Consumers’ Personal Values Have Changed. Has Your Brand’s Message?

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Personal values form the lens through which consumers view the world. They reflect consumers’ priorities, they guide how decisions are made, and they motivate actions. For all these reasons, an understanding of consumers’ values is critical for savvy marketers.

Simply stated, values encapsulate the “why” behind the “buy” and enable marketers to connect to consumers’ central core. But what happens in the rare instances when the collective central core suddenly shifts? According to Resonate’s National Consumer Study on the Impact of COVID-19 that is exactly what’s happening.

The Role of Values in Life and Commerce

Think of values as the goals that each of us desires to attain in our lives and think of emotions as the barometer at a given point in time as to whether you’re successfully achieving those goals.

For instance, if you as an individual are motivated by the value of creativity, and using your curiosity to form new ideas, you might become frustrated or demoralized in a job that is mundane and repetitive. Or if having success admired by others is important, a Rolex watch may be your happy place.

For the most part, personal values are unchanging over long periods. We know a person’s values change more permanently when they move through a significant life stage (e.g., having your first baby), but we also know that values can re-prioritize in the short term in different buying contexts. For example, Patriotism might be really important when buying a car, so a person might “buy American,” but that value might not be as important when that individual is buying clothes or food.

There is ample research showing that long-standing personal values can be substantially altered by historically significant global events, such as massive weather events or the 2008 financial crisis … or right now.

Resonate has been gathering data around consumers’ personal values for years, which enabled our research team to quickly assess the pandemic’s powerful influence on the lives of consumers and the corresponding shift in their underlying personal values. According to Resonate’s National Consumer Study on the Impact of COVID-19, consumers are identifying more values as being important to them than ever before. This essentially tells us that people are not “switching” values for the long term (at least not yet), but other values are becoming important in this unprecedented time that weren’t before.

So which values are wielding greater influence over consumer decision-making in a COVID-19 reality?

Increases and Decreases in Value Importance

Resonate’s new research into the impact of COVID-19 on consumers’ values and behaviors, which is being updated on a continuous basis found that the personal values of 29 percent of Americans—translating to about 73 million adults—have significantly changed in the wake of the global pandemic.

The list of values that have become more important to Americans is topped by Safety and Security, which have assumed increased importance for 30.0 percent and 24.8 percent of U.S. adults respectively. This pattern is consistent with shifts in value priorities observed as a result of the global financial crisis of 2008. The value of Duty (referring to the importance of fulfilling obligations and obeying rules) also emerged as one assuming increased importance for 23.7 percent of research participants, consistent with the emphasis placed on governmental and social regulation (e.g., home quarantine) during the crisis.

The coronavirus crisis is also causing some values, previously selected as “important” by respondents, to become “not important.” The values of Pleasure (i.e., enjoying the pleasures of life), Humility (i.e., being humble and modest), Tolerance (i.e., understanding and accepting people who are different from you) and Independence (i.e., being free to determine your own actions) all made this shift for 15.3 percent, 13.0 percent, 12.7 percent and 12.7 percent of research participants, respectively.

Collectively, these value shifts suggest that the central point of control for some consumers may be moving from internal (i.e., a focus on the self) to external (i.e., a focus on others’ well-being). It’s a change that makes sense, given that what is best for all of us right now (e.g., staying home) also benefits us personally as individuals. Our desire to make decisions that give us happiness and enjoyment and our ability to be independent and do what’s best for our individual interests naturally need to take a back seat.

Speaking to and Acting on Consumers’ Values

With nearly a third of all-American adults re-thinking their values in this unprecedented time, it’s more important than ever that brands understand this shift and alter their messaging and strategy accordingly. Now that consumers are becoming more sensitive to how their values translate to their actions, marketing that is aligned with newly important values is more likely to cut through the clutter and successfully connect the brand to the consumer. We’ve already seen several strong examples of brands pivoting in this regard:

Coca-Cola: A brand that’s traditionally been synonymous with Pleasure, Coca-Cola has recognized that now is not the time to appeal to this value of declining importance with so many Americans today. Instead, the company is wisely tapping into the increasing importance of Safety, Security, and Duty with messages like, “Staying apart is the best way to stay united.”

Uber: Meanwhile, rideshare service Uber has shifted its previous messaging strategy, which focused on heightening a person’s sense of Influence and Achievement, to one that better reflects the new reality of personal values. The company is taking the long view on its brand at a time when its very business model is being challenged, and it’s acknowledging that with messaging like, “A company that moves people is asking you not to move. Together we can stop this.”

Patagonia: Meanwhile, brands like Patagonia are going beyond mere messaging to demonstrate their commitment to their key communities — their customers and employees. The core ethos of the Patagonia brand revolves around the values of Nature (i.e., working against threats to the planet and people) and Equality (i.e., social justice and protecting society’s weak and vulnerable). Thus, unlike Coca-Cola and Uber, Patagonia’s response is squarely in line with its existing core values. Examples include continuing to pay employees despite store closures and expanding offerings in its Patagonia Provisions line at a time when grocery stores are under tremendous pressure to keep their supply chains intact.

The above are strong examples of brands pivoting to stay relevant amid changing consumer values. But by no means are their journeys—or those of any brand, for that matter—at an end. As local and state economies begin reopening in the coming months, marketers must keep their fingers on the pulse of consumer values and sentiments.

In many cases, the core values that a brand’s customers had aren’t gone, but they’ve been suppressed by more important values for the moment. We don’t know whether they will fully return to their previous importance after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, or if we will see fundamental changes in what remains important to consumers once this crisis ends.

From one month to the next, what we thought was the reality of consumers and the marketplace can change. If your sources of consumer intelligence are more than 6-8 weeks old, you’re missing insights into the shifts happening now. There are major audience swings occurring, and brands need to stay on top of them.

Above all, empathy is vital. Empathy can bridge the gap with your consumer in challenging times. When you demonstrate that you know your consumer, it creates a foundation for empathy to become more authentic and enduring, even as values shift in times of heightening (and waning) crisis. Whether the values of your brand’s customers have permanently shifted, or whether they return to their historical norms, what’s important right now is that you stay focused on how they’re evolving and where they land when your customers believe we’ve returned to “normal.” Your ability to speak to your customers’ values, even as they shift, will be crucial to your ultimate success.

Andy Hunn

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