What’s Your Brand’s Values Quotient (VQ)?

In just a few quick years, values have become incredibly important to marketing. Recent surveys show that 72% of U.S. consumers believe it’s “more important than ever” to buy from brands that truly reflect their values; 87% say they would switch brands on this basis; and 65% report boycotting previously-purchased brands because of their position on key issues.

Sales numbers bear out these trends too. For example, it’s well-publicized that Unilever brands that support popular social causes have grown 70% faster than those that don’t. Recent analysis from Forrester similarly finds that companies that voice clear values are 15% more likely to report double-digit sales growth than those that don’t. Aside from heavy pressure on convenience and price, almost nothing has this kind of impact on consumer decision-making today.

How do brands get smart on values? They look at the zeitgeist. And they align themselves with it. Research in psychology shows over and over that almost nothing drives attraction more than perceived similarity. When people think you share their core values, they are instinctually drawn to you. So being able to reflect people’s values back to them is a hugely powerful kind of intelligence. We might call it a brand’s Values Quotient, or VQ for short.

What’s your brand’s VQ? And what can you do to grow it? It centers on 5 principles.

#1. Think Values Before Issues.

Your brand’s VQ is about values first, issues second. It’s about values like equality, security, authenticity, and self-expression. Values that resonate broadly, transcend cultures, and remain meaningful over time. When brands focus on values first, issues second, it becomes obvious how they should respond when one issue or another arises. And their stance on key issues, when they express it, is also seen as more credible.

Whereas sporadic attention to select issues can come across as divisive or opportunistic, a steady focus on values has the power to unify. Let’s not forget that some of the most iconic marketing of all time (think Apple and Coca-Cola) is fundamentally values-led advertising. Advertising that cuts across traditional divides.

“Unlike partisan public figures, brands find themselves uniquely positioned to foster connections between people” – Sprout Social, 2020

#2. Remember What You Look Like.

Unfortunately, your brand is not a tabula rasa. Research in consumer psychology shows that people stereotype brands in the same way that people stereotype people. Big brands are assumed to have deep pockets, legacy brands to be out-of-touch, financial brands to be greedy, and automotive brands non-sustainable. When it comes to judging brands, most consumers also show what psychologists call “control blindness”; people don’t accurately see what brands can and can’t control, and they assume that brands have control over everything.

So unless you are Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s, chances are that consumers see you as a big company with lots of power and cash, a few outmoded views, and an oversize ego. And Gen Z is an especially harsh critic. Staying silent on values will usually get interpreted as apathy. To have a fighting chance of a strong VQ, brands must speak up clearly, repeatedly, and tangibly about what they truly care about (beyond themselves).

“88% of the 2,000 consumers surveyed said they think brands are selfish … 86% of people said they expect brands to do more to prove their purpose than they did five years ago – Sense Marketing, 2020

#3. Keep An Eagle Eye on People’s Values.

Brands that have a strong VQ are brands that listen. They are alert, responsive, and adaptable. The world moves much more quickly than it used to. And consumers care far less about whether a brand conveys an unwavering persona or not. While core beliefs shouldn’t change from Monday to Sunday, high-VQ brands are brands that change with the times.

Consider that, just in the past year, consumer values like passion and independence have rapidly fallen by the wayside—displaced by values like security and simplicity. Everyone is suddenly yearning for peace of mind (e.g., see Gartner, 2020; Resonate, 2020). Meanwhile, survey data surrounding coronavirus revealed astonishing expectations for brands this year: A whopping 92% of Americans said companies had “a responsibility” to get involved in relief efforts; and 62% of people said society “wouldn’t make it through the crisis” unless brands played a major role.

A high-VQ brand doesn’t ignore these things. Whether your brand historically stands for peace of mind, or usually gets involved in public health issues, matters only to you. If you want people to think you are similar to them, and share their values, you need to take serious note of cultural shifts and engage with them.

“Brands can build a new level of connection with consumers or lose the relationship forever” – Edelman, 2020

#4. Build Shared Community.

Americans across generations are feeling lonelier than ever, with almost half (43%) reporting sometimes or always feeling lonely. And the younger they are, the lonelier they are. At the same time, huge numbers of people are looking to online communities for meaningful social connection, and finding comfort there. A 2019 study found that 76% “consider online community members their friends” and 64% “think online communities better understand their passions than family and real-world friends.” In 2020, these numbers have no doubt surged higher.

There is a natural opportunity for brands to get involved here. Not only can communities connect more people with your brand, but they can also provide brands with a more intimate understanding of the market’s shifting needs. Fashion and beauty brands like Glossier and Urban Outfitters have smartly leaned in to micro-communities and closed-circuit groups, making connections feel even more authentic and less corporate. Something that’s especially important to Gen Z.

“What is Gen Z really in the market for? They want a community — a tribe in which they belong” – Marketing Dive, 2020

#5. Get Ready to Lead.

Being a high-VQ brand doesn’t necessarily mean “owning” a single defining value. Instead, it means being attuned to people’s changing values systems, and staying just a beat ahead. Being sensitive to what’s top-of-mind for people today, and anticipating emergent concerns about mental health, say, or the nascent desire for a stronger connection with nature. Nudging people in the direction that their better selves are going.

It also means putting every aspect of your brand through a values filter. Because, of course, everything communicates. Not just ads but supply chains, distribution channels, employee relations, packaging, sponsorships, partnerships. Also your timing in communicating values-based content, your appetite for risk, and your willingness to hang back at times and let others take the stage. Truly embracing values is ongoing, multifaceted work. But today, it’s what people want. The role for brands in society is wide open and bigger than ever.

42% say that advertising can help to make the world a better place, a new survey has revealed – WARC, 2020

To summarize, values are more important than ever. Brands that are aligned with people on values—brands that have a high Values Quotient—are brands that will win more customers today and over time. To grow VQ, brands should focus on their core underlying values rather than kneejerk-reacting to specific issues in the news. They should take an honest look at who their company is, and how they are perceived by customers today. And they should keep a close watch on how people’s values and priorities are shifting across time—looking for opportunities to bring people together and create shared community. Long-term, brands can and should get ready to lead on values—because values are now at the core of what marketing is all about.

Hillary Haley

Hillary Haley, Ph.D., leads RPA’s behavioral science discipline at full-service, independent ad agency RPA. She has more than 15 years of experience in market research, customer-centric data science and related fields. She has taught in the Psych. Dept. at UCLA, the Humanities and Sciences Department at ArtCenter, and the MSBA program at Loyola Marymount University. Her research has appeared in both academic and industry publications, and Dr. Haley has authored a report earlier this year on marketing in anxious times.