Are we speaking your language? That’s no accident. We choose our industries with intent—because no competitive advantage rivals experience.
We spent a lot of words in our last blog article talking about how no one cares about your brand—at least, not before you give them a reason—and we illustrated that point by discussing the concepts of brand narcissism vs. brand altruism. To recap: narcissistic brands fail because they shine the spotlight on themselves, whereas altruistic brands succeed by placing the spotlight on their customers. The less your brand is all about you, the more it appeals to others.
Well, after all that talk about getting over yourself as a brand, you may be left wondering: are brands worth it? What is the point of developing your brand if you never use it to talk about yourself?
This question is familiar to anyone who does branding work professionally (hello!). One of our biggest struggles is trying to find the balance between convincing a client that their brand is worth investing in, and then talking them off a ledge when they fixate on details and lose sight of the big picture.
Fortunately, there is a way to frame this discussion in subject matter that is near and dear to nearly every business leader’s heart: brand values.
There’s a lot to talk about here, and we don’t want you to get lost before you reach the end, so here’s a bit of a road map:
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Let’s start by saying that brand values are important. We love working with companies who know their organizational values—even if they haven’t yet written them down in a values document. We even work with brands to help them discover and refine their values. We invest a lot into this discovery work, so it makes our hearts glad when we hear our clients talk about themselves in a new way, placing fresh pride in their values.
But let me ask you this: whether you’re a business owner, a marketing manager, or the communications director of a nonprofit, have you ever looked up the organizational values of another company? Have you ever read them and taken them at face value? Have you ever landed on someone’s website for the first time, read the words “You can trust us!” and thought “Cool! I guess I can trust them!”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the answer to most of these is “no.”
Maybe you’ve poked around enough on a company’s website to read about their core values. Maybe you did this while deciding whether you wanted to work with them as a business partner, or because you were doing research into their corporate culture. But I’d bet good money you didn’t believe what you read just because it was on the page.
Well, here’s a hard truth: The same can be said of anyone who looks at your brand values.
So, if few people read your brand values and even fewer people believe your brand values, what’s the purpose of having them in the first place?
Good question. Time to look at some brand values.
Here are the brand values of two of the world’s most globally recognized corporations:
One guess as to who Company B is.
You are correct, it’s Google.
Google’s core values are famous enough you may have heard some of them before (which is its own testament to how well-written they are!). Even if you haven’t, there’s enough information here to deduce that they’re a major web company. But here’s another key fact about Google’s values: they’re authentic. They make sense for Google.
Sure, we can debate whether democracy on the web works, or whether you can make money without doing evil, but presented with this list of core values, most of us can recognize that Google lives by them (or tries to). Not only are these values all recognizably Google’s, they’re also recognizably not Facebook’s, Amazon’s, or Apple’s.
Now for Company A. Any guesses?
Would you believe me if I told you it was Walmart? What about Disney? What about Sony? What about Coca-Cola? What about McDonald’s?
It’s actually Coca-Cola. Seriously.
And that’s a problem, because I bet few of us are ready to believe that anyone at Coca-Cola has taken a look at those values beyond the HR department in the past decade. The best that can be said of Coca-Cola in relation to their brand values is that at least they aren’t Pepsi.
Every company should strive for authenticity in their brand identity. Anyone who interacts with your brand should walk away believing that your organization lives its values. But that won’t happen if your organizational values don’t have buy-in from the top—or if those values aren’t reflected in the lived experience of employees.
This is easier said than done. We’ve worked many times with organizational leaders who’ve spent a lot of time discussing among themselves what they would like their brand values to be, only to settle on a list of lofty words with broad interpretations.
Take “trust,” for instance. It’s one of the most common core values we see listed on our clients’ “about” pages. But what, specifically, does “trust” look like? We bet it doesn’t mean “trust your clients to pay you without signing a contract first.”
Maybe you refine that value and settle on “integrity,” because you want to communicate that you earn client trust through your actions. But again: what does behaving with integrity look like for your company? Does that mean pulling long hours to get a project done on time because you gave your word, or does it mean coming clean when you make a mistake so that you can accomplish your objectives without burning out?
The best brand values aren’t just lists of words—they’re statements of purpose. They’re guidelines that you expect your team to operate by. They set expectations and boundaries. They should be so ingrained in your organizational culture that your whole team knows them, not because they have them memorized, but because they are rules that your company lives by.
We work with brands at all stages of development. Discovering and refining their brand values is part of how we help them find their identity. But we don’t conjure values out of thin air and hand them to the company for them to distribute. Instead, we talk to the team. We ask members of the company at all levels—from those newly arrived to the upper management—what the lived values of their brand are.
Then we compile their answers and see what we come up with.
What brand values did the people who work for your company list? What do they experience in their day-to-day? What do they recognize as important?
If one of your values is “trust your team to take ownership of their tasks,” you want to hear your team talking about how much they value autonomy, and how their managers support them when they take initiative on a project. You would hope not to hear that your team feels frustrated by micromanagement.
Sometimes, we identify a core value that hasn’t yet made the company’s list. If everyone is talking about how much they value their coworkers and the feeling that everyone is helping everyone else, then “have each other’s back” is clearly a core value.
Your core values exert influence out in the world, affecting the types of people you attract. A company that values its employees will try to safeguard their well-being and mental health, warding off toxic customers who sap their energy and demand an unsustainable amount of time and attention.
Experienced employees will immediately understand that this ethos cannot be over-valued and will respond with loyalty. A company that telegraphs their willingness to cut corners to deliver a product at a lower cost or faster turnaround will in turn attract clients who demand as much and haggle for more. Employees will feel that their work is undervalued, and the result will be a culture of suspicion.
Similarly, if you’re trying to build partner relationships with other organizations in your sector, shared values are essential. You attract what you put out into the world.
OK, so let’s tie this all together.
First, we know that core values mean something, but that they’re not on their own anything most people care about.
Second, we know that core values have to be meaningful to your company. They shouldn’t be so generic that they could credibly be attributed to your competitors.
Third, core values don’t get decided by committee. They’re lived practices that are communicated consistently throughout your organization, and reinforced and rewarded by leadership.
And fourth, core values that are truly ingrained in your organization can be identified by members of your organization, even if they haven’t yet been formalized.
This matters for your brand because the lived values of your company are what will be communicated to your customers (and prospective coworkers, and business partners), whether you are aware of it or not. If you don’t have any values, the apathy will seep through to customer experience. If your values are strong, then your customers will notice, whether or not they ever read your values on your “about” page.
Best of all, on the day when your customers do read your values, they’ll believe them.
Not because you told them what they are, but because they recognize your values from their first-hand experience.
And that, dear reader, is why your brand matters.