How do smartphone manufacturers convince customers to buy their products instead of the identical products of their competitors? How do universities convince students to attend their classes when cheaper schools abound? How does the military retain troops when safer, better paying careers exist?  The answer to all these questions is with the marketing of “intangible benefits.”

Intangible benefits are the things we cannot assign numerical value to. They are how Android and iPhone, Xbox and PlayStation, Coke and Pepsi prey on the brand loyalty born from your cognitive biases. They are what convince thousands of teenagers every year to begin their adult lives with student loans. They keep brave people risking their lives in the military of an untrustworthy government. They are the ideals for which we trick ourselves into sacrificing more than we believe to be worth.

These benefits cost nothing to offer, and gimmicky marketing will have you assigning excessive worth to them. Maybe some intangibles really do hold value, but you must learn how to assign appropriate value to them as an individual. I’ll share some personal examples of when intangible benefits were thrown in my face, and how I assigned value to them.

The Military

The U.S. military is paradoxical in their policies on retention, at least from what I have seen. Despite many initiatives to reduce manpower because of budget cuts, the personnel section of my base put on a dog and pony show to convince us troops within a year of separation that the military was the best decision we’d ever made and getting out was the dumbest thing we could ever do.

After the speakers fed us some suspicious facts about how awesome our salaries and benefits were, the presentation attempted to tug at our heart strings. Several slides were dedicated to “intangible benefits.” From what I remember, the benefits were patriotism, being part of something larger than ourselves, camaraderie, and job stability. Although everyone will assign different value to different things based on what’s important to them, the thought process in deciding how much value should be logical and without emotion.

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First, there was patriotism. You would think military personnel would be brimming with this virtue, but you’d be wrong. In fact, many people join the military because they don’t know what else to do with their lives. After their first contract is up, they decide to reenlist because it’s the only thing they know, not because of patriotism. Then there are the people who joined mainly for the educational benefits. In most cases, three years of service grants the member full GI Bill benefits; enough to earn an undergraduate practically for free. To these people, patriotism means very little. Not that these men and women aren’t patriotic, but the intangible benefit of continued service to their country is of little value to them and thus not enough to keep them in.

Then there was “being part of something bigger than yourself.” I used to believe this one, but after my first year of service, I realized it was just as dog-eat-dog as anywhere else.  This also goes with camaraderie. I don’t doubt that these feelings exist in some units, but it was completely absent in mine, and many of my friends say the same about their units. To us, this intangible benefit was completely worthless. However, I have met many veterans who truly felt like the men in their units were their brothers. Many of these people reenlisted solely for that reason. To them, this intangible benefit was worth the sacrifice of their time and safety.

Finally, there was job stability. My career field was law enforcement, not the most in-demand skill, but finding a job in the civilian sector wouldn’t have been too difficult.  Furthermore, I wanted to completely separate from my career field and go into an unrelated industry. To me, this benefit was also worthless. Not only could I find an identical job for better pay on the outside, I didn’t want to. There are, however, people that would put more stock into this intangible. Anything in the combat arms realm would be hard to find on the civilian side, so special-ops, infantrymen, artillerymen, and the like would find the intangible benefit of job stability to be worth more than I would.

For me, all these intangibles were just hoorah bullshit. Despite this, I watched many of my friends who shared the exact same feelings and goals as me get swept up in the patriotism, or scared off by the supposed lack of job stability on the outside. They assigned values to these benefits that were incongruent with their personal desires, subsequently promising another four years of their life to the military.

College

I’m into my first semester and I’m shocked at how much value my fellow students put into the intangible benefits colleges like to sell. Our first discussion in English class was a lively chat about how awesome these benefits are. According to one student, possessing a degree shows an employer you’re teachable. Another student said that a liberal arts degree won’t lock you into one industry, but allow you the freedom to work wherever you want. There was the obligatory mention of finding oneself. One girl even said that college teaches life skills; that algebra teaches one how to balance a checkbook, and English teaches one how to send professional emails. All while the professor nodded her head in agreement.

First of all, these ideas are clearly asinine. I’ve never had to factor square roots while balancing a check book, and I don’t think NASA is ready to hire a humanities major to fill their engineering vacancies. Secondly, the topic of the academic and professional merits of college has been addressed succinctly here and is beyond the scope of this article. I’m using these examples to show how organizations use non quantifiable benefits to sell their products.

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A common intangible boasted by universities is the prestige that goes with their name. Big-name schools normally have higher tuition rates than commuter schools and community colleges. Whether or not the quality of education is any better is debatable, but the reason people are willing to pay such a high amount is for the intangible benefit of the school’s name on their diploma. Sure, there are probably some advantages to attending bigger name schools, but herein lies the point: Are these advantages worth the substantially greater sacrifices to you?

Conclusion

The most important thing to remember about intangible benefits is that they cost nothing to offer. The prices set on acquiring these benefits are usually set by the perceived value society awards them. Even though I wrote mostly about two specific areas of life (the ones I’m most familiar with), the concept can be applied to many different areas of life.  A soul sucking relationship might seem worth sticking with because you’ve been conditioned to believe companionship is irreplaceable.

You might be tricked into being thankful for your dead end job because you’ve been conditioned to believe there’s no work anywhere else. Expensive name brand products may seem worth the extra cash compared to identical generic products because you’ve been conditioned to believe brand names equal quality. The list goes on, and I’m not trying to tell you to only buy knock off brands and quit your job. I am trying to tell you, however, to ask yourself if the sacrifices you make are worth the benefits you receive, intangible or otherwise.

Read More: The Benefits Of Avoiding Fatherhood