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Why That Whole “People Don’t Want a Drill, They Want a Hole” Thing Doesn’t Go Far Enough

By August 8, 2012April 16th, 2014Writing & Content Marketing
Why That Whole “People Don’t Want a Drill, They Want a Hole” Thing Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Most marketing and content writing nerds like me have memorized and shared the brilliant statement by Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

It’s brilliant because it illustrates, in the simplest of terms, why you need to sell results, not the product or its features. I would pull that quote out of my brain like a six-shooter out of a holster when my clients wanted to talk about themselves in their marketing content instead of how they can solve a problem or fill a need for their clients.

Then I bought a drill.

I’m the furthest thing in the world from a handyman, so when I take on any kind of project around the house that requires a power tool, there damn well better be a big payoff.

A hole is not a payoff.

I have no use for a hole. My family won’t be better off because I drilled a hole. So when I plunked down my money for a drill, I didn’t pay for holes. That doesn’t go far enough.

My first major project with the drill was to hang a bunch of shelves, hooks and racks in the garage. But the ability to hang stuff in my garage doesn’t go far enough either.

I created massive amounts of storage space. Instead of having everything scattered on the floor and leaned up against the walls, I was able to put boxes and storage bins on the shelves and hang chairs, ladders, yard tools and hoses on the hooks and racks. I even cleared stuff out of the basement.


Here are some of the shelves I hung in my garage. Impressive, right? Even more impressive is the extra space it created in my garage and basement.

The hole was the immediate result. The extra storage space was the end result. That’s what I had in mind when I got the drill. That’s what I really paid for.

Obviously, there are more uses for a drill. Maybe you want to build a deck. But the ability to build a deck doesn’t go far enough. You build a deck so you have a place to relax, barbecue, throw a party or just hang out with family and friends. That’s what you’re paying for.

Let me be clear about one thing. Immediate results are certainly not irrelevant and can be integrated into your message. But they’re really just a means to an end and should only be used to show how they help your target audience reach the end result.

For example, in content about a drill, you could talk about how someone could use a drill to triple their storage space by hanging shelves, hooks and racks in the garage, or they can create a backyard entertainment area by using a drill to build a new deck.

Keeping with the summer theme, I dream of owning a riding lawn mower, although my wife will probably never allow it. A riding mower would allow me to cut the grass – a long, sweaty, weekly chore – in about half the time it takes with my crappy push mower. But that doesn’t go far enough.

A riding mower would provide me with the time and energy to do other things, whether that means cooking dinner on the grill, going out for ice cream with my wife and daughter, or writing content for my clients. That’s what I would really be paying for.

I would also enjoy mowing the lawn with the steering wheel in one hand and a beer in the other like my dad did when I was a kid, but that’s more of a bonus.

Again, I’m not disagreeing one bit with the thought process behind Professor Levitt’s statement. As I said before, the message is brilliant. Sell the results, not the product or its features. I just think this particular example doesn’t go far enough.

As you develop marketing content for your business, ask yourself:

Is this the real reason why someone will be motivated to spend money for my product or service? Or do I need to take it a step or two further?

Remember, the end result is the solution to your clients’ problems. That’s what makes their lives better. That’s what they’re really paying for.

Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • clarestweets says:

    I think we all have an issue with digging deeper for the motivations of our customers. This post really points out why that is so important. Thanks Scott!

    • Hi Clare,

      Definitely. The first challenge is to get past our needs to focus on the needs of our clients. The second challenge is to identify what those client needs are. The third challenge is to differentiate between what we think the client needs are and what the client thinks those needs are. Finally, we have to convey the results that we can deliver to fill those needs. It’s not quite as simple as 1-2-3. More like 1-2-3-4-5-6… or more 🙂


  • Hi Scott,

    this adage is a typical example of over-simplification. Although it sounds enticing, it doesn’t go far enough, as you note. At the end of the day, we spend money on a better lifestyle and for more happiness, this is what it all comes down to. And it means something else for everyone. Hm, perhaps you could convince your wife to buy the riding lawn mower with the time savings you could spend with her and your kids ?

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Take care


    • Oliver,

      Over-simplification is exactly it. That which makes our lives easier usually requires a little mining to uncover. It’s usually rooted in common sense, but you just have to do a little more digging.

      Ha, I’ve tried that argument with the riding mower. I think my wife has seen my lack of handy work with other projects and fears that a riding mower could result in shredded flowers, a cracked wall or even a four-car pile-up.


  • Hey Scott,

    This is actually the first time I’ve seen the quote. It’s brilliant. And it’s what I’ve been trying to tell my clients as well. But, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense too. Combining the quote with your experience might be the best way to do it.

    I especially like your example with a riding mower, it’s so much more than just cutting the grass.

    Great post.

    • Jens,

      I think, as marketers, we need to consider our own life experiences when developing strategies and content for our clients, and dig a little deeper to understand how a product impacts our lives. I don’t think it’s too difficult, but you do have to think beyond the function of the product.

      I’m going to take your statement about the riding mower and use that as the introduction when I make my case to my wife for the hundredth time.


  • Excellent reminder, Scott, that one’s marketing bullseye must expand to consider all the possible upstream and downstream objectives before really being able to understand the activities required to achieve the desired customer behavior.

    I’m frequently faced with clients who think that the increasing number of connections they have in a social media context is their goal – or increasing revenue is their goal – and while both are true, there are a myriad of linchpin objectives before and in between that ensure the success of their campaigns.

    • Don,

      Great points. Success is achieved through meeting a series of objectives, and every part of that process is important. That process can only be identified after a analyzing the true wants and needs of the target audience.


  • Hi Scott, really interesting. I certainly know about this quote and it’s so good that lots of us marketers have used it. However, I think that’s the first time I read about it the way you’re putting it… no far enough. I really like that. End results are not only instant, but long term down the road results.
    Really great post, but why on earth aren’t you allowed to own a driving lawn mower? 🙂 ?

  • Adrienne says:

    I love this Scott and I also believe that we have to dig even deeper sometimes to actually give them the results they’re searching for. That whole hole experience was lost on me I might add. I guess you can imagine how well that goes over with women right! Give me an example I can bit into but the concept is the same.

    Every man’s dream alright! Riding on a riding lawnmower in the hot sun drinking a cold one. Now that’s the way to mow a yard.


    • Hi Adrienne,

      Well, I can only share my experiences as a man 🙂 Ha, I didn’t realize the comment about the riding mower would get so much attention. I guess if I can turn a dreaded chore into something somewhat enjoyable, I may as well do it, right?


  • Sue Price says:

    A great article Scott and oh so true. As Oliver said we use the example because it does illustrate but it is over simplified and yes of course who needs holes anyway!
    A great reminder to all of us markers thanks Scott.


    • Thanks, Sue!

      This goes back to the “so what” principle. When you talk about the results and benefits of using a product, if you can say “so what,” you have to take it a step further. Maybe that’s a topic for another article!


  • Hi Sylviane,

    Well, I don’t make it a habit of questioning marketing professors from Harvard, but unless your Bugs Bunny, how do you benefit from having a hole?

    Ha, that seems to be the million dollar question. My track record with power tools and equipment is the first obstacle to owning a riding mower, but the price tag doesn’t help either.


  • I completely understand where you are coming from. I always tell people that when you are selling, you need to sell an experience. Similar to your message… in that we need to involve the emotional aspects in what we are selling. Nobody ever got emotional about a hole but that can get emotional about having a neatly arranged storage facility. Well written, Scott.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Yes, sell the experience – the emotions one feels when experiencing the results of a product or service. You make a great point when you say what people get emotional about. What ultimately gets people excited or happy? What moves people? That’s what we really need to sell.


  • Martin Pattera says:

    Dear Scott,

    really like your article! Working with Jobs-to-be-done thinking on accelerating businesses and innovating solutions and business models we usually coin the term “you have to get the whole job done”, which ultimately leads to the discussion on what that “whole job” is…you give a perfect description to that.

    Thanks for your inspiration!



    p.s. here are some more blogs about job-to-be-done thinking:

  • Ian Garlic says:

    Great article. I came across it searching for the quote “People don’t buy drill bits, they buy holes” Many marketers, especially in SEO, developed the Yellow Pages mindset. “I need a hole, so I need a drill bit, so I need a hardware store” which the internet is quickly unraveling. You are exactly right about the dream of something else that the drill bit or the riding mower buys. There lies the great marketing opportunity taken advantage of by the greatest marketers.

  • There is a different, and more insightful way to look at the quarter inch drill or quarter inch hole issue which gets closer to Levitt’s original thinking. Although the end result is indeed important, what you’ve completely missed is how I measure the value of the result, and why the intermediate results matter. This is critical, because depending on what is most important to me, I will choose different means of achieving the goal.

    The real issue that Levitt was getting at is that a drill bit is only one of many ways to get a hole, and the performance criteria matter. For example, is the hole in wood, metal, ice or paper? Do I need one hole, or thousands? Is time, cost or quality the metric that I’m measuring success on? Is the hole decorative, or load-bearing? Even for something as simple as a hole, there are many different attributes that different people will value differently, and if you want to understand why someone chooses a drill or a punch or a laser cutter or a material with holes already in it, then you need to understand both the job and its performance metrics or desired outcomes.

    The problem that Levitt was illustrating is that drill bit makers only view other drill bit makers as their competitors, when in reality, the consumer views the full range of alternatives that will accomplish the job suitably as competitors.

    And, even if I look ahead to the final job of enjoying the new deck I built, it’s entirely possible that for me, the best way to get it done is to specify what I want it to look like and let a contractor decide how to build it, and not bother getting a drill (or drill bit), and the contractor might not use a drill either.

    In any case, it’s a bit disingenuous to say that “you don’t want a hole” — if you’re trying to build shelving, you’ll want many holes. The question you will ask as a consumer, and the one that the manufacturer/marketer needs to understand the answer to, is which method of making that hole is best for you, and why will you choose my solution over any other.

  • Charl2lie says:

    Pretty old thread to comment – but since the article was good and I thought about it 🙂 – I think what customers who buy a drill look for is even more emotional – it’s the feeling to be in control of their own space, and the sense of accomplishment to show that to your friends and family. The self-respect you earn from learning by yourself, possessing the right tool and doing things your way – and the pride to show it to the world and be part of the community of DIYers. People buy much more than a drill, a hole, storage space – they buy control over their own life.

    “For the ones who want to learn how to shift spaces, how to reconfigure a house on their own terms, and be again in control of their vision, we created “super driller x.” – because we know how hard it is to start changing the world around us, we made the most efficient drill possible to make your vision a reality.”

    • Sounds like you know how to get to the heart of a customer’s experience. There are always bigger and deeper reasons than the surface ones and businesses who take time to figure that out will always do better than the ones who don’t!

  • Kenny says:

    I work in Masonry and going to needore than one hole. And most to small,sell me what I want not what you think I need. Some customers already know what they need, just not how to get it efficiently?

  • Dan Craciun says:

    Dear Scott,

    This week I’m attending to an ITIL foundation training. I just saw your post and you’re right and you’re not. Maybe I can help you to clarify that.

    The hole is the output of the process of drilling, with that drill, which helps the customer to obtain the desired outcome. And this is to hang something on the wall. Got it? They are offering the product who’s output is to create value to the customer by facilitating its outcome. It’s a little bit exaggerated because it should be applied to the services, but I think you get it 🙂