for the disadvantaged communities the project supported. The customer might never wear the t-shirt, but the “feel-good factor” they take away makes the investment excellent value for money. Fundamentally, they are not really selling t-shirts: they are selling hope.

In his book ‘Buzzmarketing’, Mark Hughes tells the story of Miller Lite. Research found that the appeal of this low calorie beer to heavy drinkers was not its low calories at all (most were proud of their beer bellies), but the fact that it didn’t “fill them up” as much as regular beer – so they could drink more and stay in the bar longer.

From my own experience of working in international book distribution and marketing, I know that many books are bought not [only] to be read, but as interior decoration or as a symbol of cultural sophistication. That’s not me being philistine – it’s [at least part of] how real customers think and behave.

The point is that in the creative industries, just as in other business sectors, we must learn to look at things from the point of view of customers, because it brings new insights which might be subtly (or radically) different from our perspective as the creator of our goods or services. We need to understand the customer benefits in the way the consumer sees them.

So what are you selling, really?

To what extent are your customers actually buying into a lifestyle, a feelgood factor, a community, your ethics, or a story?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see our businesses through the eyes of customers?
Or, in the words of the Scottish poet Robert Burns:
“Oh, that God the gift would give us
To see ourselves as others see us.”

The answer, as so often in marketing, is to Ask your Customers!
Market research doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.
It’s mainly a simple switch in attitude from “we know everything about our business” to “customers might know things about our business we don’t know, see different benefits, get value we weren’t aware of, or have great ideas for us”.

(Here’s a relevant extract from the marketing book ‘Chase One Rabbit: Strategic Marketing for Business Success. 63 Tips, Techniques and Tales for Creative Entrepreneurs’.)

So go and talk to your key customers, observe them and watch how they actually use your product or service. More importantly, stop talking and ‘selling’ and just listen to them.
You might be surprised…


For more information about customers’ perspectives – plus scores of  ideas, tips and examples about profitable marketing, read David’s marketing eBook on your phone: ‘Chase One Rabbit: Strategic Marketing for Business Success. 63 Tips, Techniques and Tales for Creative Entrepreneurs’.

What are you selling really?


“What business are you in?” is another way of asking the same fundamental question about your business, understanding how customers benefit, deciding how to adapt to changing times, and assessing where you sit amongst the competition.

This is the central question in a classic Harvard Business Review article by Theodore Levitt entitled ‘Marketing Myopia’.

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