Changing consumer behavior is being attributed, in large part to new consumer values. The emerging narrative is, quite literally, taking over the conversation between consumers and corporations trying to catch their attention. We are all familiar with the themes. Green, sustainable, community, connection, consciousness, globalism and so on. Sounds like we can all congratulate ourselves on being a more enlightened people but I’m having a hard time swallowing it.
What are these new values and what relationship do they really have with how we spend our money and develop brand loyalty? I think that values are self defined, self endowed virtues that we use to positively interpret our own behavior. Badges, as it were, invented by our aspirations and pinned, by our ego’s, onto our identities where they shine for all the world to see. The gap between the energy we are prepared to invest in defending our values and the effort we make actually employing them is so broad as to make it clear that values are both deeply important to us yet entirely optional from a practical standpoint. They are permissive and don’t carry the performance requirements of, say, principles which must always be applied to hold true. On a list of needs to wants, values would fall into the “nice to have” section.
By way of illustration, as if a good hard look at all of our own personal lives wasn’t enough, consider how enraptured we are with stories of self sacrifice and lofty deeds. This is because they are the heroic tales of values actually winning out over self interest and that is rare indeed. Values allow us to positively interpret our self interested behavior so it is no surprise that they have come to dominate the narrative between business and the consumer. What is surprising however is that more people don’t recognize that this narrative is somewhat of a “tea party conversation” that skirts the real, if less flattering, motivations behind our choices. That does not make the narrative any less useful as it pertains to branding, marketing and communications in general, but it does mean that it is only part of the picture. It makes sense for corporations to fill in the blanks if they want to address the real concerns and motivations of their customers.
So what are consumers experiencing right now? How do they feel and what are their new values an expression of? What do they need or want to hear from business to address the actuality of their lives in these highly volatile and transitional times? There are no definitive answers to these questions but they are the questions that companies need to be asking themselves if they want to engage in the values narrative with consumers in a way that also connects with their stronger, more basic motivations.
I think the values that are emerging are all, ultimately, based on a nation wide sense of uncertainty. To put it bluntly; Fear. Fear of what exactly? Grossly simplified; fear of scarcity and fear of threat. Scarcity (or the recognition of it, despite being the first law of economics, has only very recently shown up in the American consumer psyche. For the first time we are realizing that our consumption habits are unsustainable and do not support our long term, or even sort term, well being. Realization did not come in the form of enlightenment but in the growing cost of, food, fuel, housing and so on. The impact of climate change, water and air pollution and the growing prevalence of things like asthma, autism, allergies and so on in our kids has strengthened our grasp on the concept of scarcity. Our rational response is to conserve and ration. The value system that validates that behavior is environmentalism and sustainability. The values are very real but they are not our primary motivator. We are, on a much more primitive level, afraid of running out of the things that we rely on.
The second set of values are based are a response to perceived threat. A convergence of events has made us feel exposed and vulnerable. We have come under attack and lost our sense of security within our boarders. We have had to relinquish the moral high ground and seen our economic superiority threatened by the rise of India and China. Our economy went from very strong to very weak in an extraordinarily short period of time to the very real economic detriment of millions of Americans. Our, once again, completely rational response is to develop somewhat of a wartime mentality. To gather together and form communities. To be more tolerant and less arrogant towards our neighbors whose strength is growing relative to our own. The primary motivator is fear and the value system that it represents is all about relationships, engagement, diplomacy, tolerance, community, connectedness and globalization. Probably the best expression of this shift is the election of Barack Obama to be President. We put aside old prejudices and a value system structured around superiority and replaced it with one that fits better with conditions over which we have no control and no choice but to adapt.
So in conclusion, I would suggest that changing consumer values are the symptom and not the cause of changing economic, social and environmental conditions. Corporations seeking to connect with consumers today should absolutely engage in the values narrative but should do so with the understanding that it is the result of what amounts to fear and insecurity. How do you talk to a consumer who is fearful and insecure? You have the conversation with them about values that they want to have because it makes them feel comfortable and virtuous. You also acknowledge, explicitly or implicitly, the actuality of their experience and the challenges that they are facing. Without that, the narrative around values remains vaguely insubstantial and somehow fails to get to the heart of the matter.
Written by Sara Batterby
Brand and Messaging Strategist