Defining Values

What are values? Why are they important?

When most people think of values, they think of words like trust, integrity, honesty, loyalty, or any number of other qualities or ideals that people live by. Some may associate values with political concepts. Depending on one’s worldview, they may conceive of values in terms of family, religion, personal freedom, service to others, concern for the environment, or many others. All of these conceptions of values are accurate to a certain degree, but they don’t tell the full story. Values are really much more than that and carry much more important implications for marketers. Taken from a psychological perspective, values are the driving force behind the vast majority of human thought, emotion and behavior.

In the field of psychology, researchers have developed extensive theories describing what values are, and how they influence human behavior. Leading values theorist Shalom Schwartz defines values as “desirable trans-situational goals, varying in importance, that serve as guiding principles in the life of a person or other social entity”(1). Because values encompass the desired goals or end-states of people, values theory suggests that every thought, every action, every behavior, and every emotion felt, will be motivated by the person’s desire to realize these values-based goals. In other words, values speak to the higher-order, self-actualizing needs in Maslow’s hierarchy that the modern customer is striving for. Values are the core motivations that define a person’s individuality, their humanity, and they offer meaningful clues as to what people really want out of life.

Often times, the influence of values on people’s decisions and actions take place below the level of consciousness. Psychologists describe this process as the Values-Attitudes-Behavior hierarchy. Here’s how it works: Through observation and experience at a young age, a person begins to develop ideas about what is right and what is wrong, what they like and don’t like, what they think the world should look like, and how the world should function. Over time, these ideas become synthesized into higher order concepts which become our core values. The values that we develop over time then shape our attitudes about the world and determine how we feel about a given situation, decision, or occurrence. Our attitudes, in turn, will determine how we decide to behave in a given situation.

For marketers, the implications of this process are very exciting! Because values underly the vast majority of human functioning, values can now be statistically connected with specific behaviors, attitudes, and psychological concepts. Through statistical analysis, researchers are able to determine the underlying values and motivations associated with a wide range of variables, including purchase history, attitudes toward brands, psychological factors such as personality and social influence, and literally thousands of other concepts of interest to marketers. With the right data, researchers are able to pinpoint meaningful relationships between a person’s values, behaviors, and psychological motivators. Values-based marketers can then turn this information into deeper insights that allow them to tailor their marketing strategy toward audiences of different values orientations, and craft content that will speak to customers at a level which resonates with their values and higher-order psychological needs. Which is exactly what the new customer in today’s marketplace is looking for.

So values are not just broad, abstract concepts that play a peripheral role in people’s lives. They are a quantifiable entity that guides the vast majority of people’s decisions, attitudes and behaviors. This is what makes values-based marketing such a powerful tool. With this tool, marketers will be able to precisely target the values segments they are trying to reach. The Pareto principle (commonly known as the 80-20 rule) states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the actions. If a business is able to target the 20% of its customers that are most aligned with their values, these customers will be the most likely to become brand ambassadors and repeat customers.


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