Values-based leadership has been a hot topic in business circles over the past decade. An entire industry’s worth of consulting companies now exist with the sole purpose of helping organizations define the core values, mission statements, and vision statements that have become must-have components of any corporate strategy.
But while companies spend plenty of time and money crafting these inspirational words, most fail to use them in a way that creates actual business transformation.
Instead, corporate values either get framed on the wall and included in the employee handbook—never to be discussed again—or they’re flaunted in customers’ faces to make the company look good, without any meritable actions to support the claims. These words satisfy a checklist of what businesses “should” do, but they’re not words to live by or words to stand behind. And that’s a shame, because shared values are a powerful way to motivate teams and give them a sense of purpose at work.
But shared values aren’t just the key to employee loyalty; they’re also the key to customer loyalty.
Research shows that consumers will spend more money to do business with organizations that believe what they believe, value what they value, and put money where their mouths are.
Fifty-five percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for products and services offered by companies that make a positive social and environmental impact, according to a Nielsen study.
Sustainable business practices and corporate responsibility are great first steps. But companies need to do more than reduce their carbon footprints and occasionally give money to charity. To really stand out, they need to find causes that align with their values, and the values of their customers.
This is particularly true for engaging Millennials, whose annual spending power tops $200 billion, according to Barkley, an independent research group. And because this group has a strong influence over the purchasing decisions of their parents and other family members, Millennials have an indirect spending power of $500 billion.
Barkley’s research (and several studies like it) shows that the fastest way to a typical Millennial’s wallet is through his or her heart. In fact, more than half of young shoppers say they try to support companies that support causes they care about.
The message for brand marketers: When it comes to corporate values, actions speak louder than words. And your customers are listening.
How do you turn corporate values from mere words, into a meaningful brand strategy that engages customers and drives business transformation?
Some brands take up worthy causes that have very little to do with their product offerings, such as retailer efforts to fund AIDs research or Dollar General’s aim to improve adult literacy. That strategy can certainly work. But depending on your brand and company culture, the most meaningful values you can showcase might have everything to do with what you sell and how you sell it.
Whole Foods, for example, has built a strong corporate culture and consumer following around its values statement: “With great courage, integrity, and love—we embrace our responsibility to co-create a world where each of us, our communities, and our planet can flourish. All the while, celebrating the sheer love and joy of food.”
Any grocer can talk about the importance of proper nutrition and eco-friendly farming, but Whole Foods backs up this statement by working with—and even funding—local growers, sourcing foods from companies with proven sustainability practices, giving back to local communities, and providing customers with ongoing education about healthy eating.
The result: A $12.9 billion business that ranks #18 on Fortune’s list of “World’s Most Admired Companies.”
Every October, the retail world goes pink, as national and local brands roll out campaigns designed to raise money for breast cancer research. While this is certainly a worthy cause, it’s a temporary one for most businesses, who won’t think or talk about it again until other brands start rolling out the pink merchandise a year later.
This isn’t to say companies shouldn’t help raise money for breast cancer organizations, but in terms of long-term customer engagement, seasonal causes aren’t likely to make much of a difference unless there’s an ongoing, long-standing campaign behind it.
For example, Yoplait’s “Save Lids to Save Lives” campaign—recently rebranded “Friends in the Fight“—relaunches every year like clockwork. For several months throughout the fall, yogurt cups come with pink lids that can be redeemed toward charitable contributions.
In this case, consistency makes a big difference. Since 1998, the company has raised more than $35 million dollars to fund research and to support cancer survivors and their families. It’s also one of the top-selling yogurt brands in the US.
Supporting existing organizations is a great way to earn brownie points with consumers, but so is raising awareness for a cause that’s all your own.
For example, Patagonia’s “anti-growth strategy” encourages consumers to “keep your gear in action longer and take some pressure off our planet.” To support this mantra, Patagonia sells used clothing and hosts a “Well Worn” event program, where customers can learn how to repair and repurpose items. Of course, the brand also encourages customers to buy higher-quality (and thus more expensive) goods in the first place, so they’ll last longer.
This seems like a counterproductive move for a for-profit company. Yet, while the marketing strategy suggests consumers should purchase fewer new products, it has helped the outdoor retailer sell $158 million worth of apparel.
So, what causes matter to your brand? What do your leaders, employees, and customers care about? Answering those questions is the first step to values-based marketing. The next steps are finding ways to get involved and then spreading the word with great brand storytelling.
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