What does the language learning company Rosetta Stone sell? This is not a trick question. Of course, Rosetta Stone delivers language learning programs to its clients. But those programs are not what Rosetta Stone sells. Yes, I meant what I wrote: The products and services that the company delivers are not what the company sells.

To make sense of this, let’s review some of Rosetta Stone’s marketing. In an ad that I consider among the best ever, you see a picture of a farm boy, standing alone in a field on a cloudy, gray day.


The photo is black and white, except for the bright yellow box the boy holds — Rosetta Stone’s Italian instruction program. Next to the photo is the following copy: “He was a hardworking farm boy. She was an Italian supermodel. He knew he would have just one chance to impress her. (Rosetta Stone…) The fastest and easiest way to learn Italian.” Brilliant.

So I ask again…What does Rosetta Stone sell? The best way to answer that question is to reframe it and ask, “Why does the farm boy buy?” He buys to fulfill desires and relieve fears. He desires escape. He desires adventure. He desires romance. He fears lost love. He desires self-confidence and the ability to connect with and impress the native speaker. He fears embarrassment.

You don’t have to be a hardworking farm boy to share those desires. You may desire an Italian vacation (escape and adventure) with your spouse (romance). You fear that you will bumble and stumble with the language (embarrassment). You desire to speak the native tongue without embarrassment (self-confidence). Rosetta Stone fulfills those desires and relieves those fears. That’s what it sells.

What do you sell? If you begin to answer by describing your products and services, you miss the mark.

Last month, my wife and I went mattress shopping. The salesman started by describing coil counts, wire thickness, spring material, and other product details.

Then his manager approached us and asked, “Do you suffer any back pain?”

“I do,” my wife said. The manager pointed to a mattress and told us it would “protect” our backs. He said we would sleep better. He told us we would save money over time.

A pain-free, money-saving, restful sleep? That’s something worth buying. But what is it about your mattress that makes this possible? How do you do it?

That was his queue to talk about the mattress details — coil count, material, and wire thickness. Those product details proved his claims. We were sold.

When you write advertising copy, produce your email newsletter, post to your blog or social media, or converse with a prospect, stake your claim around your prospects’ fears and desires. If you hit the mark, they’ll want proof. They’ll want to know the what and the how of your products and services.

Start with why. Follow with what and how. You’ll sell more.

This post first appeared in St. Louis Small Business Monthly for which Tom Ruwitch writes a monthly marketing column. 

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