Do Customers Actually Care about Your Company’s Values?

Image of a compass

There’s a lot of back and forth about the value of online “engagement” for businesses.

Do customers want more engagement with the businesses they frequent? Do they care about it? Does the word engagement actually mean anything at all? Or is it just another feel-good buzzword?

A recent article from Harvard Business Review asserts that customers don’t care much about interaction with businesses — instead they feel most engaged (and buy more) when they believe they share values with the company.

HBR’s position is that customers want to share a “higher purpose” with business. This is extremely fashionable at the moment, with businesses all over the web switching to taglines that start with the words: We believe.

So do customers care what you believe?

For some businesses, the answer is clearly Yes. Matt Frazier over at No Meat Athlete runs a values-based business. Brands like Patagonia and Prius get a lot of mileage out of building a tribe around shared values.

But for dog food? Software? Web design? Air travel?

The Zappos model

One of the poster children for the “values” argument is Zappos — the online shoe store that operates around a celebrated set of core values.

Zappos uses their value statement as a kind of corporate DNA. Values like “Deliver WOW through service” and “Pursue growth and learning” let employees and customers know who the company is.

Their values statement informs the way the company looks and behaves. It tells the company how it should grow. It’s the template for the decisions they make and the processes they put into place.

Their core values are such an important part of Zappos that they print them on the packaging.

So the question becomes — what is it that’s attracting the customer? Is it the statement of values on the side of the shoe box? Or is it the embodiment of values in the behavior of their employees?

Marketing is communication …

My definition of marketing is “Everything you communicate to your customers and prospects.”

Note that “communication” isn’t always explicit. It isn’t even always conscious.

We ran through a Zappos-style values exercise at our recent all-hands company meeting for Copyblogger Media. And the conversations were fascinating.

Did we unearth any values that truly surprised anyone? Not really. We believe in making our customers more powerful. When there are problems, we believe in pitching in together to make things right. We treat each other with kindness and respect.

It was the process of articulating and sharing them that created the benefit. Maybe it’s as simple as standing up and saying that Yes, we believe in profit — but that’s not the only thing we believe in.

So do you need a Zappos style values statement?

Sitting down together and figuring out your values can be a silly corporate time-waster, or it can be a meaningful and moving process. What makes the difference?

For me, working on our values with our whole team was tremendously powerful. (That’s a technique I stole from Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO.) Our developers and support crew and writers and designers are all very different from one another — but seeing how similar we were in certain ways was eye-opening. And cool.

For another, we weren’t trying to come up with messages to print on the side of a shoe box. We were trying to figure out our own best selves — how to behave in line with our strongest, wisest internal compass. And that translates directly into how we treat people — customers, guest writers, colleagues, vendors, prospects — everyone.

It’s still all about them. Always.

Back to the dog food and air travel question. Harvard Business Review asserts that people fly Southwest because they share the value of “democratization of air travel,” and buy Pedigree dog food because they share the value that “every dog deserves a loving home.”

Does that ring true to you? It doesn’t to me.

People buy the kind of dog food that they think will keep their dog happy and healthy, and that fits their family budget.

People fly Southwest because the people who work there are nice and the fares are cheap.

The values inside those companies may very well help deliver what customers want. Southwest’s values are key to that nice, friendly work force. Their values also allow them the efficiency to keep fares ultra low.

The secret isn’t necessarily in the values. It’s in giving customers what they want.

So if your values statement exists to make you feel awesome about yourself, maybe you should skip it. But if it helps you give customers exactly what they want, the way they want it, you’re probably on to something.

How about you?

Ever sat down and tried to figure out a formal values statement for your company, whether as a team or for yourself as a professional?

What was the most interesting thing you learned? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

About the author

Sonia Simone


Sonia Simone is co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Sonia on Twitter and .

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  1. This is interesting information, and I actually saw a TED talk on it not too long ago. A speaker talked about how we had no trouble considering buying a phone or a TV from apple, while it would feel weird to us to buy the same from Dell because they “are a computer company”. I don’t think values are going to make a difference in every business, but I think that every business can still take advantage of something. If nothing else, it will at least give your brand some identity in the crowded market.

    • That TED talk was from Simon, who starts with WHY.

      I know a lot of people that care about why our agency does what what we does.

      no one cares what we do…almost no one cares how we do it. thats strategy and tactics.

      Our clients care about our beliefs, our client centric projects, and our belief that what we’re doing is the best thing for their clients and their brand.

      we believe, therefore we are. it has to start somewhere.

      • I think “starts with Why” is interesting, I also think it’s currently overused and too many companies use it to lose sight of the fact that customers, at the end of the day, care 100% about themselves. Sometimes the “why” serves that well and sometimes it doesn’t.

  2. Timely post for me as I was just reading the chapter in Jonah Sachs’ “Story Wars,” where he talks about defining your core values. No doubt he believes customers care. He believes these values are at the core of your marketing story. The only way to connect with customers anymore will be through your stories. And these stories could ultimately change world! However, the values marketers choose need to empower people versus making them feel inadequate. I’m simplifying and haven’t finished the book, but I think you’re saying the same thing with, “It’s still all about them.”

  3. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, actually. I always thought it was silly for companies to think their customers care about their ‘values’ enough to purchase from them instead of some other company. But then you brought up the Southwest Airlines example and I had to think again: sure I like their pricing and fun atmosphere, but another part of me is proud of the fact that they’re profitable and know how to run a tight ship. In fact I get downright emotional when I think that they didn’t take the huge airline bailout right after 9/11 because they didn’t have to, whereas the other major airlines all lined up to receive it. I guess that is part of their values, but more than anything its because they walk the walk

    • I find them an interesting example, because although I think their values are great, they don’t give me what I want (I want to know what seat I’m sitting in), so I don’t use them.

      I think their values have a lot to do with the health of their company. But the statement of values, not so much.

      • Have you ever actually tried Southwest, Sonia? I avoided them for years, thinking exactly what you do.

        But then I tried them, because they had the best route and scheduled flights for one particular trip and now I use them wherever/whenever I can. By paying the small early-boarding charge (which is more than offset by their “Bags Fly Free” policy), I pretty much always get the aisle seat in the front third of the plane that I’d choose on other carriers, but rarely find “available” when I’m going somewhere Southwest doesn’t.

        • I do fly them when I need to, but I’m a loyal Frontier customer these days — similar low fares, and I know exactly where I’m going to sit.

          Anything but United. :)

          • “Anything but United. ”

            Anytime I see someone else making clear their dislike for United I feel like we’re part of a club. They are the purveyors of the worst flying experience I’ve ever had and I avoid them like the plague.

            But that doesn’t really have much to do with your piece, I just couldn’t help chiming in my agreement.

  4. Sonia,
    When I finally got my own website last year I wanted a strapline that described what I was setting out to achieve for my clients with my website copywriting service:

    - I wanted virtually single every word I wrote for my clients to have an impact – through both careful attention to SEO and the needs of the reader.

    - I also wanted my clients to make the most out of that content – by advising them to avoid just uploading their copy to their site and forgetting about it BUT instead making sure they marketed it in every way possible.

    So what I came up with was “Make every word work for you”. And that, quite naturally, has since become the name of my blog.

    Whether clients actually care about my business values – that’s a question I cannot answer. But if they want to get somewhere in the online world then they certainly should.

  5. Terrific Post!!

    Just confirms the old adage “People prefer to buy from companies and people they know, like and trust!”

    Thank you!

  6. I believe values acts as a manifesto that gelds together the employees in a company. Values would naturally tend towards solving the customer’s needs if they are crafted as a company.

    In my opinion, the important question is not whether we should have a value statement. Its is whether everyone in the company share the same value statement. I’m betting that chances are, most value statements are crafted by bosses, and they do not translate downward to the employees.

    If everyone in the company acts in the same way as their values, then the culture speaks for itself and the values will naturally shine through to their offerings.

    Otherwise, it would not serve its purpose, and the values will only be for show.

    So yes, I think a value statement since it will align my interest with my customer’s.
    Having said that, I’m guilty of not crafting any form of values, and I’ll soon get to work on it.

    Thanks for the post Sonia! :)

    • Zell, I agree that a core set of values — one that comes from the team at large, and not only execs — is critical to gel. And gel is critical to running a great company, whether it’s 3 people or 3 million people.

  7. “Note that “communication” isn’t always explicit. It isn’t even always conscious.”

    Every time you interact with your customers in any way you are communicating and marketing to them. Every landing page, contact form, customer service rep, check-out process–it all tells some kind of story. Hopefully all those stories are working together.

  8. Sonia,
    “People fly Southwest because the people who work there are nice and the fares are cheap. … Southwest’s values are key to that nice, friendly work force. ”

    Great illustration of how values impact customer delivery but aren’t necessarily why customers buy. It’s an indirect relationship sometimes, probably much of the time. I think if we just look at our own buying habits it’s pretty easy to see. The values of a company are something I rarely think about in daily purchases (gas, groceries, coffee) but they matter to me on other things which will of course be different for everyone.

  9. Its hard to say if company value matters or not. I think it is entirely changes from customer to customer.

  10. Michael Corley :

    Sonia, I did sit down and came up with a values statement for my business …

    “The Best Experience in Real Estate”

    It drove home serveral aspects I wanted consumers to be aware existed at our company, while also establishing a Zappos type mantra for our firm to comform around for each client.

    Open ended to make our clients feel appreciated.

    Communicating that effectively in the real estate business is a big challenge … One client at a time.

    But it’s driving our practice standards and referrals.

    • That’s a nice simple one that you can use as a litmus test when you’re making a business decision. “Is what we’re doing here making the best experience, or a sub-par experience?”

      A lot of the values seem a little watery when you look at them on their own, and I think that is totally ok. The meat comes from living them.

  11. Having spent most of my professional career working for or counseling nonprofit organizations, I’ve spent countless hours developing strategic plans and tweaking mission statements. Based on the value-based mission statement, the nonprofit organization can then seek financial support from individual, foundation, corporate, and government funders who share the nonprofit’s values. Those values also guide what programs and services the nonprofit offers.

    It works in the nonprofit sector, why not the for-profit sector?

    My experience has convinced me that value-driven organizations are better positioned to establish relationships with clients and customers. This is true whether or not those values are openly communicated or not. That’s because when staff buys in to those values on a deep enough level, they behave in ways that demonstrate those values. So clients and customers are able to pick up on those values subconsciously and become emotionally connected to the company.

    • I agree with you Wilton. “It works in the nonprofit sector, why not the for-profit sector?” And when a company (even in the nonprofit sector) doesn’t match my values–I look for another company. It’s survival in the people business.

    • This is true whether or not those values are openly communicated or not. That’s because when staff buys in to those values on a deep enough level, they behave in ways that demonstrate those values. So clients and customers are able to pick up on those values subconsciously and become emotionally connected to the company.

      Agree, exactly.

  12. “So the question becomes — what is it that’s attracting the customer? Is it the statement of values on the side of the shoe box? Or is it the embodiment of values in the behavior of their employees?” As far as Zappos is concerned, I would say it’s their embodiment of values in the behavior of their employees. If they state “X” in their values statement, but deliver “Y” to their customers, that will create a disconnect.

    Having a values statement is fine as long as you believe it and practice it. I’ve sat down and wrote a mission, vision, and values statement. But I never posted it on my website. I learned that providing quality writing and customer service are important to me. I want my clients to know that I truly care about them and their company. I want to do my very best and go beyond that. And… I know how I feel when I don’t receive great customer service. It makes me want to buy from the competition.

    Reading this post makes me want to go re-read my values statement, revise it, and post it on my website. I’ll be working with a business coach and will ask her about this.

    Thanks for this timely post.

    • If your statement of values is showing up in what other people are saying about you, even if you never post them to your site, you’re doing it right. :)

      It’s what you do more than what you say. But if your values are really driving you, then I think it can be effective to state them, too. But the “do” part is the important one.

      • Sonia, these two statements are probably two of the best I have ever heard around values and I have been studying values-based networking practices for more than a decade. Thanks for this!

      • “If your statement of values is showing up in what other people are saying about you, even if you never post them to your site, you’re doing it right.”

        Yes. To the good or to the bad, your work ethic and your guiding principles will always float into a doorway ahead of you.

  13. Thanks for the post and comments. I believe people buy for the results or the benefits involved. Now there are some people who have to add an additional value to every purchase, whatever they consider that value to be. There will always be people who are strong “green supporters” no matter what the cost. But until the green movement makes their processes easy and affordable, most will not buy them.

  14. Of course it works with airlines ;-)
    I will fly Japan Air if I can. Their stewardesses are the most caring I’ve ever met. Even if they don’t print it all over their plane. I’d really reather they wouldn’t.

  15. Must wedge in here that the negative of this argument is perhaps even more true: a company whose values I do not like will definitely lose my business. I do like to support those who are advancing values of which I approve, as often as possible. But a company that evidences values I despise, I will avoid like the plague. And, unfortunately, there are indeed a few like that.

    • That’s so true. I boycott products from certain companies based on my discovery of their values. Obviously I wouldn’t if I hadn’t come across this info.

      On the other other hand, depending maybe on how niche your market is, it could be nice to choose your customers. You gain some and lose some based on your values. Maybe the loss and gain are equal. That’s fine, you probably don’t lose any revenue, but you do have a bunch of folks hanging around that you can agree with. :) And they’re probably more likely to promote you.

    • An important point to keep in mind!

    • It is an important point — and there’s also a related one, which is that sometimes part of the population will absolutely reject your stated values, and that can be a healthy thing.

      You don’t need to be all things to all people, and most companies can’t be. There have been a lot of values-based controversies lately, and that’s ok. It’s ok to turn off customers who aren’t aligned with you — because the ones who are will be much more closely drawn in.

  16. Some people will choose their cereal based on whether or not it is powered by windmills, but I don’t think most people check into that. The product itself is more important. A values statement is a nice idea but basically meaningless if it’s so vague that every Joe gets a warm feeling inside. On the other hand, if it’s brutally honest (which I like), it will probably turn off as many customers as it turns on.

  17. “We believe in making our customers more powerful”

    Done

  18. I always smell something a little off when values are talked about as part of a business strategy. As part of a business philosophy, okay, but where are the real values when your eye is really on profit? “Nope, values didn’t work. Let’s try lying and cheating and see how that works.”

  19. If Zappos charged a shipping fee for returns, would customers to continue buying with the same frequency because they appreciate Zappos’ core values?

  20. In order to be useful, values must become part of the culture. If they’re buried in a file on the server and nobody knows where to find them, they won’t work. If they’re unearthed about once a year and trotted around the company for brief discussion (simply because it’s on the calendar), values won’t work. What makes values work is when they truly align behind your promise to customers and when they become part of the everyday culture of your organization. That’s why values work for companies like Zappos. They live and breathe their values. It doesn’t matter if customers know or care what the values are, but if your employees know and care and use the values to effectively deliver your customer promise, that’s when values can really impact your brand and connection to customers.

  21. Funny you should draw a distinction between how Southwest views itself and why its customers buy it. I have something similar: my customers love that I break social media & online marketing stuff down into simple, easy to understand pieces.

    But my values are to empower entrepreneurs to build awesome businesses, which in turn empower them to lead lives they love and to be able to give back. It’s an interested split between why I do what I do and how my customers perceive me. But, it seems to be working!

    Thanks for the interesting post. :)

    Felicity

  22. As a consumer, I agree that engagement with a business isn’t necessary. A lunch time conversation is not needed. However, if I share my values or ideas with a company, I would like to receive some kind of acknowledgement from the company. Also as a consumer, I would much rather do business with a company that demonstrates the same core values as I do. Treating humans with kindness and respect will shine through no matter what.

    Have a nice day.
    Tim Collins

  23. I am not sure core values apply unless you have some very offensive core values stated on your site.
    Online purchasing is much more anonymous that the traditional brick and mortar stores where the old adage that people prefer to buy from companies and people they know, like and trust may be true. I an not so sure that applies to online customers who just want the best buy they can find.

    I have to agree with Glenn Street when he asks if “Zappos charged a shipping fee for returns, would customers to continue buying with the same frequency because they appreciate Zappos’ core values?”

    • If you try to compete with the giant e-tailers on anonymous online purchasing, you will eventually fail. Amazon and friends have that sufficiently locked down that you’re not going to be able to compete effectively.

      Content marketing is largely about getting out of that commodity space that’s driven by price alone.

  24. I remember when putting values into business statements really became a big thing back in the 80s. Companies would write 10 or 12 values for their staff and hang a statement of their values on the wall. And no one practiced or believed them on the staff and the clients soon learned that they were nice fuzzy words. And most of them were just that – fuzzy words.
    Values build trust but trust is something that happens because we keep our small commitments. Trust happens because we are treated the way we want to be treated and we feel accepted, appreciated and acknowledged. Trust happens because we work on purpose, the WHY. Yes values are important but just stating them without living them fools no one in the long run. Staff looks at how management lives those values and from there they show the clients how the values of a company really work.
    Two or three clear values lived every day are more important than fancy statements that are hollow promises in the end.
    Trust and values seems to be a theme this week in the blogs I read. Must be a concern again for many people.

  25. Thanks Sonia!

    I agree that it is more what you do than what you say. This is where testimonials from clients, awards, etc. could show your clients and customers how you provide and add value.

  26. Sonia,

    Core values should be important to every organization, but as you point out, it depends on the approach you take to it. If you make it meaningful and changes result from compiling a list of core values, then it is worthwhile. If it is just corporate busy work, then it’s a waste of time. It also depends on how you will use the document. Many create lists of core values and then use them as coasters for their coffee. Others use them as guiding principles for each decision made.

    I have been researching Mission Statements over the past few months because I thought it an important foundational document and guiding vision. After doing research on many fantastic core value and mission statements, I felt that I could finally attempt my own. Before the research, I had no idea what my core principles were. So research and deep thinking are required to do this right. I just finished and published our ZipMinis’ mission statement today. It was a big relief to have it done, but I called it a “Living Mission Statement” because I don’t want it to go stagnant or be ignored. So, here’s my version: http://goo.gl/CJJvt . Feed back is welcome.

    Sonia, thank you for a fascinating and timely piece (for me). You helped me to clarify some final issues in the statement.

    Darin L. Hammond

  27. I think values are incredibly important as they help you figure out what is right and wrong for you business and your customers. If it’s not too cheeky to share, I wrote a post on how to define your core business values last week http://www.womenunlimitedworldwide.com/core-business-values/ where I take you step by step through the process of writing them.

    I totally agree that values should be customer centric and I think these days in a really competitive market, your values can be a big differentiator

  28. People make conscious decisions to align themselves with brands they feel embody their values. A study by Edelman and StrategyOne found 87% of millennial-aged respondents asserting, “Business needed to place at least equal weight on the interests of society as it did on its own interests.” More than a quarter said that brands should exert a “positive impact on the world”, as well as help individuals “achieve their personal goals.” Here’s a bit more about this trend in branding: http://www.nocturnaldesign.com/blog/?p=251

  29. We take our core values very seriously internally, but just recently I decided to put them down on paper. I quietly put them on Slideshare in the middle of the night (mostly because I wasn’t sure anyone would care) and by the morning, I had 300 views and a bunch of emails and Facebook messages telling my how much they resonated with people. We also saw an increase in signups as a result.

    While I agree that amazing values won’t help you if the product is crappy, I think it can help customers make a choice when they are faced with competing products and all other things are considered equal. I found that it also really helped to align all the stakeholders in our business – customers, partners, investors and our team.

    If you’d like , you can see the deck here: http://www.slideshare.net/goodburga/what-we-care-about-at-skyscraper

    Cheers

  30. Great honest post. How much thought people put into what they purchase varies so much that just like everything it is a balance. But, one thing that is always true is “It’s always about them. Always!”

  31. I would have to lean towards core values as the more important factor and sticking by the values is even more important. These core values are going to be reflected when engaging and interacting with the costumer so it definitely helps when they align with the costumers. Thanks for post and love the comments, very interesting points.

  32. People participate in groups with which they identify – that enhance their self-identity. For the same reason, people do identify with brands, and the values those brands espouse. I posses an iPhone because the values of aesthetic technology are values I wish to associate with. Exciting line of thinking, as it brings in the sociological research of the last 50 years.

  33. Good point that at the end of the day, it all boils down to what the customer wants.

    I’ve read and written about how great Zappo’s customer service and business philosophy are. I’d be quick to bring them up in conversation as a company that does things right. Nonetheless, I’ve never ordered shoes from them.

    Why? I’m just not a big shoe person. If weather and professional expectations allowed, I’d only ever wear cheap flip flops.

    There are businesses I have positive associations with and others I have negative associations with. Those feelings do matter when it comes to how I decide to buy things I already know I want and need, but they don’t inspire purchases of products or services I don’t already want.

    This can be where building relationships and long-term engagement kicks in though. I’m not gonna buy anything I don’t need or want today, but what I need or want in 6 months will be different. If there’s a moment down then line where I have to buy a nice pair of shoes for some special occasion, Zappo’s will be one of the first vendors to come to mind because they’ve built up enough of a positive reputation to stay in my consciousness.

  34. I don’t know how many customers read through the value statement of companies before buying their products. But I know that prudently in cooperating your company’s value in your content marketing can draw potential customers to your site. In the a example of Zappos you used.. An E-commerce site that sell clothing can use content marketing to describe the type of women’s clothing they sell. If they sell “modest” women’s clothing or tom-boy clothing. Women looking for either type of out-fits will know where to go to for what they want.

    On the other hand people searching for certain type of services may also like to know the values of companies to judge or assess how that company will provide the services they are looking for.

  35. I recently wrote a post about my company’s value at American Fidelity: http://inside.americanfidelity.com/american-fidelity-values/. A big part of why we did that was for potential job candidates. We wanted to show them our culture and why they might want (or not want) to work for us. In regards to our customers, I think we’re in an interesting position where a certain layer of our customers care. We provide insurance and financial services through employers. So, those employers who choose us as their provider do tend to care about our values because they in turn are promoting our services to their employees. Those employees who buy our end product may not always care, but part of that is because they have to rely on their employer to make that decision.

  36. Consumers want transparency in companies. I want to know about their innards! This article reminds me of Shawn Graham’s post on making tasteful “About Us” pages. It’s a good read. Check it out: http://shawngraham.me/blog/how-to-write-great-about-us-page-content

  37. Good post, Sonia. One key variable missing here is the need for identifying and creative competitive advantage. Customers can’t define that for you, though they can help point the direction. Companies must figure this out themselves.

    To me, defining your differentiating values is what creates healthy focus and ensures you have the right players on the team. For Volvo it’s safety. For Disney it’s magic. For Zappos it’s service.

    But there’s a big difference between what I call “fundamental values”, which is all about ethics, vs. differentiating values, which helps define competitive advantage. Every company should/could include integrity and honesty as fundamental core values. But such values don’t help differentiate the brand. True differentiating requires a much deeper dive into culture, your value proposition, the competitive landscape, and what matters to your customers.

    So, congrats on starting the process with your team. I hope you don’t stop until you truly define your differentiating values.

  38. In the age of exponential sharing of thoughts, recommendations and ideas, consumer to consumer, company values play an increasingly important role. The NY Times did a complete study on the psychology of sharing which was backed up by Wharton School’s independent studies on the topic. It became clear that the #1 motivation for sharing/recommending a product or service was altruism. People share (peer to peer) based not necessarily on what they value but more about how they wish to be perceived by their friends and colleagues. I may not purchase product x but if product x values (and actually has a story about their involvement) an issue I consider important, I am more likely to recommend to my friends that they purchase product x. Given the importance of personal recommendations (separate Nielsen studies) over traditional advertising or marketing, I would say values of a company are even more important today than ever before.

    Tim Schreier
    New York, NY

  39. It IS always about them. This is something that will never change yet more companies and organization operate on alternate principles and precepts. Don’t do it! Tell your customer what is in it for them, and leave yourself out. I ususally just try and HELP them in the best way possible. That’s it. No hard selling, no nudgeing or jeering. Take care of them and they will take caqre of you.

    Thanks for this awesome (and much needed) write up!

  40. Hey Sonia, thanks for posting this stuff. My flyers started to pull in customers once I wrapped my head around this concept. This blog is now my best kept secret!

  41. A resounding yes. I think that people like to start with the interior of the other person and work their way out. They want to know first of all if they even like you.