Brand values are a poor alternative to an engaging brand purpose

As anyone who has attended a brand values workshop knows well, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of values that end up decorating staircases or reception walls are either meaningless or pointless.

By Ewen Haldane, The School of Life

If there is no obvious way of proving a value to be false for example, it’s meaningless to claim it. Values like Hard working, Genuine or Learning fall into this category. Other values such as Fun, Success or Respect are meaningless because they are so vague. Whose idea of fun? Does success just mean profit? Or something else? Respect for whom? For what?

But most brand values are simply pointless because there is no way that any reasonably minded person could disagree with them, for example, Honesty, Integrity or Trust. Who wants to work with a company that’s dishonest, lacks integrity and is untrustworthy? Shouldn’t those things be the basics? Values like these aren’t worth the vinyl stencils they are printed on.

Given this, it’s unsurprising that most staff (and customers) regard brand values with ill concealed disdain. If they pay them any attention at all that is.

Often the only time anyone does notice them is when there is a clear contradiction between the espoused values and the actual culture. For example, when a company has just cut a department to increase profits despite a value of always putting staff first.

If we were to meet someone in real life who espoused their personal values in the way some brands do, we’d most likely find them either unbearably hypocritical or insufferably worthy. Either way, they wouldn’t get invited to many parties.

So if brand values are so commonly derided, why do so many companies take such pains to develop and communicate them?

One explanation is that it’s far easier to wordsmith a set of generic brand values than to invest the energy in defining and clearly articulating an engaging, distinctive corporate purpose (which might involve some fairly fundamental changes to how the business operates). But at the same time, endorsing a set of rather lovely sounding values like Friendliness or Supportiveness still gives the participants a pleasing sense that their company is in some way rather virtuous.

But brand values (and the culture that they are meant to help promote) only ever play an executive, or functional role in helping a company achieve their purpose. They are, in themselves, largely amoral – and hence not particularly engaging to have laminated on the back of bathroom cubicles. Just because a brand values Playfulness and encourages staff to come to work on a skateboard doesn’t mean they are one of the good guys.

No doubt James Bond might admit that Spectre is a highly creative, innovative, courageous and confident organisation that is respectful (of other evil organisations) and which takes pride in excellent teamwork and endeavours to succeed in all its ventures. On a similar note, Enron’s core values were Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.

A strong corporate purpose on the other hand is engaging because it says what the company aims to do (in however humble a way) to improve the lives of its customers. Once the purpose is articulated in a way that staff can really get behind, the right values and behaviours will much more naturally shine through. The organisational purpose doesn’t need to be ‘worthy’ or overly grand. It doesn’t have to involve saving the planet or ending child poverty. We don’t need to feel that brand purpose must somehow be synonymous with environmental sustainability.

It might simply involve aiming to offer the most calming hotel stay possible or producing elegant furniture that helps people, in some small way, live simpler or less stressful lives.

The point is that once the organisational purpose is clear, brand values start to become the things that go without saying. And without needing to be said.

Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life, an organisation that helps brands communicate their purpose in more engaging ways.

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