Must-have vs. nice to have

In newsletter publishing, an area where I write a lot of copy, publishers divide their products, mostly newsletters, into two categories: “must-have” and “nice-to-have.”

I think these categories can extend to virtually any type of product or service, and I would add a third category to the mix: “should-have.”

What’s the difference, and why is the difference important to marketers?

A “must-have” product is something absolutely essential to the customer’s life or business.

In business today, a PC is a must-have product. For most consumers, a telephone is a must-have product. For a cardiac patient, a pacemaker might be a must-have product, based on the doctor’s determination.

A “nice to have” product is something the consumer might enjoy but does not need. It is a luxury, a frill. Collectibles are a “nice-to-have” product. Subscriptions to consumer magazines, membership in a book club or record club, and jewelry are all “nice-to-have” products. For a cardiac patient, a device that monitors his pulse when he takes his morning walk is probably a “nice-to-have” product.

A “should-have” product is something the consumer really needs and should have, but she either doesn’t know it, or if she knows it, hasn’t been wholly convinced. Examples include life insurance, home security systems, and smoke detectors.

For the cardiac patient, folic acid is probably a “should-have” product. It’s good for him, and will improve his health. But unlike the pacemaker, he can live without it.

So, how do we sell products in each category? Here are some rules of thumb:

  • For “must-have” products, the customer is most likely aware that he needs the product, and also has limited options in what to buy to solve his problem. Copy for must-have products has two major requirements.

    First, it must be crystal clear. Do not be mysterious about the true nature of the product. Reveal it right up front in the headline and lead. Go immediately into what it is, what it does for the user, and the benefits.

    Second, while the customer has to have this product, he doesn’t usually have to buy your product: there are many competing brands to choose from. Copy should focus on how your product is different and better than the competition.

    One approach is to have a table listing your product, your competitors, and the features, and then showing that your product has more of the features the buyer needs.

    If your product has fewer features but costs less, you can say, in essence, “They load their product with useless features, inflating the price. We give you just what you need, making ours both simpler to use and far less expensive.”

    Because the must-have products are necessities or close to it, they can be sold quite profitably using what my friend, direct marketer Michael Masterson, calls “B-level” copy. If the copy is clear, highlights benefits, and clearly differentiates your product from others in the category, consumers will buy.

  • “Nice-to-have” products — like magazines, books, CDs, newsletters, crafts, hobbies, jewelry, fashion — require what Michael Masterson calls “A-level” copy.

    This is the highly skillful copy you see in mailings from Boardroom, Phillips, and other marketers of “nice-to-have” products. Because the products are not urgently necessary, the copywriter must use a high level of skill and artifice to grab the consumer’s attention, gain their interest, and convince them to try the product.

  • “Should-have” products — nutritional supplements are an ideal example — need to be sold with copy that extensively presents all the benefits. Like must-have products, should-have products need A-level copy to sell them — promotions powerful enough to break through the clutter, grab the consumer by the lapels, and not let go.

The other crucial item in successfully selling must-have and should-have products is finding the right list. You don’t just want proven mail order buyers, or even people who have the problem your product solves.

You want people that are maniacally enthusiastic about and engaged with the product or the area it addresses. Yes, many older men need to maintain cardiac health and should be taking your supplement.

But you’d be banging your head against the wall, and losing money, trying to sell your heart supplements to the masses. Better to identify lists of proven health buyers: people you know are fanatics about natural health and taking vitamins.

Selling nice-to-have and should-have products consistently requires the best A-level copy, which is why copywriters who can do it successfully are in demand and get high fees. But with more and more products, brands, and choices available to consumers, many must-have products, which at one time may have flown off the shelves unaided, depend on marketing to move the merchandise.