If your office has a ball pool, you probably know your brand’s values by heart. If it doesn’t, you  might have to look at your notes from the last AGM.

Flippancy aside, this joke points to one of the huge challenges faced by incumbent brands. Startups across all industries typically have a very clear idea of what they stand for, and this has been an important part of their business decisions from day one. Incumbent brands often have some general, vague statement of their company values, but it is largely overlooked on an everyday basis.

This is a problem because identifying and communicating your brand values is now a necessity. And unfortunately, incumbent brands can find it difficult to do this. 

In this article, we’ll look at why brand values have become so important, the challenges that established companies face in codifying them, and then guide you through how to communicate them effectively.

 

Startups and Brand Values

First, let’s look at what “brand values” are, and what they are not. In a presentation Steve Jobs delivered in 1997, he offered a great definition of how Apple understands the term: 

“What we’re about isn’t making boxes for people to get their job done… Apple is about something more than that. Apple at the core… It’s core values… is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.”

In short, brand values are the principles (moral, ethical, and social) that underpin everything your brand does. These values inform your company culture, and (once identified) should also inform your branding. This is because communicating your values can dramatically increase the association that customers (and particularly younger groups) form with your brand, and ultimately improve loyalty to it. As the the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, once said: “if people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.”

Put like this, the ‘value’ of ‘values’ can seem a little abstract if not meta. But recent research has shown the importance of brand values to the profitability of companies. According to Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus James L. Heskett, for example, brands that have identified their core values can increase their corporate performance by 20-30% over their “culturally unremarkable” competitors.

Similar studies show similar correlations. An in-depth branding study by The Partners, Lambie-Nairn, Millward Brown, and BrandZ, looking at leading brands over a 10-year period, found that those that had a compelling proposition, powerful brand identity, and show-stopping advertising saw brand value grow on average by 168%. Meanwhile those perceived as lacking in those areas grew by just 21% on average. But here’s the important bit: brands perceived as having a strong proposition and brand identity but weaker advertising grew by 76%, while brands that had flashy advertising but a weaker proposition and identity grew by 27%.

Look at these studies in-depth, and you’ll also see another trend. Brands that had identified their core values, and put them into practice, were generally younger companies. Startups today immediately recognise the importance of brand values, and define their core values at the earliest possible stage. A good example of this is Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who made this process his number one priority, and built a multi-billion-dollar brand in the process. Hsieh puts it like this: “our whole belief is if you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term brand or business will just be a natural by-product.”

Brand Values for Incumbent Brands

The same cannot be said for incumbent brands. 

In fact, established brands often face the opposite problem: a deep cynicism when it comes to identifying and communicating their brand values. Look at any list of brands and their values, and you might get an idea why. Executives who started their careers a few decades ago often see lists of values like this as marketing “fluff” – good for printing on the cover of annual reports, but essentially empty of meaning.

Even if incumbent brands are blessed with dynamic, forward-thinking executives who recognise the importance of signaling brand values, organisational inertia can get in the way. Established companies are – almost be definition – larger than startups, and it can be difficult to ascertain the values that are shared by large numbers of employees, let alone communicate them.

This is only the beginning of the problem for incumbent brands, though. 

Another issue is that, today, younger customers expect the companies they do business with to share their values, to state them openly, and to stand up for them. This means that companies without a strong set of values are seen as part of the ‘establishment’. This point is particularly visible in the world of Fintech, where the unique selling point of many startups is precisely that they are not part of an established, elite group of companies. They are different, they claim, because they make a stand on social issues, and seek to imbue their company culture with progressive approaches.

How To Identify and Communicate Brand Values

Overcoming these challenges can be difficult, but it can be done. 

The first step in communicating your brand values is to identify them. First, note that brand values cannot be created, but instead must be discovered. As Jim Collins wrote in his article Aligning Action and Values, “organisational values cannot be “set”. Instead, you must find them.

Second, avoid the temptation to define your brand values in terms of popular (and meaningless) corporate buzzwords. A good example of this is a “value” like “professionalism”. Most brands would say that this is one of their values, but so what? Don’t you expect that from every brand you do business with? Brand consultant Paul Hitchens calls these “expected values”, and advises that they shouldn’t be at the heart of what you do unless you can redefine what you mean by them. How are you professional in a way that your customers wouldn’t expect?

Similarly, you shouldn’t merge your company ‘culture’ with your brand values. In “Startup Culture: Values vs. Vibe”, Chris Moody distinguishes core values and ‘vibes’. The latter are the emotional side of your brand, and are typically dynamic and reactive to the outside environment. One example he gives is “Work hard. Play hard”, and then he notes that during a recession this ‘value’ would not be applicable. Instead, he argues, core values are timeless and do not change, and should be sustainable in the longer term.

Once you have identified your values, it’s time to communicate them. 

Thankfully, this communication is often much easier than discovering these values in the first place. That’s because your core values can then be used as a part of your brand experience strategy, and feed into your marketing at the very lowest level.

In fact, identifying your brand’s core values often makes the design of advertising and marketing content much easier. With a strong and resonant idea of what your company stands for, your marketing team can seamlessly integrate this into their workflow, and even base new marketing campaigns on foregrounding these core values. 

One of the most effective ways of doing this is to use your brand values in the design of interactive, immersive experiences. The values you have identified are, after all, those which drive the social interaction between your employees, and with your customers. Events, installations, and pop-ups can make these values ‘real’ by allowing your customers the chance to directly interact with your brand ambassadors.

Value and Values

Finally, it’s worth noting that there is also a deep link between the profitability and sustainability of your brand and the values you work with. Seth Godin puts this points extremely well. In defining the relationship between ‘values’ and ‘value’, he says that:

“A brand’s value is merely the sum total of how much extra people will pay, or how often they choose the expectations, memories, stories and relationships of one brand over the alternatives.”

In short, it is these expectations, memories, and stories that make your brand valuable to your customers, because they constitute a personal relationship with your company. And this personal relationship is what keeps your customers loyal, and ensures that your brand is sustainable.