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 / Autumn 2012 / Issue 68(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Social Life of Brands

Understand: Align to Consumers’ Values

In a study of 50,000 brands, former Procter & Gamble global marketing officer Jim Stengel found that those that grew the most over a 10-year period (on average, three times faster than the overall group, from 2000 through 2010) had one thing in common. They were explicitly connected in people’s minds to fundamental human values such as joy, connection with other people, adventurousness, pride, and the desire to improve society. (See “The Case for the Brand Ideal,” by Jim Stengel.) The reason, from a neuroscience perspective, may have to do with the reflexive nature of deeply held values. When these values are called to mind, the associated emotions and memories may transfer (through Fast Thinking) to other concepts, including some brand references. Indeed, when information about brand attributes tied to values (such as protecting the environment or honoring tradition) is manipulated in experiments, people for whom the value is personally relevant are significantly more likely to make decisions focusing on that attribute. In short, there appears to be a rapid connection in many people’s minds between the relevance of a brand and the fundamental things they care about.

Different values are important to different individuals, but values themselves tend to be broad motivational constructs, adopted by people the world over. One of the most comprehensive studies of values was conducted by Shalom H. Schwartz, a social psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Schwartz classified human values into 10 types: power, achievement, pleasure (hedonism), stimulation, self-direction, universalism (which includes values like social justice and world peace), benevolence, tradition, conformity, and security. He concluded that group cultures influence the priorities people place on these values; higher-priority values are powerful motivators because they are central to people’s concepts of themselves, and are bound to deep emotions.

Thus, when people engage in brand experiences that activate their high-priority values, they may be more likely to identify with the brand and develop an emotional connection with it. A recent Starbucks campaign on behalf of social consciousness may work this way, by connecting perceptions of the chain with the values of universalism and benevolence, reinforced through visible actions, including the company’s own employee benefit practices. Starbucks chief executive officer Howard Schultz started the campaign himself, basing it on the idea that authenticity must be present in any cause-based marketing effort or its influence will be limited.

It kicked off in 2008, soon after Schultz was brought back to the company as CEO to turn around its performance. He held a leadership meeting in New Orleans that included a day of community service; 11,000 store managers worked together in neighborhoods that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Starbucks has created a series of campaigns that tie its corporate identity to voting, recycling, rainforest preservation, economic revival, and other social causes.

In his own writing, Schultz asserts that Starbucks had foundered in the mid-2000s because in pursuing rapid growth it became disconnected from its own values. The perception of Starbucks as a yuppie-style gentrifying force, for example, built up negative associations and cost the company the loyalty of some consumers. One result of his new approach is a significant leap in appeal to both consumers and employees; they see the company, and its CEO, as making a sincere, sustained commitment.

Listen: Deepen Consumer Insight

One hallmark of effective marketing has always been collecting signals and feedback from purchasers; now, marketers have richer opportunities for listening to consumers and learning what they want, need, and value. Digital media enable this capability; a staggering amount of data about products, brands, and companies can be gathered by tracking and analyzing what people say and do online. But the most significant aspect of listening is not the technology; it’s the way companies use what they learn.

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  1. Charles Gremillion, Make Their Day: The Power to Make Guests Happy (Tribe, 2011): By the director of Embassy Suites’ brand culture, on the power of a great customer relationship.
  2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011): Compelling guide to the two overarching systems that govern thought.
  3. Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey-Bass, 2002): How to build a business that meets the drives to acquire, bond, learn, and defend.
  4. Jim Stengel, Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies (Crown Business, 2011): Research-driven manifesto on the link between what brands stand for and how they prosper.
  5. Maritz Institute
  6. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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