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What does my VC investor mean by “sell painkillers, not vitamins”?

Lindsay Says

Pain removal is highly motivating.

And when your audience does not yet know or trust you, they need a big motivator to try you. So-called purchase drivers alleviate pain – the more salient and urgent and high stakes that pain, the more motivated the person will be to buy what you are selling. The promise of pain removal motivates an initial purchase.

Once a brand has earned a customer’s trust by solving their pain, one can move to messaging and delivering a brand’s so-called post-purchase delighters – i.e. offering them vitamins. 

First, win their trust. Only THEN can you earn their love and loyalty.

Real-World Purchase Driver vs. Post-Purchase Delighter

I once managed the Clorox Bleach Pen business. Clorox Bleach Pen is a stain remover. Often, our customer’s stains – if not removed – would ruin the article of clothing. Clorox Bleach Pen removed that stain, thereby removing that pain. Our purchase driver was “removes stains.”

Once our customers had purchased the Clorox Bleach Pen, they often discovered other uses that delighted them. They whitened their discolored tile grout. They transformed the Clorox Bleach Pen into an art tool for colored tee-shirts and dorm room lamp shades. It was fun to watch stains and color disappear right before their eyes. The Clorox Bleach Pen’s post-purchase delighter was “gratifying fun.”

Our Clorox Bleach Pen customer had an immediate pain of “stained-and-therefore-ruined-clothing.” Our customer did NOT have a pain of “need a laundry product to be fun” – that’s a nice-to-have, a vitamin.

The distinction here is subtle but brings deep implications. In order to get our customer in the door the first time, we needed to show that their immediate pain – stained clothing – could be solved with the Clorox Bleach Pen. Then, and ONLY then, we could allow them to experience the post-purchase delighter of the Clorox Bleach Pen being fun to use.

VC Advice on Painkillers vs. Vitamins

I have the privilege of working with some amazing, inspiring leaders. Leaders who yearn to build something meaningful and enduring, something that will enable their customers to thrive. They often want to prevent pains, rather than merely solve them. They often want to be in the business of helping their customers live their best lives, rather than merely surviving the day.

These leaders are hearing caution from their VC investors to sell painkillers, not vitamins. VCs know how motivating pain is, and want that motivation to generate a return on their capital.

And yet, the leaders I work with want to offer and deliver something deeper and more enduring that a painkiller. Painkillers might help someone survive, but it is the vitamin products of the world that help people to thrive.

Start with Pain Relief

So how does such a leader reconcile this yearning for bringing something big and thrive-enabling, when the advice they hear repeatedly is to build a painkiller?

Reframe this false binary. Rather than choosing to be a painkiller or a vitamin, embrace both but in the proper sequence. Start by solving a pain – the purchase driver – because this way, the customer will be more motivated and willing to try you. Once they are with you, then unleash your post-purchase delighters to win their love and loyalty.

If you sell a product or service akin to vitamins, and you are having trouble getting market traction, consider that you might be leaning into a post-purchase delighter when you instead should be leading with the purchase driver. Get very concrete: what is the near-term pain your offering solves? Start with this.

For example, a meditation app that promises to help you “live your best life through meditation” (vitamin) may need to first provide pain relief with something like “on-demand anxiety relief through meditation” (painkiller). Uninitiated customers are most motivated to solve an immediate, pressing pain. 

After this product has delivered immediate anxiety relief through meditation, the brand can move to delivering and messaging the post-purchase delighter, such as daily meditation for living your best life.

Your Curse of Knowledge

Confusing purchase drivers with post-purchase delighters is one of the most common errors I see in brand building.

Why is it so common for companies to message the post-purchase delighter, rather than the purchase driver? I believe it stems from the cognitive fallacy psychologists have dubbed the “curse of knowledge.” Often when we’re inside a company making a product, we are very familiar with the pain and solution. We are well past the stage of needing the purchase-driver message, so we become disproportionately immersed in the post-purchase delighters.

Constantly remind yourself that your customer is likely in a different part of their journey than are you. Separate the purchase driver from the post-purchase-delighter, and sequence them so that you can meet customers where they are, rather than where you are.

Businesses exist in order to bring value to customers. And businesses should always be expanding that value to be larger and more sustained. Also, businesses should be empathetic to customers who, as humans, are more neurologically motivated to reach for painkillers than for vitamins.

Use the painkiller as a way to earn near-term goodwill at the outset. Don’t think of it as either-or. Think of it as sequencing your benefit from near-term to long-term, from pain relief to delight, from surviving to thriving.

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