Do Values Matter As A Marketing Differentiator?

A company’s core values, or beliefs, have traditionally been used as an internal framework to drive actions through guiding principles.

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These core values—sometimes specifically named, other times buried within a paragraph-long, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink mission statement—provide a lodestar for the training of new employees, for daily interactions with suppliers, as well as for strategic, far-reaching boardroom decisions.

What’s interesting is the discussion of values is increasingly moving into the marketplace to become more customer-centric. There is a clear movement, still in its early stages, of customers who want to align their purchasing and loyalty around a desire for shared values with a company or a product brand. Companies are beginning to respond to this opportunity by elevating their values in their marketing.

The question in many minds comes down to this: Exactly what value do consumers place on corporate values in purchasing decisions? Perhaps a current advertising campaign from Whole Foods Market will help clarify this question.

Values Matter.

Whole Foods has just launched its first-ever national advertising campaign, a series of television, print and online advertising with the theme “Values Matter.” There. They said it. Boldly, simply and unapologetically.

It’s a risky proposition to rely on your values and social responsibility storytelling as the centerpiece of your first national campaign and the company’s largest-ever advertising investment of $15-$20 million. This campaign attempts to differentiate the Whole Foods offering through the company’s values, primarily buttressing the quality of its groceries through the story of the standards that have led Whole Foods to call itself “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.”

Natural and organic marketing go mainstream

This initiative comes during a challenging time for Whole Foods, when organic foods have moved into the mainstream and are no longer the province of natural health grocers. Today, you can find free-range chicken in the in the aisles of Albertson’s and organic baby fingerling potatoes at Walmart. General Mills now sells GMO-free Cheerios. And there’s new competition from fast-growing natural grocers such Sprouts, which targets customers that will respond to a lower-pricing strategy for its offering.

Not all organic food or farming practices are alike.

Whole Foods seems to be acknowledging that it hasn’t articulated its quality difference during this market shift. Perhaps because it has almost single-handedly created the natural foods market, it hasn’t had to tell this story.

Until today. It’s now betting that customers will respond to a campaign that demonstrates the differences that come from the company’s leadership in creating strict standards and rating programs for sustainable seafood, animal welfare and its new “Responsibly Grown” produce.

“Not everyone knows what makes Whole Foods Market different from other grocers, or the fact that no other retailer has standards as demanding or as transparent as ours,” says Jeannine D’Addario, Whole Foods global vice president for communications. “This campaign will distinguish what makes our brand special, our food different and our quality superior. It’s our opportunity to reaffirm our unwavering commitments to our core values, which are at the heart of our brand.”

So perhaps it all comes down to values and an articulate and emotional way of demonstrating how a company truly acts on them.

The Value of Values

Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew and an accomplished business leader in his own right, is quoted as saying, “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”

While corporate values may have largely been absent from the historical purchasing consideration set, we believe they add a new and dynamic component in the benefit to cost equation of value.

For a large portion of the market they are probably a key differentiator once other considerations—such as price and convenience, are at or near parity. It should be part of the marketing mix—but in most scenarios not the entire value proposition.

Millennials respond to shared values marketing

For sure, a number of consumers are responding because shared values resonate and provide meaning in a way they haven’t previously. A wealth of current research supports that younger people, particularly Millennials, are especially driven to consider social and environmental values in purchasing and career decisions.

Or maybe it’s simply another way for consumers to filter a broad and dizzying array of choices we now have before us and to make decisions, as Roy Disney said, easier.

The Whole Foods campaign is really attempting to show that value is inseparable from values—that the two go hand-in-hand, that there are benefits to be derived from the quality standards and practices employed by Whole Foods.

Indeed, companies such as outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia have long made their corporate values a centerpiece of marketing.

Patagonia’s purpose is to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Its purpose-driven marketing approach to this values manifesto is thoroughly nontraditional, rebellious and honest. Its “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad campaign admonishes customers to do just that—make good with what you already have, if for just another season. It sells repair kits in its stores as an alternative to purchasing the new gear and clothing it stocks on its shelves. On the product development front, it’s created a new wetsuit—from seaweed. And bottom line, it puts its money where its mouth is, developing a $20 million venture fund to invest in environmental startups.

A different value consideration enters the equation

But unlike Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM), Patagonia is privately held and does not have the quarter-to-quarter pressures of a public company. This will quite likely stress test “values matter” as a marketing proposition for the natural foods grocer.
This means that ultimately, the campaign’s test will come down to what sort of appetite Whole Foods’ shareholders have for values; their appreciation for beliefs and standards and practices will likely coincide (or collide) with another type of value—shareholder value. And that may come down to the singular truth of how the advertising campaign makes the cash registers sing this holiday season.

You can learn more about the Whole Foods campaign and its sustainable standards and practices here.

Author’s Note: We’ve worked with Whole Foods Market and its subsidiaries and can say from first-hand experience that the company lives up to its values in its dealings with its supplier partners. (You can see our work helping Whole Foods Market in community fundraising for nonprofit partners here; Our brand design work for their new consumer packaged good Starkey Spring Water can be viewed here.)

Russ Stoddard is a natural connector—of companies and causes, people and purpose. He insists the only math he’s good at is multiplying social impact. He is founder and president of Oliver Russell.

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