All Values, No Action, No Problem

One of the biggest marketing myths is that people often fail to shop in line with their values. People always act in accordance with their values. There is no such thing as a value-action gap. Only a gap in what marketers know about people’s values.

Marketers only lodge this complaint about social values. It baffles many that consumers with strong sustainability values don’t buy sustainable products. Or that consumers don’t do business with brands that champion the social causes they support, particularly when those brands need help because they are being boycotted by opponents of those causes. Or that consumers dare to put humdrum things like price, convenience and performance ahead of civic-mindedness.

As if social values are some sort of trump card that takes absolute precedence over everything else. Of course not. This is a big misunderstanding. Social values are not the only thing. They are but one among many sorts of values that influence people’s decision-making.

Which points directly to the obvious fix for the value-action gap—sell a better brand. People shop for category solutions, which is marketing jargon for things that take care of people’s needs. The better brand wins. So, the best way to sell a sustainable brand, for example, is to sell a better brand that is also sustainable. Especially if sustainability is the reason that the brand is a better category solution. Meaning that "better" -- quote/unquote -- comes first and sustainability is the happy consequence, not the primary motivation. 

It is not the case that a brand is better because it supports a cause or operates in a socially superior way. Brands are better when they do a better job taking care of people’s needs. In other words, because they do right by the things people need them for, not because they are more upright.

Many studies find that the highest performing companies are also the best on sustainability and social values. No surprise. Big, strong companies throw off more surplus earnings that can be cycled back into the community. Big companies have always done this. It’s to their benefit, too. But don’t confuse the cart with the horse. These companies didn’t get big by doing good (with a few exceptions like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s that prove the rule). They got big, which then enabled them to do good.

Consumers lean away from companies with bad reputations. Regulators and investors make life hard for them. Mind you, companies generally survive scandals and misconduct. Even so, companies don’t want the headache and expense. Being a good corporate citizen is just good business.

However, it would certainly be better if doing good could give brands extra oomph with consumers. Why let this value alignment go to waste? Surely there is more to be had than just goodwill with community stakeholders. In this sense, the good a company (or a brand) is doing is more like an under-utilized asset.

This is a better way to think about it than as a value-action gap in the consumer shopping journey. For one thing, this puts the onus on companies to figure out how to extract financial value from this asset instead of blaming consumers for being faithless to their social values. For another thing, this frames the challenge as getting more bang for the buck rather than being the only return on the dollar. Such as winning an incremental consumer. Or breaking a tie with similarly performing competitors. Or adding more justification to a higher price. Or strengthening the emotional resonance of a brand.

Perhaps most importantly, this way of approaching things puts the emphasis on action rather than values, which is the way to get results. For social values to matter, they must be within reach.

The challenge for sustainability and other social causes is not what people believe. It may surprise you to learn that year in and year out eight in ten Americans believe global warming is happening. For the past several years, more than half say they have personally experienced its effects. Most people hold these values. So, the issue is not values.

The issue is what to do about it. Especially in the marketplace. Which is all about action, and that means two things. First, people need help with straightforward, practical steps—steps that are reinforced and encouraged and come with clear benchmarks of progress.

Second, people need reminders that their actions are needed. No freeloading or backsliding. It has to become a habit, not a deliberation that takes place with every purchase, and a habit that is affordable, convenient and effective.

If this sounds obvious, it is, indeed. This is the framework for motivating people to do anything that they would rather avoid, whether it’s saving for retirement or giving up smoking: Recognition of the challenge. A plan of action. Coaching and encouragement. And reminders that there are no shortcuts. When everybody recognizes the challenges, it’s time for marketers to move on to what it takes.

The grievance marketers feel about the value-action gap comes from too much focus on the values and too little on the action. It’s not consumer values that need fixing. It’s the actions of marketers.

1 comment about "All Values, No Action, No Problem".
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  1. david raab from raab associates, May 1, 2024 at 12:10 p.m.

    Exactly right.  The vast majority of consumers shop based first on utility, with other values trailing far behind.  We see this in privacy and personalization studies all the time.

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