Overcoming the value-action gap

Vertical Leap’s Chris Pitt on the value-action gap – and how to mind it / Bruno Figueiredo via Unsplash

It’s part of being human: our self-image is not always reflected in how we act. That presents a problem for marketers, especially those who use survey data and interviews to understand what’s going on with real people. Chris Pitt, managing director at Vertical Leap, looks into bridging the value-action gap.

Brands are facing increasing scrutiny about their conduct and business models. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated concerns about sustainability and social issues. And increasingly, customers are not afraid to call brands out on social media.

Ethical business is the top marketing trend of our time, but the value-action gap causes a problem for brands. When consumer purchasing habits differ from their own ethical demands, how can companies build authentic brands that satisfy expectations and succeed commercially?

What is the value-action gap?

The value-action gap is a pattern where people’s actions are inconsistent with their values or the values they claim to have.

For example, consumers are increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of their purchases. Yet, when it comes to putting their money on the line, sustainability concerns often fall behind other desires.

According to research carried out by Kantar, 92% of people say they want to live a sustainable life, but only 16% are actively changing their behavior.

Marketing and the value-action gap

As consumers increasingly care about brand image and conduct, the value-action gap causes a big problem for marketers. What consumers say they want doesn’t always align with their purchase decisions, so building a brand that satisfies their aspirations doesn’t necessarily win their money.

To make matters worse, consumers actively lie about their buying intentions. We can see this in the dissonance between survey responses and online actions.

According to GreenBook, up to 30% of survey respondents are dishonest in the answers they provide. There are several reasons for this, including so-called ‘peacock syndrome’: people tend to show themselves as being smarter, wealthier and happier than they really are – just look at social media profiles.

Likewise, two kinds of survey respondents make things tricky: ‘pleasers’ (who simply provide the answer they think is most acceptable) and ‘self-kidders’ (who just aren’t as virtuous as they like to believe).

What causes the value-action gap?

The value-action gap is caused by a variety of factors, often combined:

  • Self-deception: consumers simply don’t behave in the way they believe

  • Competing values: different priorities, such as price or quality, affect the final purchase decision

  • Impulse: purchases are largely emotional and impulsive, not logical

  • Habit: consumers often simply buy from the brands they know and trust

  • Complexity: in moments of uncertainty, consumers often revert to habit

  • Apathy: consumers feel so overwhelmed by issues like the climate crisis that they feel their purchase choices will make no difference either way

  • Skepticism: consumers don’t believe the legitimacy of the brand promise

  • Hypocrisy: the brand promise is outweighed by a value trade-off, such as sustainable products built by a brand known as a major polluter

  • Expense: consumers have to live within their own means

It’s important to understand the potential causes of value-action gaps and how these can occur in different situations. The gap between survey responses and purchase decisions is different to the gap between people calling brands out on social media, despite regularly buying from similar companies.

How to overcome the value-action gap

If consumer actions don’t match sentiment, how can companies build a brand image that both meets the expectations of their target audience and converts them into paying customers?

To start with, mind the gap. Understand how your audience behaves, not only what they want (or think/say they want). To find their true behavior, analyze search data to see what your target audience is really looking for when their money’s on the line.

In messaging, it’s important to both aspirational (helping your customers become who they aspire to be) and genuine (authentically resonating with the true priorities of your customer base). Show the value of buying from you and the difference consumers’ purchase decisions are making. If you can make it emotional, so much the better – tell stories and trigger emotions that inspire action.

Reinforce your brand image by satisfying core consumer needs, such as customer service, quality products or value perception. Then nurture them by showing the positive impact of their purchase after the sale and the potential impact of further purchases.

Increase the rewards and perceived value of buying from your brand, while reducing the effort required from customers. And always strive for improvement (not perfection). Show customers that you’re constantly working to be better, one step at a time.

When 52% of consumers believe brands only take ethical and social stances to try and drive sales, commercial companies need to address their own value-action gaps before expecting consumers to do the same.

Brands that will struggle to legitimize sustainability and ethics should focus on other messages. Authenticity is crucial and identifying the true motivators influencing your customers’ purchase decisions allows you to bridge the gap between values and actions.