Getting down to the core

Editor's note: Rebecca Day is president and Reyn Kinzey is vice president of Kinzey and Day Market Research, Richmond, Va.

“What matters most to you?” That’s really the question behind all market research. But if you ask it that way, the question is hard for a respondent to answer – it’s too broad, there’s no context.

If you want to make it clear that you really do mean the question in its broadest context, you can ask: “What matters most to you in your life?”

Given time, respondents can and will answer that question but the question certainly opens up an existential rabbit hole of biblical proportions. It’s not the kind of question you ask a stranger sitting next you on an airplane, unless you’re a philosopher, a religious fanatic or an out-of-work psychiatrist.

But if you frame the question more narrowly, as we often do in market research and ask, for example, “What matters most to you when you watch the news on television?” you’re likely to get narrow answers: “Accuracy of the information.” “Reliability.”

Those answers are honest enough, true in their own way, but not particularly helpful, because we know that people do not, in fact, choose television news stations based on accuracy of information and reliability.

Combine the two

So, if “What matters most to you in life?” is too broad and “What matters most to you in choosing a news station?” is too narrow, are there ways to combine the two that will lead to better market research?

We think so, and we’ve been fortunate enough to find clients who think so, too. In this article, we’d like to briefly explain values research and provide some key definitions. Then we’ll explain why it’s important. Finally, we’ll provide a case history to demonstrate how values research can be conducted.

Roughly defined, “values research” tries to determine the relationship between what consumers value most in life and how they go about more mundane decisions such as choosing a news station on television (or the computer, the mobile phone or any other device).

First, though, let’s clarify what we mean by values in values research. Values are the guiding principles by which we run our lives. They may be closely connected – or not – to our religious convictions and political opinions but they are not at all the same thing. We bring this up because clients are often concerned that an exploration of values with consumers is going to turn into participants’ harangues about current politics, particularly in this time of political polarization.

Actually, they hardly ever do: average people get it when you ask about their values. Now, by the time we finish interviews with participants, we generally have a pretty good idea of what their religious convictions and political opinions are but we can also generally understand what kinds of personal values are governing their lives.

One final point of definition: values are often stated as universal (such as “justice”) but if they are truly values, they are held very personally. We may hold a belief to be universally true but a real value is what drives us personally: It is what is most valuable to me.

For an example out of history, consider the life and death of Thomas More, made famous by the play and movie A Man for All Seasons. Most people who know More’s story might comment that More died a martyr to his Catholic faith because he would not accept Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and Henry’s claim to be the supreme religious authority in England (if that’s how you would describe it, you’re in good company: that’s pretty much the way the Vatican explains it).

However, if you look at More’s story from the perspective of values research, you might explain things slightly differently. More certainly had strong religious convictions and strong political opinions but something else seems to have been driving his actions. He was not executed for actively opposing the King’s divorce and remarriage. He himself wished to remain silent about those matters (and he did, indeed, remain silent about “the king’s great matter” until after he was convicted and condemned to death). He was executed for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, an oath acknowledging the king’s religious authority in all matters.

Of course, his refusal to take the oath may have been motivated by his religious faith and by his political beliefs but the point to keep in mind for values research is what he did: he refused to swear an oath.

Many English Catholics with the same religious convictions and political opinions did take the oath, assuming that God would realize that a vow taken on pain of death is coerced and so not a sin. More’s own daughter swore the oath, even though she was as devout as her father and quite possibly the closest person on earth to him.

The personal value that determined More’s life was a determination that he would rather die than swear to something that he did not in fact believe. The usual word for that value is integrity.

We are our values

At its best, a value is something that we cannot violate because violating it would make us other than who we are: We are our values. When they are working properly, values don’t just help us make decisions about how to act, they determine what we will do before we even consider making a decision.

Think about it: Would you steal a million dollars if you knew you could get away with it? If you even stopped to think about it, honesty is not an operative value in your life.

Admittedly, most of us probably are not as fortunate as More in having such a perfectly integrated sense of religious faith, political convictions and values to shape our lives. He was, as Maslow might say, a fully self-actualized human being.

For most of us, our values, religious convictions and political opinions, along with our other wants, desires and passing fancies, are a hodgepodge that we reconsider and tinker with every day. Maslow did not believe that very many of us ever achieve full self-actualization.

And yet all of us have personal values that run much deeper and determine our behavior far more than our opinions and current fancies. Those values run deep partially because they are formed very early. Both the Freudians and the Jesuits would argue that everything important happens to us before puberty: The Jesuits have a saying, “Give us a boy until he is eight and he is ours forever.” Clearly, our parents have a strong influence in determining our values and values are often reinforced through religious “instruction” but our early environment shapes us as well. Most of us value highly fairness and fair play and we probably learned those values on the elementary school playground even before we learned the multiplication tables.

Older theories of personality tended to think that personalities are formed early and remain fairly consistent throughout life. More modern – and post-modern – theories see personality as more fluid and even question the concept of a fairly coherent personality throughout life.

Still, it does appear that deep values remain fairly consistent over time. And if marketers can understand people’s values, they can better understand what truly motivates people in terms of the products and services they offer. To be simplistic, if you were trying to sell life insurance to St. Thomas More, you might not want to discuss religious matters but you would certainly want to convince him that he could trust you at your word.

In the values research projects we’ve conducted, many people do say that faith is a primary value. We heard this from people who had been raised Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Many of them still practice their faith. Many do not but their values are still shaped by their religious traditions.

However, the important point is that knowing people have made faith a primary value is not as important as knowing how faith affects their decisions. As the example of Thomas More demonstrates, the values operating within a particular faith system can be very different. Each of the three faith systems that are the most prevalent in United States – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – have within them at least two complementary but different traditions: the more contemplative approach of prayer, ritual and even mysticism and the more active social justice or compassion traditions (for example, in Islam, the mysticism of the Sufis, which preserves Sharia but holds that even the law is meaningless unless it is accomplished with purity of spirit; in Christianity, the tension between “faith” and “works;” in Jewish thought, prayer and ritual but also the social justice of the prophets).

Now, think for a moment about the different qualities people of each path of any of the three traditions would look for in a news anchor. People who tend toward the more spiritual path might look more for accuracy and reliability, while people from the social justice or compassion side might want to know more about how a news event is affecting other people. The particular faith tradition may be less important than the personal values that the tradition has created within the individual.

That’s where values research can take you.

How it can be done

Enough on theory. Let us provide a general outline of the project we did for a national news provider to show how values research can be done. We conducted 28 ethnographic interviews across the country, four interviews in each of seven cities. In each city, two interviews were conducted with couples and two were conducted with individuals. Participants represented a wide range of age, ethnic and religious backgrounds, income levels, political affiliation and family composition.

We’d like to stress that these ethnographic interviews were conducted in people’s homes and they lasted three hours each. We have done similar research in focus groups in standard facilities but we think it is much better to conduct individual interviews or interviews with couples and in people’s homes. We are asking people to talk about what is personally most important to them in life and people are much more open to that conversation in the privacy of their own homes, which are perceived to be safe places.

We also have the luxury of being able to use one male interviewer and one female interviewer at the same time. That works well with couples, although we also tell couples that they certainly do not need to agree with each other and that we are not there to play marriage counselors – unless they want us to.

Finally, you simply need a lot of time to get to people’s values and transition to questions about how their values affect decisions about their daily routines.

One of our clients was concerned that people might not open up to us but of course, people do. We had people admitting on tape to felonies that they were currently committing; to felonies that their children had committed; to felonies that their parents had committed. But talking about actions is the easy part. It’s harder and takes longer for people to talk about why they left the church (or felt that the church had left them); how they came to fear that their daughters would become trapped in the same trap of near-poverty if they did not come to value education; or how their value of compassion for all people is in tension with their current belief that some people out there are “gaming the system.”

Establish a context

Even given enough time and the comforts of home, it’s important to first establish a context. We usually ask participants to complete a homework exercise before the interview by making a collage illustrating what is most important to them in their lives.

The homework exercise establishes a context for a discussion of values. We ask participants to spend about 30 minutes to an hour on the assignment but most apparently spend a lot more and they include not only pictures from magazines but photographs of family members and artwork their children have done.

The collages also offer a first safe round of questions (after the usual introductions). We simply ask participants to walk us through the collage and explain what the illustrations mean.

And we encourage them to talk, to tell stories. That’s why it’s time-consuming. Again, many key values are formed very early, so we encourage people to talk about their childhood and we ask questions such as, “When did you first realize that family was the most important thing in your life?” Other standard techniques for eliciting memory work well: “Do you remember where you were when... ”

Projectives and storytelling are good ways to begin but to get to how values really shape everyday decisions often requires a kind of laddering that can be intrusive if not handled carefully. Most moderators are trained well enough not to ask people directly “Why is having a family important to you?” but the researcher really does need to find out precisely that.

Rely on observation

And sometimes we have to rely on observation as well as self-reporting. For example, many affluent, well-educated participants are much less likely than working-class participants to mention the value of education but that is often very much because it is so important as a personal value, so ingrained, that the person doesn’t even think to mention it. But if that person is wearing a sweatshirt from his daughter’s university and many of the family pictures in his collage are from graduations, the researchers might want to raise the issue.

Being in someone’s home and seeing all of their “stuff” is a huge advantage of ethnographic research. You can often get a strong sense of a person’s values just by looking around.

And again, getting people to identify their values is the simple part. It’s no surprise that people say that family, faith and being responsible (doing the right thing) are primary values. Education or “discovery” is very important to many people and we are seeing more and more people identifying health as a primary value (our guess is that a lot of people have always assumed good health but now people are talking more directly about it).

Very few people talk about success or their jobs, although being financially secure is often a sub-value of either “family” or “being responsible” (and virtually every family we talked to had been affected by the recession: the affluent have lost vacation homes and put off retirement, while the single mothers are taking on third part-time jobs).

But again, the more important research goal is to understand how these values operate in their lives. For example, while both men and women said that family is an important value, they tended to talk about their children in different ways. Among couples, women seemed to talk more about the sheer joy of being with their children while men talked about children as a source of pride and even their “legacy.” Interestingly, single mothers talked about their children from both perspectives. The differences suggest different personal values are operating under the larger, more abstract value of family.

Generally, the discussion of values, how they were formed and how they affect daily lives run the first hour and a half. The second half of the interview is devoted to how those values affect how they feel about the particular topic – in this case, how they get the news. For example, we might test some benefit statements about the value of news in general and by the last half hour or so, we are asking very direct questions about how they access the news and how they feel about certain networks.

We think that it is very important to finally ask the same direct questions that you might ask in a standard focus group about attitudes toward news channels but by now, the interview has established a particular “values” context. Still, the interviewer has to be the one to weave previous comments a participant has made into what he or she is currently saying, such as, “That’s interesting because now you’re saying something about the news. Earlier you said something about your values. Do you see any connection between the two?”

Often, they may not but as with all qualitative projects, at the end of the day, when we review the transcripts and look back over the collages, we see patterns emerge. People who are most driven by a value in the same way often want the same kind of news programming.

We can’t tell you the findings of the project – that would be giving away something proprietary – but we can point to an historical example of how values and the way we hold them can affect how we want to get the news (an example that many of our older participants did in fact raise).

Think about the 1960s and 1970s, when, at the same time, traditional “family values” were very important to the American people and yet those values were coming under attack. The news anchor for that time was “Uncle” Walter Cronkite. Douglas Brinkley in his new biography on Cronkite argues that Cronkite was successful because he connected with people and reassured us that, despite it all, we would be all right, just as a good parent would. But of course, that was a different time and a different place. We hold slightly different values – or perhaps we hold the same values but differently – and we look for this generation’s anchor.

We can also tell you that we went away from the project feeling very good about the American people in general. We may not always live up to our values – our values are who we are when we are at our best, and, as noted before, Maslow didn’t think we all get there. But our general values are good, solid ones: We value doing what’s right and caring for others. If business and organizations produced goods and services that appealed to our true values, perhaps we would live up to them more fully.