The importance of appealing to values

In his latest presentation at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference, pollster and commentator, Frank Luntz, addresses how business communication can be vastly improved by following smarter and simpler guidelines. Although much of what Luntz says is obvious as soon as you hear it—appeal to values, use imagery and storytelling, convey a feeling rather than try to sell a product—it is incredible how rarely companies employ these strategies. Luntz talks about the very real perception problem that business, particularly big business, faces. Year after year, the business community in the U.S. grows more unpopular and less trusted. Much of this may have to do with the current economic climate and the view of many Americans that big business and runaway capitalism created much of the mess we are in today. Luntz says that most companies have failed at countering these perceptions of their industries and individual enterprises because they simply have not taken the time to understand their customers. They fail to connect with what matters to the people who matter most to them.

Luntz’s prescription for addressing this issue is to find the right message and communicate it effectively. He outlines roughly five simple steps to achieve this.

1. Find out what matters—ask people the right questions. What do people most want from our company or product? Don’t try to provide solutions before you know the needs. You are likely to miss the mark and speak in jargon that may sound good to your ears but be ultimately meaningless to your audience. Pay attention to the answers people provide, and more importantly what those answers symbolize. For example, if a customer says they value independent certification of a product, they are saying they value accountability.

2. Once you find out what matters–appeal to those values. Your messaging should play back to people the sentiments that they value. Use the words that your audience has identified as being important to them because ultimately, Luntz says “it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what people hear.” Luntz says that he ideally begins every presentation by asking the audience what is on their minds, and then he spends the next hour addressing those issues.

3. Use imagery and stories that people can relate to in order to convey your message, even if the narrative doesn’t have anything to do with your product directly. He shows examples of emotionally evocative and values-based advertising from Google and Jeep that appeal to nationwide values of familial love and enduring commitment. Stories and imagery have the ability to connect with people in a way that generic messages about a company’s expertise can never do.

4. Aim to convey a feeling. Luntz points out that the branding of these companies in these ads is very understated and often not apparent at first viewing. He quips that “brand is fake” but “trust is real.” He states that the best way to have people retain your key message is to use the phrasing, “If you remember one thing—remember this.”

5. Realize that if you touch people, they will remember the messenger too. Ultimately, we talk about the messages that resonate with us and want to know what is behind this appealing narrative. Think about the best Super Bowl ads and how people look forward to and chatter about them for years later.

Luntz’s points about messaging are simple and should be common sense. He says to ask your audience what they want and give it to them both in your messaging and your products.

Not surprisingly, his polling research provides some of the answers on what people want. The research reveals that our current environment determines the words that mean the most to us. The current atmosphere of economic uncertainty and global outlook mean that people are placing a premium on trust, stability, accountability, protection of assets, and transparency across all industries, including from our political leaders. View Frank Luntz’s inspirational and interactivepresentation for a full list of his updated “21 Words for the 21st Century,” and the “13 Essential Phrases for 2013″.