Sell the Intangible First, Product Second

4min read
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Multi-passionate Creative

“Starbucks represents something beyond a cup of coffee.”

Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks

Starbucks defines its mission as: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” —This is more than a cup of coffee. They may be selling the physical good of coffee, but they’re really selling the intangible emotions of feeling inspired and nurtured.

For example, if Starbucks just sold coffee, there would be no need for any tables in their coffee shops that encourage people to gather and meet, to work, or to study. Their environment is selling human interaction and community.

If they just sold coffee, there wouldn’t be such a buzz for the yearly calendar day when they launch their holiday drinks to “officially” kick off the season. There’s eagerness in seeing what the cup designs will look like and for that one day when they give away red cups with the purchase of a holiday drink. They’re reselling the warm good feelings of the holiday spirit each and every year.

As another example, just watch the commercials of candy companies during the holidays, in any holiday season. Their product isn’t any different than it has ever been, but it has a festive association with it that brings up nostalgia and joy; and this intangible emotion is what brings in the sales.

The earliest form of this strategy is likely done best by Coca-Cola who has used marketing to spark world unity and share happiness, values that expand across the globe. Through catchy music-filled commercials, celebrity endorsements, Santa Clause imagery of him enjoying a Coke during the holidays, and simple product placements, it’s easy to subconsciously believe that a Coke can make you happy at any moment.

Let’s look at one more powerful brand: Apple, and specifically the iPhone product. Let’s be honest. There really isn’t drastic change between each version of the iPhone that comes out, and those flashy commercials where the phone looks cool floating in space aren’t that creative anymore. But these glossy phones still sell. If it was just about selling phones though, we’d all buy a cheaper one, perhaps? They’re selling status and social connection that is associated with this brand. So many people own these phones that it has practically created a customer need of fitting in. Phone quality comes into account too, but I venture to say that’s secondary.

many iphones on a table
Photo by Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash

Often times businesses get their marketing wrong because they’re selling the wrong thing. They think they’re selling products and external solutions, but that’s not entirely true. Businesses succeed when they sell solutions to internal problems.

Let’s revisit our examples to outline the reality of a product and its approach to marketing a problem and solution. Notice how the solution involves the need to feel a certain way.


  • Customer Problem: “I need a cup of coffee to kickstart my morning.”
  • Starbucks Says: “What you really need is to feel part of a community, which you’ll receive when you walk into our coffee shop and are greeted with a hello. By the way, here’s a cup of coffee.”


  • Customer Problem: “I’m thirsty and need a drink.”
  • Coco-Cola Says: “What you really need is to feel some joy. By the way, here’s a Coke.”


  • Customer Problem: “I need a phone to communicate with others.”
  • Apple Says: “What you really need is to feel like you belong. By the way, here’s an iPhone.”

What about some non-brand examples:


  • Customer Problem: “I need to brush my teeth.”
  • Product Says: “What you really need is to feel like your teeth are fresh and sparkling clean. By the way, here’s a mint-flavored toothpaste instead of those regular kinds to enhance this feeling.”


  • Customer Problem: “I need a new TV.”
  • Product Says: “What you really need is to feel like you’re fully engaged in the watching experience. By the way, here’s a larger TV in 4K and with OLED technology and great sound.”

“Always deliver more than expected.”

Larry Page, co-founder of Google

These examples are just that: examples, derived from my own observations; and there could be great discussions around these. Of course brands sell more messages than the ones I note here, but the purpose of this article is not to highlight specific brands. It’s to 1) encourage you to pay attention to what brands are really selling and 2) think about what intangibles you’re selling if you have a business.

You could be selling intangibles that help fill a need or desire to:

  • Gain status
  • Have a sense of security
  • Conserve time, financials, or resources
  • Gather knowledge or resources
  • Support a cause or help others
  • Have meaning and purpose
  • Build social networks
  • Feel a sense of community and belonging
  • Establish a healthy life balance

It’s very true that products sell literal solutions to problems. But when it comes to marketing competitively, there needs to be a unique value. There are plenty of coffeeshops, soda’s, phones, toothpastes and tv’s on the market. The brands that stand out are not selling products.

people in a coffee shop
Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

In summary, people often make a purchase because of a subconscious internal need and an emotional connection they make with a brand. If you’re selling a call-to-action before showing any indication that you truly understand your customer’s underlying needs, then that sales funnel is going to fall short.

Listen to your customer’s needs. Understand their internal needs, and show that you understand. With this shared connection, the selling of the actual product then happens second in byproduct. Start observing the marketing of products, and you’ll see this framework take shape.

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Maria Gosur is a multi-passionate creative who loves to learn, design, make a difference and inspire others to do the same. With education and experience in all areas of creative work, Maria is passionate about sharing her knowledge and encouragement to others who are trying to expand their skills, pursue big goals, and be a resilient creative.