A practical exercise in saying something more than “I like good things and dislike bad things”.
Thousands of hours of agency and in-house branding, PR, marketing, and miscellaneous “communications professional” work time is spent on trying to dress up the flaccid and the obvious as “brand values”. Marketing and communications people act as if repeating meaningless words strung together like an incantation will actually convince anyone that your brand cares, like truly cares about banal fence-sitting “stances”. Does anyone really believe that “transparency”, “honesty”, “integrity” are somehow innovative notions? They pretend that “disruption” is a good in and of itself regardless of context, and act as if “synergy” is a word that means anything to anyone in real, practical terms.
Trying to be liked by everyone (and thus spewing safe platitudes) is a sign of weakness, timidity, and lack of confidence. Values are hard to figure out, they take sacrifice and risking being unpopular with someone.
What’s more, values imagined by the C-suite cannot be imposed on a dysfunctional organization by decree. It takes living out your values in a meaningful, direct way that involves all of the stakeholders of the brand, the leadership, the workers, and the consumers.
Creating a strong, value-driven brand takes skin in the game (which is a life-changing book, if you haven’t read it yet, with excerpts from Nassim Taleb available on Medium, with this entry being particularly relevant). Simply invoking some higher ideal, one conveniently placed in a space devoid of controversy, takes nothing.
Murder is bad.
Medicine is good.
Save the children.
Authentic values are a cost, and thus an investment.
My argument is that all a brand is, really, is a set of values, and values are only authentic if you sacrifice something at their altar. Without some risk, some willingness to give up X in order to preserve, protect, or affirm Y, your values are just words, self-serving and duplicitous.
Simply intoning nice-sounding things makes your attempts at branding inauthentic. Without standing up for something, a company easily slides into self-serving toxicity. On a curious side note, the willingness to sacrifice ethical scruples for money and status may also explain gender disparities in company leadership. A toxic culture tends to promote those willing to be unethical and alienates or outright throws out those willing to take a conscientious stand.
So, how do you arrive at a sense of real, authentic values? Here is an easy, single-step process. Beware, though, that in the same way that you can’t really market a fundamentally broken product (not for long, anyway), you can’t force values on a firm without living them, embodying them through sacrifice. At the end of this exercise, you might discover that your real values don’t sound very nice. The only real, sustainable way of changing them is to change the behavior of the brand. Without a willingness to do some soul-searching and tough decision-making on the part of the company itself, no branding package, no consulting firm, and no executive coach can fix anything for you.
Define what is intolerable for your brand, preferably from past actions.
I don’t really remember where I picked up this piece of advice. It might have been from David Brooks’ “The Road to Character”. The essence of this idea, however, is to see your character, sincerely, unflinchingly, through action. To do this, you have to answer a simple question:
What would my brand NEVER do, even if there was a strong incentive to do it?
Since taking a safe position is easy, don’t give yourself the option. Work backward to figure out what position you would take if pinned against the wall. The idea here is to recognize implicit (and thus the deeper, more powerful) taboos for your and your organization.
These are indicators that point towards your true values. This approach has the advantage of not playing to your (company’s) ego. Instead of trying to pick a nice label and then mentally tailor your memory to fit that, do the reverse. The taboos represent core values, the inviolable pieces of your brand DNA that are non-negotiable.
While every operation toils under pressure to perform, make money, drive conversions, or ship widgets, there are some things that are just not acceptable for your brand. At first glance, being unwilling to break a taboo is a competitive disadvantage. If Cogsley’s Inc. is willing to use child labor and dump waste in the ocean, they can sell a product at 3 cents a sprocket, while Spacely’s Co., with their adherence to labor laws and environmental responsibility, can only do 12 cents. On paper, Cogsley’s. wins every time. In practice, the consumer may actually care enough to pay more for Spacely’s.
The limits to your self-interest can be turned into competitive advantages. When seen through a holistic view of brand-building, the long-term sustainability of a company can actually improve with standing up for their values. What you’re not willing to compromise on is a stronger, more authentic building block for a consumer following than spouting platitudes. By sacrificing the tactical advantage now, you are building a reputation of integrity for the future, something that you will be able to build a company that does more than sell products.
Your values, in triplicate.
The stronger the taboo, the closer it is to the core of what defines you as a brand. But, a brand is not defined through the unanimous will of one person. Look at your brand through the lenses of the behavior of your leaders, workers, and your consumers. A brand is really coming together of these three groups. The experience they create around the brand is a collaborative effort. Each has a role to play, and when one of these three refuses to collaborate, brands decline.
So, ask the question three times to account for the three main stakeholders of the brand collaboration process :
A. If the company has the option to go bankrupt and die or do X, what value for X would make bankruptcy preferable? What would be so intolerable a practice that the leadership of the firm that they would rather close-up shop than engage in it?
B. If tomorrow news came out that the firm engaged in X practice, the majority of workers for the company would resign on the spot. Solve for X.
C. And, as the brand is about the interaction between the company and product with the consumer public, this question can and should be presented with an eye on the public, as well. If news came out that the firm was engaging in X, the majority of customers would refuse to buy from them. What is X?
The need for separation of A, B, and C here should be obvious. A CEO declaring “integrity”, “transparency”, and “sustainability” as the key values of a firm does not magically erase the rampant embezzlement, cover-ups, and unethical sourcing practices of the firm. A senior exec telling his employees that they are in a “flat organization” doesn’t stop him from then holding grudges and dispensing rewards and bonuses based on favoritism and not merit. An ad campaign about sustainability doesn’t magically undo the heavy metals leaking into the water table around the production facilities. The brand values (and the taboos associated with them) have to be actively lived by the leadership, the company personnel, and the consumer public that is attracted to the brand.
Find the overlap.
It is entirely possible that the A, B, and C levels of your brand are not aligned in what the values are. Unearthing this misalignment is crucial for authentic and useful branding practice (and thinks like operations management or the overall business strategy). The misalignment among the leadership, workers, and consumers now show what values are held by whom. If the leadership of the firm moves in a way that violates the values of the consumers, they are likely to suffer a loss of business. If they violate the values of the workers, they are likely to lose key talent. These three perspectives meaningfully define the boundaries of action around where they overlap.
That spot in the middle is what all three major stakeholders of the brand agree on. This is the soil from which you can pull the real core values for the brand. The leadership, the public, and the workforce act as a system of checks and balances against deviation from the core brand. When this works, it works brilliantly.
All three working together create a vision that transcends business. The brand becomes a way of being, an attitude, and organically grows and supports itself. A company aligned with the consumer on the core values has visionary executives that experiment, innovate, and create new markets. It attracts smart and talented workers who are proud to say they work for the brand. The consumer embraces the brand as an expression of a value they hold dear. The brand becomes transcendent, delivering greater value than the on-paper contribution to the GDP through sales.
An easy example.
Let’s take Apple circa 2007. Standing at the precipice of a new era, Apple was about to create an entire market with the release of the original iPhone. Steve Jobs noticed a small issue, the plastic display would scratch easily in his pocket. Jobs took a hard-nosed stance, spending vast amounts of energy, work, and money on making sure that the original iPhone would ship with a glass display.
It wasn’t necessary, the gadget would be disruptive even with a plastic screen, but Jobs made a point to live up to his values. He established a standard and led Apple to unprecedented, historical results. The reputation for attention to detail and quality that was built by him lasted nearly a decade.
Apple circa 2020 is still coasting, somewhat, on the momentum built by Steve Jobs. It will take years of betraying the values of innovation, high quality, and customer-centricity to crumble the house that Steve built (inevitable as this demise seems).
The reputation that was built by doggedly pursuing values beyond mere profit generated insane amounts of profit. Jobs (cranky and unpleasant as he may have been) was a visionary. He understood that the fight was for more than consumer dollars. He sought to build something that transcended profit, or market share, to become an attitude, a way of seeing the world.
Not faking it.
This kind of dynamic is hard to imitate, and boy, do companies try to fake it. Over time, though, the frauds get found out. The betrayal of these values results in a loss of trust from the public, something Accenture has concluded inevitably damages the profitability of the firm. Betraying your core values (or faking the values to begin with) is a losing strategy.
Of course, even if a brand is built on adherence to authentic values, things change. When the leadership abandons the brand principles, whether by actively betraying them or by simply letting standards slip, the brand starts crumbling. By violating these unspoken taboos, the forces that held the brand together as a symbol for something greater than itself dissipate. Ultimately, a new, passionate, value-driven competitor takes over and the cycle begins again.
If you’re not ready to bury your brand yet, ask yourself the question, what am I willing to sacrifice for? And, if you don’t like the answer, use that information to find a direction that does seem worthwhile. It might involve changing your attitude, but if it’s done in the service of standing up for your real values, the payoff is likely worth it.
Once you find out what you are willing to fight and maybe die for, you have the start of your brand, the real one, the one that will galvanize the support of your natural tribe. Your brand becomes real. It stands for something that isn’t made-up. Of course, you still have to communicate your brand’s set of values effectively, but now you have something of substance to communicate.