The brutal truth about making brand values work

Gary - 18 th November 2015

Brand Vista was founded in 2000 by two people.  On the surface they are very, very different. One has supper, the other has tea. One does rugby and sailing and one football and feels a bit iffy even in the calmest seas. One knows his wines and one just drinks it when the beer has run out. The tea eating, footballing, beer drinking landlubber is me.

So why has this relationship survived and thrived for over 25 years? Of course, regardless of our different upbringings and interests we share the same values.

Values are powerful, deeply set and are pretty much immovable. They are also an immensely powerful part of a brand’s armoury. They can be compelling for legions of customers and they can drive differentiation. I have seen a single value drive cultural change and drive a 25% increase in turnover in a year.

Most businesses do not maximise the potential of values

But boy do we get confused by them and our clients are always asking how to use them best. Should we have organisational values (values that determine the way we work and usually developed by HR or Operations) or brand values (the values that customers buy into and usually developed by Marketing) or both? 

It is an important question because without a clear answer there can at best be utter confusion and at worst complete inertia.

People get confused with exactly what a value is and how it should be used (especially in a brand context). Very simply, a brand value should drive the brand to behave in way that reflects an aspect of its point of difference. Consumers should recognise these behaviours and find them compelling. All relatively simple, but people sometimes think personality traits are values, some people think that organisational values are brand values and vice versa. In some cases the brand values are so bland that they are completely useless and I’m afraid to announce that we have lost count of the number of times we’ve seen ‘integrity’, ‘excellence’ and ‘teamwork’ excitedly unveiled as the new differentiating values. Whether it is confusion or blandness, the result is the same thing: a massive opportunity lost.

We are in an era where a brand is what it does not what it says it and that inevitably means that everyone needs to understand the brand values or, as we say when working with our friends at Merlin Entertainments: “It will not work unless the burger seller gets it”.

Keep it simple to make it work

So, what is the answer?

Let’s face a brutal truth.  Making two sets of values work (brand and organisational) is simply not feasible unless, perhaps, if you are an FMCG brand and your team has very little interaction with customers. In this case you can relax for now, but don’t be complacent as the times they are a changing and many FMCG offerings are becoming more experiential.

For the rest of us there are two routes to success

Route one: The ideal, and purest way is to have one set of values that are differentiating and written with a bit of zing and fizz that makes them live. Primarily they should be compelling to customers and also guide the way the organisation works. At Brand Vista we practise what we preach and we have 5 that operate this way: Happenability; Fairness; Confident, never Complacent and, my favourites: Always On and Vive la Difference. They guide the way we work together but are driven by what we hope makes us compelling!  Doing it this way ensures total alignment, avoids confusion and works on the ground.

But life is never ideal and certainly isn’t pure. The ‘one set, consumer driven’ route is not always possible in the real world.

Route two: If any of the three criteria below apply to you will probably need to do something different.

  1. Your immediate business needs dictate that dramatic cultural change is required. A set of values for how the organisation works is essential and urgent. In this case be bold and make sure the organisational values reflect the culture that allows you to serve your market brilliantly.  This demands extra effort from trotting out the standard ‘teamwork, honesty, openness’ etc but will have a much greater effect.

  2. You may have already embedded a set of very effective organisational values. Changing them or adding brand values will confuse and could undermine them.

  3. You are a ‘house of brands’. Your teams move across different brands in your portfolio and you want one set of organisational values that drive the corporate culture.

In these situations it might be time to consider not having brand values at all. Of course this route is riddled with danger. If we only have organisational values we risk becoming bland and if the new battleground is ‘branding through experience’ then we will surely lose if we don’t hard wire what our brand stands for through the whole customer experience. It is imperative to keep our brand central and so the answer is breathtakingly simple: call them something else.

In truth, all that is needed is a clear head and a pragmatic attitude. We have many clients who have worked through the values conundrum and can show the benefits. The best ensure that the brand runs through their whole customer experience even if they call brand values something else. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what you call them, as long as they inspire and excite and give a clear direction to everyone in the business so they can play their part in delivering the promise of the brand.

So, the brutal truth about making values work is to keep it simple. Have one set or make sure you know why you have two and don’t call them the same thing. The other brutal truth is that Experiential Branding is the future and getting this right will dictate your success. 

Gary is the chairman and one of the original founders of Brand Vista. With over 20 years of brand experience both on the client and agency side he loves finding out what customers and consumers are really thinking and turning this knowledge into compelling brand propositions that succeed in the real world.
Find out more about Gary