A surprising number of brands have values that are about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Seriously. They do. Unfortunately, this only becomes apparent when brands try to bring their values to life via the experiences they want to build. Things grind to a halt because their brand values simply don’t work. All is not lost. Executives that do a good job of creating great brand values articulate values that are unique, specific, active, deliberate and balanced. This post will show you how to do the same.
Unique values are powerful because they facilitate the delivery of unique brand experiences. During the qualitative insight stage for a large government-backed savings bank in Southeast Asia, being humble emerged as being an important value. This felt refreshingly different to other financial services brands that had a strong commercial edge. Quantitative insight then confirmed being humble resonated deeply with local market sensitivities. In another project, a healthcare brand understood the importance of being attentive. Subsequent research confirmed being attentive got to the heart of what patients wanted from a healthcare brand because it inspired confidence and trust. It also went further than the usual values of being patient-focused or caring, which can sound clichéd at times.
These examples contrast sharply with values such as quality, innovation and professionalism. These kinds of values are depressingly generic. This is problematic because when such values are enabled through employee behaviour, communications or design, they result in generic experiences. And that’s about as useful as you know what.
Specific values help bring your brand to life in the way you intended. Specific values reduce ambiguity and narrow the scope for internal and external misunderstanding. If you have specific values this will:
- help HR to recruit people whose values align with your desired brand experiences
- facilitate internal and external communications that reflect your values
- enable you to create clear and accountable briefs for your agencies.
Consider the ‘values’ of quality, innovation and professionalism further. The scope for interpretation of such ‘values’ is very broad. This is problematic. Your colleagues’ or agency’s understanding of quality, innovation or professionalism could be drastically different to yours. That could result in hiring the wrong recruit, delivering communications that miss the mark or the delivery of disappointing creative work. Potentially expensive mistakes that don’t become apparent until it’s too late.
Framing your values actively means they focus on cause, not effect, to compel behavioural change. Quality, innovation and professionalism are not values: they are behavioural outcomes that stem from values. To solve this problem you could reframe:
- quality as meticulous – being meticulous could result in the quality of in-store service or online user experience being enhanced
- innovation as progressive – being progressive could lead to the creation of more innovative and forward-thinking brand experience processes being adopted
- professionalism as dedicated – being dedicated could encourage more professional customer service which ensures all customer enquiries are addressed to the end.
‘Teamwork’ is another classic example. It’s not a value but a behavioural outcome of values such as being empathic, emotionally intelligent or collaborative. If you focus on the behavioural outcome, not the value, you won’t get to the root of things. As a result, you’ll struggle to foster the behaviours you seek to engender as part of the experiences you build.
Your brand values should be related but not overlap. That way they serve a purpose and won’t become repetitive and so redundant. It may be useful to think of your values as a family of closely-knit brothers and sisters, but you want to steer clear of identical twins (apologies to my lovely twin cousins!).
A brand ideation session we ran for a corporate law client teased out preliminary values of being insightful, honest, supportive, diligent and sociable. Can you spot the odd one out? It’s unlikely you’d select a corporate law firm because they’re sociable. That’s not what they’re paid to be and it doesn’t feel related to the other values. They wanted to convey they are easy to do business with and are non-threatening. Sociable was reframed as approachable. Problem solved.
At the other extreme, overlap can be an issue. An urban fashion brand client had values of being confident, inventive, vibrant and fun. We didn’t feel there was enough daylight between being vibrant and fun, so we traded in fun for selfless to give the brand more empathy. Subsequent insight revealed that a youth brand that is confident, inventive, vibrant and selfless felt more relevant to the goals and sensitivities of their Millennial generation customer base.
To create deliberate values you need to define them carefully. Until you have defined your values the extent to which they align or overlap may not be apparent. It may sound academic and like semantics but will be time well spent. Another common problem is to include the value you are defining in the definition of that value. Not a great idea as this creates a circular logic.
Once you’ve created values that are unique, specific, active and deliberate, you need to come up for air and reflect on how balanced your values are. To do this you need to explore your values from core, peripheral, functional and emotional perspectives (read Professor Lesie de Chernatony’s work for more detail).
- Core values do not change. They’re the bedrock of your brand and keep you true to your roots. It’s likely that a value of being socially responsible has been and always will be core to The Body Shop brand.
- Peripheral values may be tweaked or traded in for other values so the brand can retain relevance. It could be argued Bentley’s brand has become less ‘refined’ and more ‘sporty’ through the launch of models like the Continental GT.
- Functional values focus on the practicalities of a brand. Powerful brands develop a strong emotional response, but the importance of function should not be overlooked. There’s no point having a Ferrari that never starts or a Gucci handbag that falls apart.
- Emotional values allow the brand to connect with the target market in emotive ways. Procter & Gamble aimed to show it was supportive with its ‘Proud Sponsor of Mums’ campaign during the London 2012 Olympics.
It’s important your brand values have balance. If all your values are core your brand may lose relevance as the market evolves. If all your values are peripheral your brand will be a moving target, so stakeholders won’t know how to relate to it. If all your values are functional, you won’t appeal to stakeholders’ emotions, and if all your values are emotional your brand may not deliver the basics. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to have at least one value in each of the boxes outlined below.
Doing this will help you manage the difficult balancing act of appealing functionally and emotionally to your customers today, tomorrow and in years to come.
Defining values that are unique, specific, active, deliberate and balanced will save you time, money and possibly even heartache when building brand experiences. Adopting this approach will help you brief your agencies more accurately; challenge communications work you feel isn’t on brand more objectively; and help HR to recruit people who can deliver your desired brand experience in natural and authentic ways. This list continues but one point is clear. By clearly defining your values, you’ve laid the cornerstone for building brand experiences. And that’s far more useful than a chocolate fireguard, for sure.
Photo by Debby Hudson
Also published on Medium.