If your Brand Purpose is “Why you do what you do”, your Brand Values are “How you do what you do”. Values build on the story of your brand archetype to set the foundation for how your brand promises to act. It’s from these values that you can craft a tone of voice, a visual style, a standard of service, a role in society: an identity

We discussed earlier this month why building your brand is central to differentiating yourself from competitors so that you don’t have to rely on constant discounting as your only competitive lever.

Getting brand values wrong

The concept of brand values has been around a long time. Often described as the “guiding behaviours” or “north star” for employees to navigate between right and wrong for the business. You may already be familiar with seeing big aspirational words like “integrity”, “passion”, and “authenticity” emblazoned on the side of an office corridor. Cue eye roll. If you find these aspirational words as uninspiring as I do, that’s because they don’t actually say anything about what the brand stands for.

On a personal level, yes, having core values like “honesty” and “respect for others” does define how you interact with people. In branding, these behaviours are baseline expectations. Calling them out only raises the question “who wouldn’t claim to be these things?” Would anyone put “deceit” or “laziness” on the wall? And if everyone attests to being the same, then what does this say about you? Nothing. You’ve differentiated yourself from no one. You’re a commodity: Brand fail.

Does my business really need brand values?

After all, we’ve already got a good name and logo – brand values are just marketing words that make us warm and fuzzy, right?

Actually, whether you state them or not, your business already has values that it lives by. This is true for sole trader businesses, sprawling multinationals, and every organisation in between. Your organisational values are demonstrated in the way you do things: the language you use, your policies, your packaging, how meetings are run, how disagreements are resolved and so on. Values inform what we believe, the way we think, how we feel about things and how we behave: the social norms of a group. It’s on shared values that the culture of a team is built.

When you think about the fact that we all see ourselves as individuals fulfilling our own destinies, it becomes clear that for a group to work effectively, shared beliefs and values are in fact critical. When we reflect on the best and worst places we’ve ever worked, it always comes down to the people we worked with and the feeling of being there, rather than the rational factors like pay and commute time.

Articulating the right values for your business is your opportunity to set the foundations for a galvanising and tenacious culture, hell-bent on delivering your purpose. A positive culture built on shared values is fulfilling and self-perpetuating. It’s a culture that people are reluctant to leave. Few things are more costly to a business—in dollars and morale—than high employee turnover. The increased retention that comes from strong company culture means sustained organisational cohesiveness. And a cohesive team is a productive one.

Ultimately, the values you choose should reflect:

  1. Guidelines for every decision made on behalf of the business, e.g. “We must be good citizens…” – Johnson & Johnson
  2. What you’re looking for in the ideal employee, e.g. “Humbleness and willpower” – Ikea
  3. How you expect every member of your team (the organisation) to behave, e.g. “Listen to all ideas…” – Intel

The hardest part

It’s one thing to name the right values for your business, but the hardest part is making them reality if they’re not already. You may remember Uber being in the news recently, described as fostering the “systemic degrading of women, wage gaps, harassment, misogyny, career sabotage, sexual assault, boycotts, and its bro-enabling, gas-lighting leadership”. Just over a month ago, their new CEO unveiled their new brand values, which included “We do the right thing. Period”. It’s going to take a lot more than just words for women to trust uber again.

Since one of the fastest ways to disengage your employees and customers is to break promises, and your values are promises on how your organisation will act, it’s crucial that you take steps to ensure that reality is aligned. For example, a culture that claims to value innovation but doesn’t tolerate mistakes or dissent will kill the very thing that it values.

First, you need to identify what values your business actually upholds today, as opposed to the ones you hope it does. Good places too look for indicators of true values can be found in:

  • customer service: how do you serve or respond to customers? what feedback have they given? what is the customer experience like for them?
  • hiring process: what criteria are most important when looking for a new team member? do you give preference to proven skills or attitude? how diverse is your team?
  • training program: what skills and people are you readily investing in, or turning down?
  • performance measurement: how do you define success? It is about dollars or outcomes? What are the team’s KPIs? Do you measure any customer outcomes?
  • employee policies: do you enable a healthy balanced lifestyle? do you encourage parental leave?
  • issue resolution: is your team comfortable raising issues with you openly? Is everyone held to the same standard or are there tiers?

So once you’ve identified your culture needs a change, where do you even start? How do you address people’s beliefs and values? It’s a billion dollar question many organisations have failed to answer effectively. The process is often long and complex, but here are some principles to get you started:

  1. Start with communication: the quickest change you can implement is how you communicate with your team and with customers. Pay attention to the language you use, have empathy, review frequency and how you choose to get in touch.
  2. Align processes / policies / measurement: demonstrate your commitment to change by updating your governing rules to be consistent with your values and purpose.
  3. Lead by example: driven by the CEO, select the significant few influencers in your organisation with whom the new values already resonate and work with them to spread those ideas and behaviours – tie it to your clearly articulated purpose.
  4. Continuously reinforce: understanding and adoption of new ideas is helped by consistent reinforcement. This includes checking in with your team for feedback on how the change process is being managed and where the gaps are.

Overall, addressing culture is a monumental task but a worthwhile endeavour. After all, they say “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and if your culture isn’t going to align with your strategy then you can probably guess who is for lunch.