When I work with clients on their copy, especially people in the coaching or personal growth industries, they all start off wanting to be unfailingly positive. Their customers are already happy, successful, healthy, they tell me, and just want to make their lives even better.

I hate to burst their bubble, but…

No one wants to be negative, but it’s just a fact: “pain” sells better than pleasure.  There are a lot of reasons why, but here are the three main ones:

1. People are more motivated by pain and problems

There’s a reason why painkillers sell better than vitamin supplements. Pain and problems beg for attention right now. They are urgent. And urgency is one of the most important elements to making any sale. Most people won’t take action until they feel they have to, especially when that action involves other kinds of pain, like parting with long-held habits or money.

2. People are actively searching for solutions to their pain (not for how to make life even better)

Whether it’s medical conditions (“what does this rash mean?”) or any number of how-to’s, people who use the internet for search are looking for ways to fix and solve things. This extends to offline too. It’s way easier to make a successful offer to someone who is already looking for your solution, than to try to convince them that they “should” look at your offer that they don’t even know that they need.

3. If your product doesn’t solve a pain or a problem, does it even have a purpose?

Why does what you offer even exist if it doesn’t solve a problem, or make your customer feel better? Or if you don’t do at least some aspect of it better than the competition? If you don’t relieve some sort of pain, what’s the point?

Now before you think i’m a total sadist, when I talk about pain I don’t necessarily mean unbearable anguish. It can be a strong itch or desire or frustration. It can also just be annoyance or irritation of the  “don’t you just hate it when….” variety.

The “So What?” Test – Digging for the Pain

Sometimes the pain is there, but you have to look for it. And sometimes it saves your bacon.

Early in my ad agency career as a copywriter, one of our clients was Colgate-Palmolive. Their brands were always playing catch-up with their arch-rival, Procter & Gamble. So Colgate came up with a new idea: a liquid detergent for the dishwasher. Back then there were only powders for dishwashers, and Cascade, a P&G brand, was the undisputed king. There was only one problem: no one wanted a liquid dishwasher detergent. Consumers loved Cascade. Palmolive Automatic solved no problem or pain. It was just different, for no reason.

My creative team were at a loss how to write a TV commercial to sell this product. We tried jingles, stories, wild special effect ideas but only thing we could really say was “It’s a liquid!” to which the natural answer was “so what?”

In the hope of getting ideas, I decided to attend a focus group, where people from the agency could watch a group of consumers from behind a one-way mirror in a darkened room (just as creepy as it sounds, only with bowls of M&Ms and Redvines). The women around the table were decidedly unenthusiastic about the new product, and no matter what the moderator asked, they kept singing the praises of “their” Cascade.  I thought our product was doomed. Clearly, it had no reason to exist.

After an hour, the moderator was exasperated. She threw up her hands and said, “If you HAD to think of one thing you don’t love about the way you do your dishes now, what would it be?” After a moment, one woman finally said, “Well, it’s probably because my dishwasher is old, but sometimes when I open it, the powder is still stuck in the door and the dishes didn’t get clean. I have to do them over.”

Instantly every woman in the room agreed; this had happened to them too. Suddenly, the mood in the room shifted. Every woman expressed frustration, disappointment, even anger at a brand they had unanimously loved just a few minutes before. The moderator saw an opening. “How does that make you feel?” One woman exclaimed, “It makes me feel like just taking all my dishes and throwing them out the window!” “Yeah, me too! ” everyone nodded in violent agreement.

I turned to my partner. “There’s our commercial,” I said. That same day I wrote this TV spot:

This commercial went on to win an “Effie” award for advertising effectiveness. Palmolive Automatic flew off the shelves. Now, all major dishwasher detergent brands make a liquid version, even Cascade.

What’s the point of this story? The moderator found the pain — the rare moment when the leading product let these women down — and got them to notice and remember it.

Then our product was there like a superhero to solve the problem. If she had not done that, the product –maybe even the whole liquid dishwasher detergent category — might not exist.

Other big brands have built their entire message around solving the “pain” that happens at very specific moments:

Wisk beats “ring around the collar” every time.

M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.

Got milk?

How to Find the Pain:

Bonus Tip: Name the Pain

Can you make the pain or problem you solve into a syndrome, an “-itis”, or give it an acronym or initials like OCD? I’ve already mentioned “ring around the collar”, which began in 1969 and is still Wisk’s thing. I’ve recently seen a moisturizer that claims to cure “Tech Neck”, the wrinkles women get on their necks from looking down at their mobile devices. (Yes, really!) Once you “own” the pain, you become your customers’ #1 way to relieve it.