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Joshua Bains

The FCB Grid: What It Is and How It Works

Joshua Bains
The FCB Grid: What It Is and How It Works

If you’ve only used keywords to understand how to market your product, you’re not tapping its potential.

Lists of keywords tell us what people want.

They don’t tell us why.

Boredom, fatigue, illness and hunger ... people buy for a reason. Maybe you think of these ideas willy nilly as you type, but how can you engineer them without fail?

With the FCB Grid.

Also called the Vaughn Grid, it’s a tool that was designed by the Senior Vice President of Foote, Cone and Belding way back in 1980. Since then FCB has grown to a more than $9 billion dollar company with clients like Cox Communications, Seaworld, AmTrak and Air New Zealand; they’re responsible for the Lord of the Rings on-board air safety video, and the Bilbo Baggins luggage carousel.

To understand the FCB grid, I spoke with creative director Bruce Bendinger, who is the author of the Copy Workshop Workbook, and who has introduced concepts to students of copywriting and marketing the world over.

“The grid is a really useful tool in two ways,” he says. “Working creatively, it’s a good way to think your way through a problem and get a rough fix on who you’re talking to. And second, if you’ve got to present to a client, it’s a good way of explaining a product.”

How The Grid Works

“I’m going to a store,” says Bruce. “And on my list is toilet bowl cleaner, toilet paper, soy milk. And what’s not on my list?


But if I can get a yum-yum influence in the store, I’ve got a chance of selling some cookies. People are not thinking about me ... how can I get them to think about me in a yum-yum kind of way?

The first thing is to get some kind of attraction.”

The FCB Grid helps us understand where a product stands in the mind of a consumer, by estimating whether or not purchase requires a highly involved emotional decision or a highly involved intellectual decision. With that information, we can devise four advertising concepts about a single product that will influence different buyers.

Enter the X/Y axis, which spans from low involvement (clothing pins) to high involvement (a Porsche) and from a product that makes you think (insurance) to a product that makes you feel (Papa John’s).


The decision to buy lies somewhere on that graph, in one of its four quadrants:

  • At the upper left, Quadrant 1 decisions are based on highly involved thinking. Purchase requires information first, which leads to awareness and a considered buy. A Leica needs analysis. There’s also emotion, which pushes the German camera closer to the rightmost feeling side of the chart, but it’s a thoughtful purchase. Health insurance is on the top of high involvement, above high-end optics. Ironically it juts slightly more to the rightmost feeling side of the chart because it’s more important (or costs more) than the camera.
  • At the upper right, Quadrant 2 decisions are based on highly involved feeling. Purchase requires reflection first, as personal ego and self-esteem cajole us to buy. Skin softening soap is just at the beginning of the feeling side of the grid. Perfume blows it away, ending up on the far right of feeling. Fragrance evokes higher feeling than a Hallmark card, and also requires higher involvement.
  • At the lower left, Quadrant 3 decisions are based on lowly involved thinking. Purchase of practical goods based on habit and routine behavior. We learn about the product only after taking it home and not before. It’s the detergent we assess after the first wash. It’s also Yelp.
  • At the lower right, Quadrant 4 decisions are based on lowly involved feeling. It’s the purchase of pleasure products driven by quick personal or peer-led satisfaction. Quadrant four’s motto is: “Just do it.” Cookies are a low intellectual item, the less you think about them, the more you want them. Like Spotify at work.

To use the FCB grid, ponder your product or service and decide in what quadrant it’s most at home. Draw a dot there.

Explode the Dot

Now that you know where your product lives, reconsider it from that spot using the same four quadrants. You’ll discover new aspects that are high and low thinking, and high and low feeling.

Vaghn Grid

Bruce used Old El Paso as his example (he’d just shared martinis with a friend who’d joined the account). Our 2015 update will feature Microsoft’s nascent holographic goggles, which is a highly involved and thinking purchase akin to buying a Leica. Despite its spot in Quadrant 1, the goggles many uses can be pitched to a throng of different buyers who have thoughts and feelings scattered across the whole grid.

Traditionally, these pitches were crunched into attractive concepts like “fun and flavor.”

Today we can write them as long tail keyphrases:

  • “How holographic goggles help you shop and save” (Quadrant 3 - low think)
  • “Play minecraft on holographic goggles now” (Quadrant 4 - low feel)
  • “HoloLens for business conference” (Quadrant 1 - high think)
  • “Wow her with your holo goggles” (Quadrant 2 - high feel)

Now we have two new approaches — what our product can do, and who will use it. Holo Goggles for Mom, Gamers, Business and Romantic Getaways.

Make the grid the way you think. Or as Bruce asks, “What is the circumstance that you’re reacting with your target customer?”

After enough experimenting with the FCB grid, it becomes a tool you can activate at will. You’ll see a product and sense what quadrant it’s in. Then you can explode the dot and quickly devise a handful of concepts, each trained on a different buyer. Try it. Pick an object on the way home. Tag it as low or high in thought and feeling, then explode its dot.

What are four ways you can market a traffic jam?

What It’s Good For

“The grid is a good logical tool,” says Bruce. “Particularly for the front end. And it’s a pretty good initial tool. It’s not a precise fine measurement tool. This is not decimal point kind of stuff.”

It helps you change a person’s attitude more than behavior. It’s the opposite of the ALS ice bucket challenge, which is the result of non-rational, lateral thought.

“They didn’t try to change your attitude,” says Bruce. “They hooked you on an engaging behavior. It connected that way. The FCB grid doesn’t get you that. The grid gives you an insight. It does help you explore the alternatives that you might not have seen at the opening round.”

It’s also good for meetings, when you’re dealing with an embattled account executive for whom “even toilet paper is high involvement.” The problem is that high-minded Quadrant 1 won’t sell a lot of toilet paper. But short-sighted Quadrant 3 will.

“So if you’re doing a happy jingle, you’ve got to walk the client who lost his sense of humor in his third year at Procter and Gamble through that. It’s a good tool to walk your client to some particular spot, because it’s logical, and because your client is logical even in the midst of intense emotions.”

Finally, the grid stops you from talking too much about your own creative triumph, whether its a keyword list or a billboard, and to dwell instead on what customers are thinking. That is after all the reason for your work

“You’ve got to let the client know you’re focused on his customer. Keep the ‘I am a genius’ thing out of the mix.”

Unless, of course, you're a genius for using the FCB grid.

Image credit: The Grid

Vaughn, Richard (1980), "How Advertising Works: A Planning Model," Journal of Advertising Research, 20 (September/October), 27-30; and (1986), "How Advertising Works: A Planning Model Revisited," Journal of Advertising Research, 26 (January/February), 27-30.

Joshua Bains is a Content Marketing Specialist at Eclipse Web Media in Atlanta, Ga. With an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, he produced video news features for the English desk at InfoliveTV in Jerusalem, and writes for Ami Magazine. He speaks about better content writing and video on the Small Business Samaritans show with Phillip Saxton, part of the Wall Street Business Network.​ His last article for SEMrush was “The FCB Grid: What It Is and How It Works."

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