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The Values Ladder as every successful CMO’s cynosure

In our December blog

, we identified heretofore unexplored parallels between Self-determination Theory (SDT) and the Values Ladder, uncovering a critical bridge between marketing and behavioural science; between hierarchies of messages and hierarchies of needs; and between customer-centricity and intrinsic customer motivations.

In the process, we showed how the Values Ladder provides new levels of versatility and significance, repositioning it as a complete


— compass, North Star, magnet, focus –and

sine qua non

in every successful CMO’s arsenal. 

Two more, totally independent sources, the discovery of which comes down to the serendipity of wide reading, offer even more parallels to the Values Ladder. They point further to new opportunities to apply the Ladder to expanding marketing needs while confirming the profound philosophical strengths underlying its logic all along.

1. Tony Hsieh and


culture of happiness

The recent, startling news of Tony Hsieh’s untimely death at age 47

sent me to the NYTImes obituary

.  As famous for his success with Zappos, an original online shoe company, was his dedication to Zappos’ corporate culture and the often out-sized books he as CEO produced on this culture. One “of fun and weirdness,” the culture that Hsieh promoted was, indeed, eclectic and

sui generis,

but resulted in skyrocketing growth. “From $1.6M in sales in 2000, Zappos surpassed $1B in revenues by 2009. In July 2009, Mr. Hsieh sold the company for $1.2B to Amazon.”

Hsieh built his philosophy of business on the idea that happy employees were the conduit to satisfied customers who would return again and again. He wrote a best-selling book,

Delivering Happiness

 in 2010, describing his customer service philosophy. A computer scientist, he was skeptical of psychology and philosophy, but he believed he could study happiness as a science and construct and measure happiness in terms of the distinct characteristics that made people happy.

He concluded there are four things required for happiness

  • Perceived control
  • Connectedness (meaning the depth of relationships)
  • Perceived progress
  • Being part of something bigger than yourself

Although in slightly different terms, what are these four things if not full-on correspondences to the top four levels of the Values Ladder — that, of course, also perfectly conform with SDT?

  • Perceived control:

  • Connectedness (meaning the depth of relationships):

  • Perceived progress:


  • Being part of something

    bigger than yourself



See Happiness correspondences

in red.

Values Ladder Diagram

Observations and recommendations:

  • Does your company have issues with corporate culture, collective employee behaviour, adoption of corporate values, etc? What company, of whatever size and maturity, doesn’t? Corporate culture is an ongoing, living thing that needs constant management and adjustments.
  • Look to Tony Hsieh for inspiration. And look immediately to the Values Ladder as a tool you can use in common with your management team and human resources to set a steady course towards your company’s unique approach to “happiness.” We will return to this topic in future blogs. 

2. Aristotle’s four causes and Arete, or excellence

Perhaps Mr. Hsieh needn’t have been so skeptical of philosophy or psychology after all.

Aristotle is probably the single-most powerful, influential thinker among ancient philosophers, known above all as the father of Western reason and logic. His contributions to Western thought — from biology, physics, and law to literature and ethics — are enormous and continue to challenge modern scholars across disciplines to generate ever-more discerning analyses.

In the


(V. 2) and

Physics (II.3)

, Aristotle famously identified four causes (




) of physical and natural phenomena and processes:

Material cause

: (





  • the basic raw material out of which something is made

Formal cause:




  • defining characteristics (shape) of a thing that makes it function in a particular way








  • source and activity that are the reason why something is the way it is








  • the purpose of the thing, the reason for which a thing is done.  

A little more explanation is required

For Aristotle, when we can explain something in terms of these four, highly inter-related causes, we arrive at scientific knowledge of this thing or phenomenon, but not before. Altogether, these four causes result in answering the all-important question,


— why a thing exists, what purpose it serves — while each cause provides a specific answer (

So what?)

that ramps up to the overall understanding.

Teleological explanations do not necessarily depend on human actions or behaviours, or psychological concepts such as desires, beliefs or intentions, but if they are present, they are often integral to the final cause. Take as a simple example a table. Its material cause is


its formal cause is a specific


its efficient cause is the

carpenter’s skill (and perhaps his passion and desire

) to make it; and its final cause is


. Aristotle himself parses other famous examples including the creation of bronze statues, ship-building, eclipses of the moon, and the reason for incisors vs. molar teeth; applications are endless. 


Although originally applied to physical change and natural phenomena, Aristotle’s four causes, inter-related and mutually dependent, define the hierarchy of logic that leads to what we know as the scientific understanding of teleology:


things exist.

It is the same logic, uncovered through continuing dialectics (asking

So what?)

that underscores the logic of the entire Values Ladder, all steps:

  • hyle

    begins with the Total Offering;


    is the thing’s unique performance or competence;


    (a neuter participle, the other three terms are inert nouns) is the active hand, the skilled intervention, the satisfaction that effects progress, while


    , the ultimate end, defines both achievement and fulfillment AND highest purpose, the final


    ? atop the Ladder.

2500 years on, in a context far, far removed, Aristotle still continues to frame our thinking and justify our methods. If, by any chance, you ever thought the Values Ladder was out-dated or old-fashioned, do think again.

Coda: Psychology and behaviour

Since human beings have a nature just as other things do, Aristotle (

Nichomachean Ethics)

also famously examines and illuminates human excellence, or


in terms of the proper fulfillment of human nature.


(Greek: ἀρετή) is arguably an innate, natural tendency, even a desire, we have to live up to our full potential: to take on challenges, fulfill ourselves, go for the supreme, most perfectly balanced goals we can achieve. While we are born with these tendencies to fulfill ourselves,


also translated as “ideal character traits” or “moral virtues”, must be nurtured from a very young age if they are to become a stable part of our lives over time. If we do practice these “virtues”, however, we do come to enjoy them as noble and worthwhile in themselves.

Aristotle included among these “virtues” courage, temperance, friendship and liberality (moral virtues) and wisdom and understanding (key intellectual virtues governing ethical behaviour and scientific endeavor.) For Aristotle, practicing these virtues through lifelong activities defines living well and leads to happiness, or


(Greek: εὐδαιμονία), which can also be translated as flourishing, prosperity or blessedness. Aristotle’s entirely happy man, the


, (


 μεγᾰλόψῡχος), or great-souled, “super-cool” man, exemplifies


in a fully balanced, harmonious, close-to-perfect life: his human potential is successfully, blissfully realised.


  • How far is this from Self-determination Theory, predicated on the belief that we have natural, inherent drives to seek out challenges and new possibilities? How far is this from feeling fulfilled, rewarded and alive through mastering and practicing the “virtues” of competence, connectedness to others, achievement and autonomy? Clearly the goal of both Aristotle’s ethics and SDT is self-actualisaation by acting on innate desires for personal growth and putting them into life practice.
  • How far is either Aristotle or SDT from the “corporate happiness” that Hsieh identifies in his “four causes”: control, relationships, progress and the ultimate


    , being part of something larger than yourself?  Different terminology, different contexts for sure, and different starting points; but entirely parallel, logical processes and teleological systems aiming for greater fulfillment and purpose in life. The dots and overlaps were just waiting to be connected.

Summation: 3 key takeaways

  1. Through the four causes, Aristotle gives new validation to the strength of the Values Ladder and the power of its logic, leading to


      Way more than a message-machine for ads, although this is its start, the Values Ladder is a powerful thinking-tool, right in your hands, sometimes hard to navigate, but the complete


    – compass, North Star, magnet, focus –for marketing, communications, culture and business development. What more could you want, CMOs!

  2. Practical and teleological, the logic of SDT perfectly conforms to the Values Ladder (and Aristotle), leading to scientific theories of fulfillment and achievement, as does the logic of Hsieh’s happiness in corporate culture.

    The Values Ladder allows the logic to be clearly, graphically demonstrated, forging heretofore unseen and unexplored connections between marketing, behaviour, corporate culture, philosophy and psychology—and the common, teleological views of happiness and fulfillment that unite them.

  3. Innovation happens at intersections of disciplines; cross-fertilisation and new developments are rarely far behind.

    If the organising principle is logic, leading to


    the result is the ability to connect marketing, behaviour, philosophy and corporate culture across their individual strengths and common parallels. We look forward to what you all may start to discover!

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