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Blog. Brand values suck – don’t they?

Posted by Liam Farrell

Why do brand values suck? It’s clear that every consultant in the branding game is selling brand values as a core part of their consultancy, so they must be important, right? Well in essence they are, but only when they are done with the intention of creating a culture that is meaningfully differentiated, like the identity and messaging. In this post we will look at how values can create distinction and review Disney as a case study. Read on!

Unfortunately, a lot of teams suck when it comes to creating the right combination of values for their brand. Why is this? In our experience it is because of politics and fear (the latter mostly because of the former). In most start up environments, when there is an entrepreneur who is the clear leader and highly responsible for the brand’s direction, there are few politics and little fear of getting things wrong – there is everything to play for and nothing much to risk. The air in such environments is thick with brave deeds and risky endeavours. What you find in almost every other part of the corporate world is a lot of politics and divisional or departmental jostling, coupled with the fear of making the wrong move. In a world where there is more to risk, populated by risk-averse people, the safe bet is to tick some boxes. No one got fired for picking the value of ’teamwork’ even though it isn’t a value and it can’t create a unique culture.

In most environments, brand value development becomes a safe, vanilla flavoured exercise. You can interchange the value systems of most companies and no one would notice. How are such value systems able to foster unique characters and a culture that people will want to support or belong to, a culture that they will want to make part of their identity?

To define culture, values have to be distilled from a long list, to just three of four essential characteristics that resonate with and describe the firm’s essential nature. As a bit of fun we often ask executives if they can name Disney’s values to see how well this global entertainment company lives their brand. A client got really close recently suggesting ‘Purity’ and ‘Fun’. Well ‘Wholesomeness’ and ‘Imagination’ are Disney’s two brand values – just two!

Though some business partners might decry Disney’s wholesome negotiation tactics, If you think about the products (parks, animation, retail merchandise, films and cartoons), these two values are totally resonant. One of the world’s greatest entertainment brands employs just two brand values. There is not a mention of ’teamwork’, ‘responsibility’, ‘Innovation’ or ‘blah-d-blah-corporate-value-X’. Only two essential values that every employee lives by – from the CEO signing multinational trade agreements to the guy keeping the parks tidy.

Several factors make Disney’s values effective to their business. The firm has bravely stuck to its own imaginative philosophy and simplified their values to two that memorable, resonant and distinctive. Thats so much more effective than trying to get people to agree to live by 5, 6 or more values. Next Disney’s values really balance each other. Imagination could conjure all sorts of nasties but Wholesomeness is there to filter out all but the nice, parent-friendly ideas. Without Imagination to spice things up, wholesomeness becomes very bland and repetitive. Disney’s value system works cos they balance each other like Ying and Yang. Balance is essential to creating long lasting cultures.

The literation of brand values is also important – words have magical perception powers and these should be harnessed. Unisono’s brand values are Faith, Passion and Imagination; the right words are essential to capture essential nuances in the brand’s nature. Unisono is a strategic and creative agency, so Imagination is essential to our business. Faith is a word many corporates are shy of. To Unisono it was much more aligned than words like Trust or Responsibility. Faith has a quasi-spiritual feeling to it and as we are a creative team, often drawing inspiration from beyond the ether, we felt Faith had a deep resonance with us. We chose Passion for similar reasons – it was much more heartfelt than synonyms like Dynamism or Drive.

Make sure you define values to live by and not operating principles or outcomes – often teams confuse these. Words like ’Teamwork’ litter company meeting rooms and corridors but ‘Teamwork’ is not a value, it is an outcome of the living the value of Collaboration – of being Collaborative. Values are ways of living. For example, you can choose to live a passionate life, a wholesome life, a faithful life – but you can’t live a Teamwork life.

To find your values, first use a search engine to find a list of actual human values. From here you can brainstorm with you team to agree which ones you feel really represent your firm’s essence. Then distill and distil; you can group values into families and distil each group until you find the word that best summarises the principles and which is most resonant with your culture and company philosophy. Try and lose values until have four or less. Try for three then two. Be brave, be distinctive. Strong, characterful and distinctive values will help you to shape your culture. Bland, weak and indistinct values will not support culture building.

Once you have found your values, you need to make them work in your brand. They need to be referred to in meetings, in product development and strategy sessions as well as HR meetings. Start brainstorms with them. Ask questions using them as a filter. We use ours for HR but we also use them to know what clients we really want to work with. Like attracts like and if you can work with a client that is aligned to your cause and shares your values then you can be sure you are likely to be able to work well together and the outcome will be so much more fulfilling. Similarly, when we are considering markets to focus on, we use our values to guide our thinking; where can we make our biggest contribution?

Values are essential to culture. If you get values which are aligned to your essence, distilled to the very core, you can build a solid, lasting culture that has a texture and life of its own.

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Brand values can bring people together, united by a well defined culture. But only if they can remember the values and only if the values resonate with the core purpose of the organisation.

Trying to define culture with brand values is like trying to sculpt marble with yoghurt. You get no where fast and few can tell you've tried.
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