Catering to Consumer Values
By Dana Dratch
What do you really know about your customers: age, marital status, zip codes? That might not be enough any more.
A new breed of marketing is zeroing in on consumer values.
Dubbed value-based demographics, the theory is that if you know what’s really important to your customers—the touchstones they reference while shopping—you can deliver. And a buyer’s innate value system, as opposed to more traditional measures like age, can be a more accurate predictor of which product ends up in the shopping cart and which one stays on the shelf.
“New demographic groups are much more diverse in terms of attitude and preference,” says J. Walker Smith, co-author of Coming to Concurrence: Addressable Attitudes and the New Model for Marketing Productivity, and president of Yankelovich Partners, a marketing research and consulting firm.
“Before, in mass markets, you could pick one tool and hit your target, easy,” says Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing partner of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore. “Now it’s not a mass market.” When it gets down to why people buy one thing over another, “you’re getting down to the values.”
The emphasis on values “really does talk to our customers and makes them more loyal to the brand,” says Kristi Estes, communications manager for Wild Oats Natural Marketplace.
Though, she says, different customers are valuing different things. Some Wild Oats consumers want free-trade products, others seek out items that are environmentally friendly, and many want healthy or organic options. All of those values “speak to who our customers really are,” says Estes.
But traditional demographics aren’t dead. Age, income, marital status and other measures “allow you to make some, hopefully, valid generalizations on the marketplace,” says Steve Weiss, co-author of The Consistent Consumer: Predicting Future Behavior Through Lasting Values and director of research for Near Bridge Inc., an Ariz.-based cultural research firm. Weiss says pairing that information with consumer values gives an even clearer picture of the end user. “You start overlaying the filters and getting some sort of coherent picture, and there you are,” he says.
Smith agrees. “You have to study people at a more micro level than ever before,” he says. “It adds a degree of complexity.”
Life has changed so much that traditional demographics no longer tell the whole story. “It’s becoming so clear that you can’t define consumers with traditional demographics any longer,” says Mike Kassab, senior vice president of brand strategies for GfK NOP, a global market research and consulting firm. “We’ve become so non traditional in our outlook of how we live life.”
One example: marital status. “Married households are no longer the majority,” says Smith. “Single households have recently displaced them. Single households are much more diverse—there are more ways to live as a single person.”
Values may fill in some important missing pieces of the demographic puzzle. Two people the same age can work in the same office at the same job, live in the same neighborhood with the same number of kids, says Jay D. Lindquist, co-author of Shopper, Buyer, and Consumer Behavior and a professor of marketing at Western Michigan University. Traditional demographics will say they should be the same, but a study of their values reveals a very different reality. “One of them is every weekend camping and hiking in the woods, while the other is every weekend at the theater, the ballet and museums,” says Lindquist.
Making a connection based on shared values also fills important consumer needs, says Chris Hacker, senior vice president of marketing and design for Aveda. “As companies get bigger, the need and desire of consumers to understand what they are buying and who they are buying it from will become more important.”
Shoppers “want to understand that this company is coming from where I’m coming from,” Hacker says.
A number of companies have built their business on customer values. Where it seems to work best: when the values are genuinely intrinsic to the company, not graphed on as part of a marketing or advertising strategy.
After Nell Newman spent a day in a plastics plant, she decided her company—Newman’s Own Organics—had to find some environmentally friendly packaging alternatives. “That’s what convinced me,” says Newman, the company’s president. “I thought we were going to keel over just from the fumes.”
Now the company packages its salad line in plastic containers made Natureworks PLA, a clear, compostable packaging resin made 100 percent from corn, an annually renewable resource. “We did it for personal reasons, but it really is a draw for our consumers,” she says.
At Aveda skin care, package design begins with “the intent of having a light environmental footprint,” says Hacker. “Any bottle we do, we assume will be at least 80 percent post-consumer-waste content and [we] design to fit that.”
How can you measure values?
While the idea of looking at values has been around for decades, marketers and social scientists are finding a variety of new ways to gather, study and use value-based information. “It is becoming more refined,” says Kassab, whose company pioneered a system that looks at 57 different value types. “I think marketers have more tools to make it happen.”
Marketers are also finding that mindset, not age, is a better predictor of shopping and buying patterns. And that may be why traditional demographics need a little help. “There are many people in their 40s and 50s who share the same mindset as a 29-year-old,” says Kassab. Market to values rather than age, and you’ll catch their attention.
Near Bridge is looking at customer values with a new twist on age-related demographics. The company profiles customer groups by their birth year. But instead of the usual 20-year gap, it breaks them into smaller groups, using major world events to bracket generational shifts. The goal: identify smaller generational groups with more shared traits and common ground.
Weiss says you are born into a context that, for the rest of your life, binds you as a social group and has to do with how you’re going to solve problems.
Weiss also differentiates between behavior and values. “Values don’t change,” he says. “Behaviors do.” His analogy: If behavior is the clothing you put on, values are the person underneath.
“We came to the conclusion that groups can share a value, but behaviors will differ,” says Weiss. “Values are not the things we think we should be, the things we would like to be. They are the things we have to “be” in order to survive. Values are not optional.”
What is your packaging saying to consumers?
Today’s consumers have “a more sophisticated sense of design,” Smith says. In addition, “people are paying less attention to advertising and marketing.”
That makes packaging more important than ever. “It’s the opportunity to communicate something, not just deliver a product,” Smith says.
Smart marketers are already speaking to consumer values through their packaging. Many include information on soy-based inks used in labeling, recycled content or recycling options on the package either through text or icons. It calls out to consumers who value environmental causes.
Another segment of the population puts a priority on healthy eating. “Look at the colors of the packaging on products that are healthy,” says Lindquist. “You always see green. That’s a visual cue that’s been established.”
Sometimes a brand becomes so well-known, that it alone is a signal to consumers. With Newman’s Own Organics, “our label’s pretty identifiable,” says Newman.
What you have to do is identify the values that seem to be important to your target consumer, says Lindquist. “You have to understand what people want so you can deliver this.”
The super successful Amy’s Kitchen frozen dinner line features “classic comfort food”—dishes like meatloaf, enchiladas and lasagna—with vegetarian, low-sodium and often organic ingredients, says Steve Warnert, director of sales and marketing. While the package states the healthful aspects for those that need them, the overwhelming image is a large, mouth-watering photograph of the dish.
“Demographically speaking, we think it spans the entire spectrum,” says Warnert. While some people gravitate toward the products because they are health or diet conscious, others are attracted by the food. “What we’re trying to communicate through the packaging is that it’s really as good as it looks,” he says.
Aveda uses its packaging to convey values. “Our customer is not expecting very fancy, overly packaged things,” says Hacker. “The way our packages look is very much about less material, colors quite simple, and in most cases, quite neutral.”
Encouraging brand loyalty
Today’s consumers are becoming less and less brand loyal, Lindquist points out. And that doesn’t necessarily change when you use value-based demographics.
But consumers who connect on a values level are bound to be more loyal than those just looking for the lowest price, says Blinkoff. “If all you’re doing is selling on price—that’s a value—but as soon as someone finds a lower price, they’re going to go for it.”
Many times, too, value-driven marketing is a long-term investment “and you have to understand that,” says Blinkoff. The payoff: long-term loyalty.
Bottom line: value-based demographics are just another way of looking at what the consumer really wants so you can deliver it better than the next guy.
Says Lindquist, “I wish every manufacturer, service provider and retailer understood that what customers are buying are benefits.” BP
Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Where to go for more information...
Consumer insights. At Yankelovich Partners., contact J. Walker Smith at 919.932.8600 or visit www.yankelovich.com.
Ethnographic research. At Context-Based Research Group LLC, contact Robbie Blinkoff at 410.223.3509 or visit www.contextresearch.com.
Compostable plastic packaging. At Natureworks LLC, call 877.423.7659 or visit www.natureworksllc.com.
Cultural research. At Near Bridge Inc., contact Steve Weiss at 480.483.9420 or visit www.nearbridge.com.
Global market research. At GfK NOP, contact Mike Kassab at 972.490.7250 x210.
Does your brand’s package grab consumers by the values?
Look at how and when customers use the product. “I want to be with a mom when the three kids are melting down in the grocery store, and she doesn’t have anything to quiet them down and knows that it’s hunger – but she doesn’t want to give them junk,” says Context-Based Research Group principal Robbie Blinkoff. “I want to capture that moment.”
Make sure the package speaks the consumer’s language. To you, the off-white label signals “natural,” but the customer interprets it as “expensive.” If you want your packaging to appeal to a consumer’s values, this is a time it pays to get “professionals with a good track record,” says Western Michigan University professor of marketing Jay D. Lindquist. “If you don’t have the skill internally, find it outside.” Some elements to examine: brand name, color, package shape, text and symbols.
Talk to product makers who are doing it right. “Find people who are not direct competitors,” says Lindquist. Ask “How did you do this? How did you get this?” It’s the simplest way and probably the smartest, he says. “It’s stupid to reinvent the wheel.”
Make the jump from the shelf to the hand. On a recent research trip to Whole Foods Market, Blinkoff noticed how much time customers were spending reading packages and labels, especially for some of the smaller, independent brands. “Companies that have products at Whole Foods put a lot of effort into their packaging,” he says. “My guess is that smaller companies are very passionate about the things they do—and their packages read like that.”
Spend money to educate the consumer (and the sales force, too.) Two years ago, when Wild Oats Natural Marketplace started using biodegradable, corn-based plastic containers in its delis and bakeries, it devoted considerable time and money to tell the customers. “We did a big education component,” says Wild Oats communications manager Kristi Estes. The company used brochures, posters and lots of staff education to let customers know about the change.