Hey Ryan: I’m so over Good Better Best.

As we do, Ryan and I continue our blog series that aims to keep us both writing and inspired, (though not necessarily in that order). This week, Ryan weighs in with a question around Good, Better and Best. You know that old marketing adage around laddered products that has filled you local retail store with nine flavors of everything – three brands with three offerings each. Has it’s time past, is it on hiatus, or is it as it should be? (His original post here.)

So instinctually, I think Good Better Best should be dead and gone. There’s loads of concepts behind laddering products, but the main intent was to create choice within your brand so consumers didn’t choose outside your brand. The idea was most people buy the middle of three options because they want to feel like they’re getting value without over-paying. (Like you mentioned, Barry Schwartz is all over this.) The thing is that this concept gained power when brands and interactions were in their infancy. It was a defensive store shelf blocking play…and it just hasn’t seemed broken enough for anyone to fix.

Laddering products is just begging consumers to interpret features in conjunction with prices and get totally confused. Laptop PC’s are the WORST offenders. Every single laptop looks 90% the same reguardless of make and model. But as a consumer you have to choose between all the options, and you definitely don’t want to spend all that money and make the wrong decision. So you’re thrown headlong into a feature comparison you’d rather avoid. Back at the PC manufacturer, there are marketers chattering away about one line being intended for more of a home office, and another being more of a gamers PC….but at Best Buy they all look the same. And they’re priced within $100 of each other so I don’t know why I should pay more or less.

I feel like the concept should be dead, but it’s not because that’s how we’ve organized our consumer culture. This is how MBAs are taught marketing. I was reminded something Ryan told me four years ago…and he’s painfully correct.

10 out of 10 MBAs are taught marketing the same way.

Marketers use the Good Better Best ladder to communicate to a customer which features are valuable and which are premium. The features that appear in the ‘better’ that are absent in the lower model must be ‘valuable’, after all I’m paying more. And the features I want in the ‘best’ model, must be ‘premium’ because I’m paying over and above to purchase them. I just bought a lawn mower this weekend under this exact scenario. I rolled into a Home Depot and used the prices and features of the products to figure out what I wanted and how much I’m willing to pay. I used those features to educate myself around the product (for better or worse). What I would have loved is a lawn mower with a sign that says “if you have a small yard, buy this and you’re all set.”

I think the only way you get out of selling products on a ladder is to think about how consumers consume the products in a context. When you frame things around use and experience, the fact that Starbucks has both a high-end and a low-end offering makes sense; I don’t think consumers only drink coffee in one context. The ironic thing is that the business press is so entrenched in old dogma, they dont’ know exactly what to think about the move, it breaks their model. I think it’s only confusing if you’re hell-bent on a company selling widgets that only work one way.

So to wrap this rant up and get back to the question – I think Good Better Best isn’t really the best way to sell products, but it’s one of the only ways companies have been organized to connect with consumers. I think companies that have figured out how to connect on ideals ann values are the ones to watch. I sort of wonder if consumers have moved well beyond the concept of GooD Better Best, but that’s how we offer products so that’s just how they buy the things they need.


  1. Totally agree with you about some marketers focusing on features instead of consumer benefits, and causing needless pain & confusion. Not sure I agree on the cause, though – I would propose that lazy thinking and settling for the status quo are the cause, instead of “10 of 10 MBAs thinking about marketing in the same way” – are you including Diego Rodriguez or Seth Godin in this category?

    Anyone who simply accepts the status quo – whether designers, or marketers with MBAs – will miss out on connecting with end users and best meeting their needs.

  2. Good point, I mis-typed. Ryan’s article as entitled “10 out of 10 MBAs are taught marketing the same way.” It was criticism toward the institution rather than the individual.

  3. Think about the value of a product line that goes like this: “Always the best for you.” And not in the crappy way that some product comparison engines mix up units and blank cells to avoid true comparison among competitive brands, but in the way that you can actually choose a product not on price but on what will enhance your experience.

    I’m inspired by surfboards, fly rods, restaurant menus, (some) furniture brands, etc. – “Best” lives in the brand, but “right” lives in the product selection. There is no “best” meal on a good restaurant menu. Forget about “best value” pricing of soda at the movie theater… we all know that’s crap.

    My fly rod is from Scott. All their rods are the best for something. And for me, their brand is the best. I have owned several of their rods from different lines – they’ve all served me well and differently, always great. Same with my surfboards – each one is special and does something different. That’s why you develop a “quiver” of boards.

    How is that for a marketing position? Instead of offering Good Better Best and asking consumers to choose one (because why ever would you buy all three), you offer a “quiver” of choices – choose one for each purpose you have? What would this mean for athletic shoes that become workout-specific? What would this mean for computers? What would this mean for automobiles?

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