Focus on Values, Not Demographics, Expert Says

David Allison of The Valuegraphics Project talks behavioral science prior to his November keynote address at Path to Purchase Live
Tim Binder
Executive Editor
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David Allison, Founder, The Valuegraphics Project

David Allison, founder of Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Valuegraphics Project, considers himself a consumer behavior expert. He helps organizations understand the behaviors of their consumers by using behavioral science techniques and a data set he’s built so his client companies can engage with consumers better, or more specifically.

“We've built the world's very first database of what everybody on the planet cares about,” says Allison as he prepares to deliver a keynote address at the Path to Purchase Institute’s Path to Purchase Live event, Nov. 1-3 in Orlando, Florida. “We've done 600,000 surveys around the world – more than half a million surveys – and we've measured what their values are, what their wants and needs and expectations are. We use 152 different languages. We’re accurate in 180 countries now.”

Allison recently sat down (virtually) with Path to Purchase IQ to discuss his work and the subject matter of his Nov. 2 keynote address.

P2PIQ: What does it means to be a consumer behavior expert?

Allison: Sometimes that term can mean all kinds of different things to different people. So maybe a good place to start is just explaining how we intend to be received. Really, every organization on Earth is here just trying to get some people to do something. It doesn't matter whether you're selling food or you're selling a service, or whether you're the church, or whether you're a government. We are all waking up in the morning going to work and trying to get some people to do something.

So it kind of begs the question: How do consumers decide to do things? What are those behaviors and how can we engage with them and maybe change those behaviors and influence the way they're behaving. …

Here's something to think about. We waste trillions of dollars every year talking to people because we think we know who they are and what they want to hear because we understand their demographics. We think, while you know 18- to 24-year-olds, that they're all like this. And men are like this, and women are like that, and people who have an MBA are like this. We have this data set we built that proves how wrong that is.

“We're actually only being about 10% efficient, if you use demographics and psychographics as a way to understand your target audience. Ninety percent of your money is wasted. So you're spending a million bucks talking to your target audience, you're wasting $900,000 because you don't really know what's going to engage them and move the needle.”

P2PIQ: Tell us more about behavioral science.

Allison: Behavioral science is a very broad term. It includes all kinds of fields of scientific inquiry like psychology, sociology, neuroscience … any one of the scientific fields that has to do with understanding why humans do the things they do. That's what human behavior science and behavioral science is all about. Behavioral science itself has become a sort of specialty area that sort of dives into all these other fields and kind of collects stuff about that particular piece, and then uses that as a way to help people understand what's going on with the people that they're interested in understanding.

P2PIQ: Let’s get back to your database. It focuses on values?

Allison: What we've done is, with this database … we can go in and prove how terrible demographics are, but more importantly we have a replacement system. It's easy to poke holes in things. It's much harder to say, here's something better. So, while understanding that demographics are not a really great way to know how people make decisions and, therefore, how we can influence those behaviors.

What does work, and what all the different fields of behavioral science – psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists – agree on, is that what we value determines everything we do. All of our feelings, emotions and behaviors are rooted in what's most important to us.

If the most important thing in your life is your family, and something comes along that it's going to be great for your family, you're going to chase that you're going to want more of that. And you're going to do everything you can to get that product or that service, attach yourself to that brand, be part of the tribe of that person, whatever it takes.

Now, if something comes along that might be bad for your family, you're going to run away from that and do everything you can to avoid it. That's not the product you will choose on the shelf that day. It doesn't feel like it's going to help your family.

You don't even know you're doing this half the time. It's not a conscious thought. You don't walk into the grocery store and go, “Which static soup is best for my family?” But if family is the most important thing in your life, you are choosing a can of soup, whether you realize you're doing it or not, because somehow something about that moment where you're looking at the shelf is saying that's the one, that's the one.

You make a decision, somehow, and what behavioral science teaches us is that the way you made that decision is based on what's important to you. It might be status, it might be the environment, it might be your family, but whatever it is, you're going to make those purchase decisions based on what you care about and what brand … what store are you in. You choose a store for a whole lot of different reasons, but they all have their roots in something that's important to you that you care about.

P2PIQ: So, that’s what you’ll be talking about at Path to Purchase Live?

Allison: What the value graphics database allows us to do, and what we're going to do for the Path to Purchase Live event, is we can profile a target audience for anything, anywhere in the world.

So if we go out and say, all right, let's talk to the people who make food purchase decisions in the U.S. What do they care about more than anything else in their life? What's the most important set of values that they're using? What they have in common so that a food retailer can say to that group of people, “Oh, that's what you care about. Well, let me tell you how my product, my service, my online store, my brick-and-mortar store … how it will give you what you're looking for.”

You know what to say. You know what part of your story is going to connect for the brands that are represented in those stores. If you're a big company that manufactures cookies, for example, you know the people that are going into these stores. They care about this and this and this more than anything else. Your cookies need to be, somehow, the ones sitting on the shelf that are going to talk to those things that those people use as the roadmap for their life.

We're going to profile two audiences. I'm going to share the data on this one group of people who are the folks who shop and prefer to shop online, and others who are the ones who make their food purchase decisions in real life that enjoy being in the store.

Suddenly, we're going to have a bunch of people who don't have any intention of ever going back into a store, and we have a bunch people who can't wait to get back into a store. We, as food retailers and food manufacturers, have to understand both kinds of people, because they're not going to be the same.

You can't just carry on doing same old, same old. You need to understand what makes these people different. There's going to be some overlap to what you could be saying that will work for both groups.


Caption: After 600,000 surveys in 152 languages around the world, The Valuegraphics Project has created a global map of what it says everyone cares about. This chart shows how the top values of Americans compare to the rest of the world. For example, Americans love their "possessions" and place a lot more importance on "health & well-being" compared to the rest of the world. In his keynote for Path to Purchase Live, David Allison will reveal the data that pinpoints the most magnetic values for food shoppers – the behavioral science truths that trigger all food shopping decisions in the U.S.