Using value alignment
in place of personas

By Stephen Saugestad

Personas are a good way to target groups through demographics. But today, for high net worth users who are diverse, aligning the solution to their values is a more effective approach.

The use of personas has been a mainstay in the process and workflow of designing digital products and marketing strategy for a long time. It’s taught in every technology, art, and marketing program. You create fictional people to represent actual users, generalize their needs and preferences, then build a solution that caters to them.

We started seeing the problem with this approach a few years ago as our focus on luxury brands in travel became narrower. Personas were doing a poor job of representing the actual people we were seeing at the properties we were working with. Sure, there are a lot of similarities between corporate travellers, wedding guests, or families. But personas feel like a scattershot approach that tries to accommodate a lot of user types in the same solution. It dilutes the messaging and marketing focus when the preference is to holistically engage a single user type.

A changing demographic

We work with a relatively small segment of the travel and hospitality market. The thing our target audience has  have in common is that they’re high-income earners with a high net worth. It’s easy enough to include income level or wealth within personas, but using a fictional rich person oversimplifies what is otherwise a very diverse group.

High net worth users (HNW or UHNW in our parlance) used to be more of a homogenous bunch. They wore monocles, dressed in tuxedos, and travelled the world in gilded buggies. But today this is no longer the case, and this a pattern we’ve consistently observed through our work. Sure there are still 80-year-old oil barons that eat foie gras for breakfast and light cigars with 100 dollar bills. But among them are 24-year-old hedge fund managers, 30-year-old former Facebook executives, and Baron Trump. They’re quite a diverse bunch demographically, and they don’t fit neatly into personas.

Transitioning to Values

So if not age, gender, or sports teams, what then? What the research (and our anecdotal observations) tells us is that the thing HNW users have in common is not age or nationality; it’s their values. And this idea is supported by a conventional theory in human psychology: when people don’t have the basics or means to survive, an altruistic concern like sustainability is a luxury that takes a backseat to money. When you can barely afford to buy gas, you’re not thinking about environmental impact of driving cars. For HNW users, money rarely the most valued commodity. Instead, it’s often time; their own, and the time they spend with the most important people in their lives. But the point is that this principle guides the affluent towards more altruistic motives.
There are different opinions on what the most common values are among HNW and UNHW customers, but we use the following buckets in our methodology:

  • Personal growth & meaning – is it meaningful, and does it allow me to grow as a person?
  • Authenticity – is the food, experience, and people authentic to the place?
  • Privacy & security (and for many, family) – does it give me privacy, and value my time with family or loved ones?
  • Ethics & environmental responsibility – how does this experience affect the larger world, and what is its footprint?

Once these observations became clear to us, we put it into practice.

One-of-a-kind VS luxury

Before working on the alignment, it’s important to make the distinction between one-of-a-kind, bucket list travel destination (e.g. safaris, private islands, guest ranches) and conventional luxury hotels. ⅓ of business at conventional hotels happens with corporate travellers. And for this demographic, the value alignment is not effective because their needs are so different. They are not travelling for self-fulfillment; they’re travelling because they have to. So for more conventional travel products and experiences, we recommend using a hybrid approach of fractional value alignment in areas like brand story, dining, activities, meetings, spa, etc. (e.g. origin of food, sustainability of products used for catering or spa) whilst targeting known user groups such as  corporate travellers through the use of personas.

Creating value alignment

A lot of the brands that we work with already resonate with HNW/UNHW travellers because hoteliers and owners of high-end travel experiences are very good at catering to their guests’ preferences. The most innovative organizations are usually in front of emerging trends in the hospitality market, –  personalization, hyper-local ingredients, collaborative spaces, and sustainability to name a few. What’s more, qualities such as personal enrichment, authenticity, and environmental ethics are often characteristics that flow naturally from these travel experiences. So they just need to amplify what’s already working and address the areas where the right messages are not being conveyed.

But how to do this? In our experience, the first step is to leverage quantitative and qualitative measurements to assess the brand’s current situation.. Then use some kind of diagnostic tool to assess the current situation and measure progress once the solutions have been implemented. Continue the diagnostics through a discovery and information gathering process, and pair this with a visual and experiential assessment. Finally take everything you’ve learned and design a solution with two parts – one which emphasizes what the organization is already doing well, and another that, fixes the areas that are misaligned in your strategy, design, advertising, and content.

While this is not going to be a scientific process, a proprietary methodology like this can be a good vehicle for applying existing knowledge and testing a hypothesis through repetition and experimentation.

One final note – we’ve found that this approach is a lot more effective when there’s a foundational alignment at the brand level. There needs to be an alignment of values within the brand story, pillars, and positioning. Without it, it’s all going to feel like a facade for this very savvy group.