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Well-known interviewing technique “laddering,” the Means-End Chain!

Courtesy HBR article... The 30 Elements of Consumer Value: A Hierarchy (hbr.org)







Many of the studies involved the well-known interviewing technique “laddering,” which probes consumers’ initial stated preferences to identify what’s driving them

In our research we don’t accept on its face a consumer’s statement that a certain product attribute is important; instead we explore what underlies that statement. For example, when someone says her bank is “convenient,” its value derives from some combination of the functional elements saves time, avoids hassle, simplifies, and reduces effort. 

We have identified 30 “elements of value”—fundamental attributes in their most essential and discrete forms. These elements fall into four categories: functional, emotional, life changing, and social impact.



Our model traces its conceptual roots to the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which was first published in 1943. Then a faculty member at Brooklyn College, Maslow argued that human actions arise from an innate desire to fulfill needs ranging from the very basic (security, warmth, food, rest) to the complex (self-esteem, altruism). Almost all marketers today are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy. The elements of value approach extends his insights by focusing on people as consumers—describing their behavior as it relates to products and services.

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  1. In our research we don’t accept on its face a consumer’s statement that a certain product attribute is important; instead we explore what underlies that statement. For example, when someone says her bank is “convenient,” its value derives from some combination of the functional elements saves time, avoids hassle, simplifies, and reduces effort. And when the owner of a $10,000 Leica talks about the quality of the product and the pictures it takes, an underlying life-changing element is self-actualization, arising from the pride of owning a camera that famous photographers have used for a century.

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  2. The elements of value approach extends Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

    Three decades of experience doing consumer research and observation for corporate clients led us to identify these 30 fundamental attributes, which we derived from scores of quantitative and qualitative customer studies. Many of the studies involved the well-known interviewing technique “laddering,” which probes consumers’ initial stated preferences to identify what’s driving them.

    Our model traces its conceptual roots to the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which was first published in 1943. Then a faculty member at Brooklyn College, Maslow argued that human actions arise from an innate desire to fulfill needs ranging from the very basic (security, warmth, food, rest) to the complex (self-esteem, altruism). Almost all marketers today are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy. The elements of value approach extends his insights by focusing on people as consumers—describing their behavior as it relates to products and services.

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  3. It may be useful to briefly compare Maslow’s thinking with our model. Marketers have seen his hierarchy organized in a pyramid (although it was later interpreters, not Maslow himself, who expressed his theory that way). At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological and safety needs, and at the top are self-actualization and self-transcendence. The popular assumption has been that people cannot attain the needs at the top until they have met the ones below. Maslow himself took a more nuanced view, realizing that numerous patterns of fulfillment can exist. For example, rock climbers achieve self-actualization in unroped ascents of thousands of feet, ignoring basic safety considerations.

    Similarly, the elements of value pyramid is a heuristic model—practical rather than theoretically perfect—in which the most powerful forms of value live at the top. To be able to deliver on those higher-order elements, a company must provide at least some of the functional elements required by a particular product category. But many combinations of elements exist in successful products and services today.

    Most of these elements have been around for centuries and probably longer, although their manifestations have changed over time. Connects was first provided by couriers bearing messages on foot. Then came the Pony Express, the telegraph, the pneumatic post, the telephone, the internet, e-mail, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites.

    The relevance of elements varies according to industry, culture, and demographics. For example, nostalgia or integrates may mean little to subsistence farmers in developing countries, whereas reduces risk and makes money are vital to them. Likewise, throughout history, self-actualization has been out of reach for most consumers, who were focused on survival (even if they found fulfillment through spiritual or worldly pursuits). But anything that saved time, reduced effort, or reduced cost was prized.

    Growing Revenue
    To test whether the elements of value can be tied to company performance—specifically, a company’s customer relationships and revenue growth—we collaborated with Research Now (an online sampling and data collection company) to survey more than 10,000 U.S. consumers about their perceptions of nearly 50 U.S.-based companies. Each respondent scored one company—from which he or she had bought a product or service during the previous six months—on each element, using a 0–10 scale. When companies had major branded divisions such as insurance or banking, we conducted separate interviews focused on those divisions. We then looked at the relationships among these rankings, each company’s Net Promoter Score (NPS)—a widely used metric for customer loyalty and advocacy—and the company’s recent revenue growth.

    Our first hypothesis was that the companies that performed well on multiple elements of value would have more loyal customers than the rest. The survey confirmed that. Companies with high scores (defined as an 8 or above) on four or more elements from at least 50% of respondents—such as Apple, Samsung, USAA, TOMS, and Amazon—had, on average, three times the NPS of companies with just one high score, and 20 times the NPS of companies with none. More is clearly better—although it’s obviously unrealistic to try to inject all 30 elements into a product or a service. Even a consumer powerhouse like Apple, one of the best performers we studied, scored high on only 11 of the 30 elements. Companies must choose their elements strategically, as we will illustrate.

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  4. Our second hypothesis was that companies doing well on multiple elements would grow revenue at a faster rate than others. Strong performance on multiple elements does indeed correlate closely with higher and sustained revenue growth. Companies that scored high on four or more elements had recent revenue growth four times greater than that of companies with only one high score. The winning companies understand how they stack up against competitors and have methodically chosen new elements to deliver over time (though most of them did not use our specific framework).

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