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The psychology of values based marketing
Why and how we may need to think very differently about consumer decision making in a world of brand purpose
Commercial organisations are increasingly adopting a purposeful mission, moving beyond the simple aim of making money to include reflecting a strong set of values to the world on a wide range of issues such as sustainability, LGBTQ+ and Diversity & Inclusion. Not only are the organisations’ internal policies structured to reflect these values, but they are also used to shape customer products and services, as well as advertising communications.
As such, this effectively moves a brand from purely delivering on the stated outcomes, (such as the purveyor of food or household goods), to one that offers a physical manifestation of values, visibly promoting the principles that we may often consider most important.
In a sense then we can see the way in which a brand can therefore potentially be part of what we might call a ritual – behaviours which have symbolic value beyond the everyday. This is something that many organisations aspire to – the creation of rituals that embed behaviours, enhancing the brand’s ‘stickiness’ so people may be less likely to move to an alternative brand or product.
On this basis, customers buying from brands which reflect their values, provides evidence of the behavioural commitment to values that we, and others in our group, consider important. Borrowing from a paper by Daniel Stein and others, we can perhaps see the way that these behaviours can then become institutional norms (‘what people must do’) and as such become deeply embedded in maintaining group values through:
Promotion: visibly promoting values that the group often considers most sacred
Protection: as contributing to the stability and consistency of group values
Perpetuate: helping to bring to mind ingroup values, fostering ingroup commitment and cooperation
There clearly seems much to applaud here but assessing the importance of this or evaluating the tangible benefits are to an organisation is not what is being discussed here – there is a lively debate in many other places. The point is to highlight the new considerations that need be made in light of making ‘purpose’ a more central part of a brand’s strategy. We consider that consumers bring quite qualitatively different considerations to their decision making in relation to values than they may do in relation to a more simple choice between products.
But first we look at why values are taking such a centre stage at the moment.
A greater focus on values
Perhaps it is of little surprise that the values that are held by organisations has risen in prominence when we consider the way COVID has been propelling a more urgent consideration of our collective values. Terror Management Theory (TMT) would surely suggest that the salience of death brought on by COVID-19 plays a key role in motivating people to focus on the values they hold as we wish to seeing ourselves as living a significant life.
TMT suggests a consequence of our cognitive abilities as humans is the awareness of the inevitability of death, giving rise to an existential terror. This terror is navigated by a buffering system consisting of a range of activities often relating to a more intense need for a shared cultural worldview leading to core shared values. No wonder then that three-quarters of people in the UK say the pandemic has made them re-evaluate the most important aspects of their lives.
Of course, a key implication from here would be that that brands and other institutions need to develop an understanding of the social, cultural and political landscape that shapes the values people consider to be important. These are as much navigated between us, as they are internalised within us, we are a collective ‘thinking society’ as Serge Moscovici called it. Embedding oneself into the ways in which these values form, ebb and flow therefore seems critical for organisations to understand how to engage and embed themselves within the values-based landscape.
But in this values based landscape, we consider that there are some new considerations that marketers need to navigate.
A. Understand the unspoken associations
We do not of course all share the same values: Dan Kahan, Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School conducts research in this area, outlining the way that the cultural values we hold define our social identities – which in turn then shape our (often unspoken) beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether humans are responsible for climate change; whether the death penalty prevents murder).
He suggests that this helps to explain why groups with different cultural outlooks (such as left or right of centre political orientation) disagree about important societal issues. On this basis disagreement is not due to people failing to understand the science or even that they lack relevant information. Instead, according to Kahan, disagreement is generated from the way “people endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important ties”.
So the danger here for brands, is of course that their identification with one set of values is then seen as congruent with a raft of other beliefs that may not have been explicitly referenced – but which are bundled together by others. So a brand may unwittingly be associated with a range of other causes and identities that places them in an out-group for unexpected sets of people.
B. Brand behaviours are put under a moral spotlight
Another set of implications that need to be faced by brands when considering their purpose strategies is the way that values effectively constitute moral actions. Moral foundations theory proposes that moral intuitions are developed in part by their evolution within groups and cultures.
In particular, this theory suggests that there are innate moral “foundations” (e.g., care/harm, loyalty/ betrayal) on which morality is constructed within specific groups of the population. Of course, this then moves the brand into a fundamentally different space, that of a moral actor and as such will be judged by these moral standards. So what are the consequences of this? Again borrowing from Stein et al we can see a number of considerations:
any attempt to alter these values effectively compromise the customers sacred values, leading to moral outrage.
those who engage in moral transgressions are punished, with exclusion being a common consequence even when facing personal costs for doing so
group values are often non-negotiable and sacred values, meaning that even well-intentioned or accidental alterations should elicit outrage and punishment
the sacred values protection model posits that sacred values are insensitive to trade-offs which means that people will be readily angered by the notion that a sacred value has been compromised but also, importantly, relatively insensitive to the degree to which it was compromised
This suggests that brands therefore need to be very careful in the way they operate, given that the consumer perception and response when based on considerations related to moral values may well be very different to those based on more familiar evaluation criteria (such as brand personality or pricing for example).
C. There may be greater vulnerability to misinformation / alternative narratives
Finally, there is a case to be made for the way in which alternative narratives may take centre-stage: we have seen this in relation to a wide range of issues such as climate change and COVID: a brand’s purpose position and related activities may well be equally as vulnerable.
Indeed, there is more margin for identifying possible discrepancies between a brand’s stated values and activities than there may have been in the past, when values were perhaps more implied, or hidden in vague ‘mission statements’ than explicitly stated.
Related to this, there is increasing evidence that businesses are being targeted with Conspiracy Theories and disinformation, meaning that regardless of the accuracy of the any challenge, there is clearly potential for reputational damage.
In conclusion and how to navigate
All organisations have values whether explicitly stated or implied but the wider landscape may well mean that we expect organisations to more tangibly spell these out and then act in accordance with them. We applaud this and whole heartedly welcome the way in which brands are seeking to align with what we see as positive values.
But to execute on this effectively we need to rethink how we operate. Values, as we have seen, are not something which are wholly understood through a focus on our individual psychological mechanisms. We need to understand the way in which these are negotiated in a social, collective manner and how different values coalesce and what the expectations are for them to be associated with particular behaviours
As values operate more centre stage then smarter ways need to be found of engaging with their community of customers to reduce the divide between marketers and the wider population so that activities (products, solutions, information sharing, marketing communications etc) are developed to support people to make sense of the world and address concerns that they face.
This is a route that governments are familiar with: initiatives such as Citizens Assemblies are used to directly engage with a range of different citizens to hear what difficulties and challenges they are facing when presented with making sense of a particular issue.
We consider this would also help commercial organisations to get more closely connected to peoples’ very real concerns and understandings, using them to shape the development of purpose led strategies with the aim of helping people to make sense of how to participate in this changing world and working together to co-create products and services that more effectively drive positive outcomes.