Brand values: bullsh*t or beacon?

What is the value of brand values?

Done wrong, they are nothing more than brand BS. Done right, they can be an essential plank of brand strategy—a beacon of clarity, unity and market differentiation.

How do you get it right? Instead of thinking about ‘value’, think about the cost.

Many years ago we took a lesson in the what-not-to-do’s of brand strategy.

We were a young design agency, just starting out. At our client’s request, we were paired up with a more senior agency who would handle brand strategy, while we developed the brand visual identity.

We thought this would be a great opportunity to learn what we didn’t know. And boy, did we learn a lot.

  • How not to run a workshop.
  • How not to do stakeholder engagement.
  • How not to quote a job.
  • How not to forge good relationships.

I still think of these how-not-to lessons often. One of the things that sticks with me the most is the usefulness—or uselessness—of brand values.


Words are cheap

Any brand strategist worth their Simon Sinek will espouse the value of values, and rightly so. You’ll hear something like “brand values are your true north”, and then examples of the brand values of Apple, Harley Davidson etc will be rolled out, before encouraging you to grab a sharpie, some sticky-notes and call out your brand values.

This exercise invariably surfaces things like:

‘integrity’, ‘teamwork’, ‘quality’, ‘customer satisfaction’, ‘respect’, ‘excellence’, ‘innovation’, ‘ethical’, ‘fun’, ‘customer-oriented’, ‘courage’, ‘impact’, and my personal favourite ‘authentic’.

Yep. You and everyone else, buddy.

When done wrong, this process is just a box-ticking, feel-good list of stuff-we-like, to go in the brand manual, into the filing cabinet, never to be thought about again.

Quick test – if you or your team can’t remember what your brand values are, then chances are they are not that important. They don’t actually guide the work that you do, or why you do it.


Why values matter

There are two key reasons for identifying or establishing brand values:

1. Market differentiation

One of the key reasons for identifying values is to differentiate who you are and what you do from the rest. If you’ve got the same checklist as everyone else (and trust me, everyone does ‘value’ the same handful of things), you may as well skip this stage entirely. You’re wasting your time and money.

2. Internal brand alignment

Identifying shared and even aspirational values are an essential part of the cultural glue that unites any group, defining a shared sense of purpose, and can indeed serve as a compass.

However, it’s just not that easy to hone in on what those things are, and get to the juicy ones that can be used as a means for brand clarity, unity and market differentiation.

So how do you identify what you do actually value? Think instead about the cost.


Values have a cost

In a world where consumers can smell bullsh*t at ten paces, the most valuable asset to any brand is authenticity. But ‘authentic’ is not a value to add to your list, it’s just a word that describes your actions.

As your mother (probably) said – “actions speak louder than words”.

What have you had to, or are willing to, sacrifice? What have you or will you pay for in money, time, blood, sweat and tears because it matters to you?


Claim and proof

How do you test whether it’s really a value? You prove it.

Your values are worthless unless you show the proof, or wear the scars. What does that look like?

Outdoor clothing company Patagonia are well known for wearing their values on their sleeve, and recently donated their $10 million Trump tax cut savings to fight climate change.

Bank Australia’s ‘Responsible Banking’ charter, which states that they won’t lend to the fossil fuels, intensive animal farming, live export industry, gambling, arms, or tobacco industries.

Clothing company Everlane’s ‘Radical Transparency’ policy, where they publish their directory of worldwide factories to ensure ‘fair wages, reasonable hours, and an ethical environment for factory workers’, and ‘reveal the true costs behind all of our products—from materials to labour to transportation’.

These commitments, actions and sacrifices are what differentiates a brand in an individual’s mind, making them relevant, respected and desirable.


Values: don’t list them, live them

When you start to think about values in terms of the cost you are willing to pay, the list shortens dramatically. What’s more, because you have invested in these values, you will value them all the more—you won’t have to dig them out of the filing cabinet to remember them, because you’ve earned them. You live them.

For those reasons, you will have earned the much claimed but rarely proven value of ‘authenticity’.

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