BRANDING

The Morality Play

More than ever before, Americans are talking about values. For marketers, it's tempting to do the same. But will a values-driven campaign drive business -- or drive it away?
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If there's one thing that Chris McMurry wants you to know about his custom-publishing and marketing firm, McMurry Publishing, it's this: His company has values.

Eight values, to be precise. A full list is available in McMurry's promotional literature. Do the right thing. Help one another. On the firm's homepage, the values flash across photos of smiling staffers. Deliver raving service. Produce quality always. They also can be found on the "about us" pages. Exceed expectations. Embrace change. In fact, once the company finishes renovating its Phoenix headquarters later this year, the eight values will be beamed in yellow light by miniature projectors onto the floor of the foyer, where clients are received.

As you've probably noticed, values are in vogue these days, with so-called moral values credited by many pollsters as having played a key role in the reelection of President Bush. Of course, moral values didn't first appear on the scene on Election Day, nor are they just about politics. Consumers have long said that they buy products and services with values in mind -- whether those values are religious, spiritual, environmental, or political.

More than a quarter of U.S. consumers, for example, say they'd like to see the companies that they do business with get more involved in everything from protecting the environment to fighting homelessness to improving education, according to Roper Reports, a quarterly survey of 2,000 adults. (Only 15% volunteer or donate money for such causes themselves, Roper also found.) Depending on how you look at it, the success of everything from Toyota's environmentally friendly hybrid car, the Prius, to movies like The Passion of the Christ, or books like The Purpose-Driven Life, can be attributed to the values trend.

None of this has escaped the notice of corporate America, seeking to repair its image after several seasons of scandal. That's particularly true in the financial sector, where companies like UBS and SmithBarney, among others, are hawking a hearty stew of moral values, with their trustworthiness, character, and integrity the principle ingredients. "Consumers are fed up with businesses that seem to lack values like honesty, and are frustrated by trying to figure out who to believe," says Cary Silvers, vice president of consumer trends at NOP World, the New York City market research firm that administers Roper Reports.

If you're in business and you've got morals, then it would seem there's been no better time to flaunt them. But you've got to wonder: In our current polarized times, is there a downside to all of this talk about morals and values, whatever they happen to be? Will playing the morality card drive your business? Or does it run the risk of driving it away?

For Mcmurry, the answer is easy. The way he sees it, broadcasting his company's values far and wide increases the comfort level of clients -- and the firm's $22 million in revenue in 2004 is enough to convince him that he's on the right track. "Clients are more inclined to do business with people they're comfortable with," he says.

In fact, social psychologists have found that persuasion -- which, of course, is what marketing is all about -- depends to a large extent on creating the impression that you're substantially similar to your potential customer, because people are more likely to pay attention to those they can relate to. And creating a sense of shared values is a particularly powerful way of communicating those similarities. Jocelyn D. Campbell, president of T3 Design Associates, a 12-employee architecture, engineering, and construction firm in Atlanta, knows that well. Campbell's company typically focuses on projects in the aviation, infrastructure, and education arenas. But she recently found herself meeting with an auto dealer looking to build a new 50,000-square-foot dealership. During her presentation, Campbell mentioned that her company had recently participated in a church construction project. She got lucky: The dealer, it turned out, was a member of that church. As she does in many circumstances, Campbell also related her own strong Christian beliefs. (The T3 in her company name stands for Trinity.) She got the deal. "He was a Christian business owner," she says, "and my beliefs provided a level of comfort that our value systems were the same."

Even if you're not directly communicating your values to your consumers, there's a good chance that consumers are trying to fathom what your beliefs are, says Dwayne Ball, a professor of marketing at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Along with a colleague, fellow marketing professor Ronald Hampton, Ball has spent years interviewing people about how their spiritual and moral beliefs affect their purchasing behavior. The conclusion: As religious practice has exploded in recent years (the percentage of Americans who say they feel the need to experience spiritual growth has soared from 58% in 1994 to 82% today, according to Gallup) those values are increasingly being expressed in the marketplace. Indeed, according to Ball's research, people who say they are committed to spiritual growth also believe that choosing the right products can help them along on that process.

People express their values in the marketplace in two ways, Ball and Hampton have found. Some consumers have what they call a "doctrine-centered" orientation, in which an authority -- a church, a holy book, or some other institution -- creates rules for how to behave. Others exhibit an "other-centered" orientation and are more concerned with how their actions as consumers have an impact on others, such as whether a product or service causes harm to a person or the environment. Most people have a little bit of both orientations. A Jewish consumer, for example, might purchase food products based on kosher law restrictions (a doctrine-centered action) but buy sneakers on an other-focused basis, making sure that the manufacturer didn't use child labor. This can also work outside of a religious context: An environmentalist with more of a doctrine-focused approach, for example, might adopt the purchasing recommendations of an advocacy organization whole cloth.

For marketers, it boils down to this: "If you have doctrine-driven customers, you'd better understand their doctrine," says Ball. But bear in mind that Americans, perhaps because of our long tradition of individuality, generally tend toward an other-centered orientation. Says Ball: "With other-centered consumers, it's much more of a matter of them trying to look into your corporate soul. They're trying to figure out if doing business with you enhances the welfare of the world or detracts from it." Such consumers do a lot of research before pulling out their checkbooks. They listen to what you say, pay close attention to what's reported about you in the media -- and, of course, they look closely at what you actually do.

That's where a values-based marketing campaign becomes tricky. Few people expect advertisers to be sincere. But if you're going to tout your values, you'd better make sure you truly behave according to them, says Bruce Judson, a faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management. Otherwise, you open yourself up to charges of hypocrisy, which could be hard to live down. For McMurry, that's not a problem. His employees' annual evaluations, he is quick to point out, are based on his firm's eight values. What's more, his father, Preston McMurry -- who founded the business and created its values concept -- now has the title of "corporate values shepherd" and is known to walk around the building offering $100 bills on the spot to employees who can recite the eight values and the company's mission statement without making a mistake.

But even if you're truly sincere, an aggressive strategy of communicating your moral values is not without risk, says Dave Lakhani, president of Bold Approach Inc., a marketing firm in Boise, Idaho, and author of Persuasion: The Art of Getting What You Want. After all, what happens if your values and those of prospective customers don't match up? Good luck creating any kind of comfort level with them. "The biggest mistake that business owners make is thinking that their customers are all just like they are," Lakhani says.

This is particularly true when the values in question are explicitly religious. The Chicago law firm Mauck & Baker, for example, specializes in such earthbound matters as real estate, probate, and consumer fraud -- but its marketing unabashedly focuses on religious beliefs. The firm's tag line is "Representing God's People," and its website prominently quotes Scripture. "We're not only telling people who we are, but we're also glorifying God," says partner John W. Mauck. But at the same time, Mauck is fairly certain that his Christian message has led at least a few potential clients to look for other representation. "Sometimes, it does offend when people present their faith," he says. "There's no question about that." Mauck has no idea how many times this has happened, though he does cite -- with pride -- an instance in which a longtime client let him know that he'd be obtaining different counsel to handle his upcoming divorce. "I don't want you to handle my divorce because I know you won't crucify my wife," the client told him. "And that's okay," Mauck says, "because he was right: I wouldn't have handled it in a way that would have destroyed his wife."

Those who do intend to market on the basis of religious values need to keep their eyes wide open to the risks involved, says Stephanie Wagner, a brand-management consultant in Glendale, Wis. "It's a strong way to brand yourself," Wagner says. "But only if you're sure that you'll attract more people than you'll turn away." She cites a well-known homebuilder in her community that employs a strong Christian-values message in its television and radio ads. "It turns my stomach," says Wagner, a self-described secular liberal. "I would never, ever give them my business." If that homebuilder were her client, Wagner says, she'd ask whether it was worth turning away customers like her. The answer might well be yes. But it's important for businesses to make an informed decision, she says.

While it may seem obvious that a G-rated "What Would Jesus-Muhammad-Buddha Do?" message is beyond reproach, it can still alienate potential customers.

Careful market research is key because it's easy to mess up in moral values territory. And there's not much middle ground: Nearly eight in 10 Americans believe the distinction between good and evil is clear and immutable, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. But everyone draws that line in different ways. While it may seem obvious to you that an ecofriendly, G-rated, "What Would Jesus-Muhammad-Buddha Do" campaign is above reproach, that very message could easily alienate someone who believes something else.

It's also worth noting that in these highly polarized times, even the very word values can be controversial. Ken Greenberg, president of Edge Communications Inc., a marketing firm in Calabasas, Calif., takes umbrage at the very idea of "values-based" marketing because he sees it as a front for pushing a socially conservative political agenda. "I have been instructed by the supreme powers in Washington, D.C., that I don't matter, my values don't matter, and the values of at least 55 million of my countrymen and women don't matter either," he says. Clearly, a company that uses moral values to market to Greenberg isn't going to win a customer.

Of course, it's quite possible that you don't care about losing business from people who don't share your values. That's the position held by Campbell, of T3 Design. "I don't have a flashing-light sign outside saying that this is a Christian-owned business," she says. "But if people want more information about why I conduct my business in the way that I do, I am open to sharing. If someone doesn't want to do business with me because of that, then that's not business I need." Mauck, for his part, feels that it would not be honest to hide his religious beliefs from his clients. "Sometimes it helps business and sometimes it hurts, and that's okay," he says. Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates, a public relations firm in the bluest of American cities, New York City, and a born-again Christian, also puts his religious beliefs at the very core of his brand. His promotional literature states that the firm makes decisions "prayerfully" and conducts business on "biblical principles." He believes this will attract the "right" kind of clients -- that is, those who are in sync with his values. And if that client turns out to be "wrong," Paul won't hesitate to sever the relationship (all of his contracts include a 90-day escape clause for this reason). "Your clients don't come first; money does not come first," he says. "If you're truly following the biblical rules of being Christian, every decision you make starts with your relationship with the Lord." Paul is certain his strong beliefs have led some people to take their business elsewhere. But, he says, "I'm very comfortable with that."

"I don't have a flashing-light sign outside saying this is a Christian-owned business, but ..."

Those who are less comfortable with the idea of losing business because of their beliefs might opt to do like McMurry and concentrate the values-talk on things that are hard to construe as controversial. "In our way of thinking, our values are guideposts for just being a decent human being," McMurry says. Indeed, it is tough to imagine principles like "do the right thing" and "help one another" inspiring a fatwa. On the other hand, such bland proclamations may not do much to set you apart from the crowd. After all, how many companies proclaim that they "do the wrong thing" or "fail to meet expectations?"

Of course, even if you're delivering a values message to customers who you know are receptive, it's not going to help much if your product or service is weak in other ways, points out NOP World's Cary Silvers. Roper Reports, for example, asked consumers why they had made recent purchasing decisions in a number of categories, and found that while concerns about values do come into play, they are almost always trumped by quality and price. "As much as values are important and guide us through our daily lives, in the marketplace it's always how it's going to play against our pocketbook," Silvers says. It's just like any other marketing move. If you've already got price, quality, and service on your side, values can be an important way to differentiate your brand. But a values campaign won't help if you don't deliver the goods in other ways. And it can even hurt if your customer's values run counter to your own. When it comes to marketing morality, it's all relative.

Contributing editor Alison Stein Wellner, who also writes about advertising and edginess ("Over the Edge," page 26) in this issue, can be reached at alison@wellner.biz.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2005




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