Undervalued

Can I tell you about my local fish and chip shop? It’s excellent. The quality of their product is superb. The staff are friendly, helpful and seemingly loyal to their employer. The shop is always busy – it’s a thriving business. But get this. Amazingly, Mr Fish doesn’t have brand values. And what’s more – they don’t appear to need them. So, my question is this. Brand values – what’s the point?

If, like Mr Fish, your company is only eight people and they all just ‘get it’, it’s easy to keep everything on track. No need for brand inductions or brand books (which a colleague of mine calls ‘puddle covers’) to remind people how to make good products and be nice to customers. However, for large organisations, brand values are a way to try to engineer their culture: a way for the organisation to articulate to itself and the wider world: ‘this is who we are and who we aspire to be’.

So, there’s a place for them. The problem is that they often just become platitudes – bland virtues that you’d expect any decent company to exhibit: ‘responsible’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘caring’, ‘empowering’, ‘innovative’. Show me an organisation that wouldn’t want to be any or all of those things and I’ll show you a green Labrador.

While at an ad agency, I worked on the account of a large UK retail bank. At the time, they had a brand mantra that was: ‘simple and transparent’. Both of those words were the antithesis of the bank’s characteristics – as events over recent years have proved. But even before various scandals exposed the insincerity, I questioned the fundamental logic behind the words.

Why wouldn’t any bank strive to be simple and transparent? It just didn’t seem to be a very compelling stance – something like a hotel chain saying it was ‘clean and hygienic’. Surely that’s a ‘given’? Stating such basic virtues also has the reverse effect – like someone in job interview saying, ‘I’m not violent, I don’t steal and I don’t sexually harass my colleagues. Honest.’ Or someone on a first date saying: ‘I wouldn’t sleep with your best friend. No, definitely not.’

The best values don’t state the basics. They have some cojones and character. They give clear direction. If a business chooses values that have some spikiness and spirit, they may actually instigate change. And values have a tough job to do – they have to influence the culture of the organisation but they have to influence everything else – and that includes the creative work. So, I would argue that words like ‘brave’, ‘eccentric’, ‘outrageous’, ‘subtle’ or ‘traditional’ for example, make stronger, more useful values than platitudes such as ‘customer-focussed’, ‘progressive’, ‘sustainable’, ‘innovative’ and so on, which of course, are all noble things to be. It’s just that they make for a pretty dull culture and sterile, insipid marketing.

And bloody boring PowerPoint presentations.

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