Would you or your marketing pass the ‘pencil test’?

The "pencil test" is seemingly simple... but just wait until you try it.

The “pencil test” is seemingly simple… but just wait until you try it.

As I was coming up in copywriting, I took a real perception-altering course. All of my assignments were given and critiqued by top direct response copywriters in the business. Yes, I paid a pretty penny for this—one that my near-entry-level salary couldn’t really afford—but I was glad I did it. I still think about those lessons.

One of the toughest parts of the course was something called the “pencil test.” The task, at first, seemed simple: We took out a pad, and made two columns. We labeled the left column, “Features,” and the right, “Benefits.”

Then, the instructor gave me a pencil. An ordinary, yellow, number-two pencil—exactly like the ones you used in school.

He told us to write a feature of the pencil in the left column and its benefit in the right.

For just a refresher, a feature is a characteristic of a product or service. For example, the pencil is yellow. The benefit is the advantage that someone gets from that feature. So, a yellow pencil makes it easier to find in a crowded drawer.

The goal was to come up with as many features/benefits as we could for the pencil, in a given amount of time (I think it was half an hour).

Of course, I came up with the first several combos pretty effortlessly…

  • The ridged body of the pencil (feature) helps it stay put on your desk (benefit)
  • The handy eraser (feature) takes away mistakes in a few strokes (benefit)
  • The granite point (feature) can be used sharpened or dull for different effects and needs (benefit)

Then, I suddenly started running out of mental lead. Straining a bit, with a thin film of perspiration forming on my brow, I finally eked out another…

  • The pencil sharpens (feature), so you can use it over and over for crisp writing (benefit).

OK, not my best work.

I labored to squeeze out a few more, and by that time, the teacher wanted us to share our list with our classmates.

I ranked a smidge above average in the exercise. Some hardly got past the basic features, while others delved into the emotional benefits of the pencil, flipping features and benefits or even doubling benefits…

  • No need to feel insecure ever again (benefit)… you can obliterate your mistakes (benefit) with the built-in eraser! (feature)

Talk about feeling insecure. I was pretty early in my career, but I realized I had a way to go to match some of the marketing heavyweights in the class.

Which brings up an important point for you. As a marketer, you’re probably very familiar with the features and benefits of your product. But, have you truly hunkered down and explored ALL the possible ones?

Just an FYI… no one in that class had more than a dozen features/benefits. Then the teacher told us that some superstar, way back, actually came up with more than 100. That’s one amazing pencil!

In next week’s blog, I’ll share four different ways of looking at the benefits of your product or service.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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