I know that this famous statement underpins important thinking about modern marketing, but it's been troubling me. If what I really want is a quarter-inch hole, then presumably I shouldn't be that fussed about the kind of drill that I use to make it? Or rather, if the drill makes the hole of the right size quickly and efficiently and without wearing out too fast, then shouldn't I be perfectly satisfied?
However, being a DIY person, I find all this a bit sterile. Yes, I do indeed want a quarter-inch hole, but I also want the process of making it to be as aesthetically pleasing and sensuously enjoyable as possible. For me, the tactile qualities of my power drill, such as moulding of the grip, the slickness of the ratchet holding the bit, the modulated whine of the engine, the staccato noise when it's in hammer mode, and the colour, of course, are things I really enjoy.
There's so much more to making a hole than Levitt seemed to appreciate, but am I usual in feeling this way?
A: You're failing to distinguish between motivators and discriminators: a common error. Motivators motivate us towards entire categories. Food is perhaps the most obvious example. We're motivated to acquire food because we're hungry; and because, if we fail to satisfy that hunger, we'll die.
That's a powerful motivation - and in the poorest of countries it remains the daily imperative.
But in richer, developed countries, we take the availability of adequate food for granted. Nobody bothers to remind us that the category benefit of all food is nourishment and life. Nobody advertises the generic: "For every meal and every mood/There is no substitute for FOOD!"
Today, affluent consumers (for once the accurate word) choose what to eat based not on the common motivator of staying alive but on an almost infinite number of discriminators; taste, price, seasonality, health, fashion, snobbery, appearance, provenance - and so on and so on. Competition within markets, almost by definition, is based not on a motivator - shared by all - but on a discriminator: some preferably unique attribute, either functional or emotional, that distinguishes this particular offer from all others.
Levitt, of course, was talking about motivators. He was reminding providers of goods and services that their customers were interested not in objects per se, but in the satisfactions that those objects delivered. To this day, a great many marketing companies seem not to have heard him.
Assuming that all quarter-inch drills deliver an adequate quarter-inch hole, you will be entirely correct in choosing between competitive quarter-inch drills on the basis of some additional if subsidiary benefit.
Indeed, in framing your question, you've perfectly identified the nature of a true brand: something that more than adequately delivers its category satisfaction, while providing some additional satisfaction that's unique to itself.
And since I find myself in schoolmasterly mode, let me add that I saw straight through your attempt to conflate the properties of the power drill, with all its design and aesthetic possibilities, with those of the actual drill - or bit - itself.
A little weaselly, I thought.
Q: I'm a bloke and I'm a bit worried because quite a few of the top management positions at my agency are occupied by women. Don't get me wrong, they're all great at what they do, but they are females and I am concerned that when my time comes, I will get overlooked as a male. Any advice?
A: Stay where you are.
You're bound to benefit from positive discrimination.
Q: Does anyone get into trouble for making predictions that don't come true?
A: Predictions are like debts. Small ones are carefully scrutinised and when necessary called in. Vast ones always get away with it.
It's therefore with some confidence that I make these predictions for the year 2010: advertising expenditure in the UK will increase by 9.47 per cent; and in a national poll, advertising will emerge as the nation's most admired occupation, narrowly edging out Macmillan nurses and neurosurgeons.
Happy New Year.