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Chimps and champs

Chimps and champs

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Making a real difference with brand values

There’s a Central Casting for brand values. It’s where you go if you treat  your values like extras on a film set. It’s where you go if you want values that are attractive in a bland kind of way, but you don’t want them to stand out. You know the ones.

  • Integrity – straight out of Central Casting.
  • Innovation – straight out of Central Casting.
  • Excellence – straight out of Central Casting.

But what if you want your brand to play a leading role? What if you want your values to be character actors?

There’s an analogy that I find useful, even if the science behind it isn’t entirely rigorous.


Human beings and chimpanzees have about 98.8% of our genes in common. That’s because we have a lot of features and functions in common – things like arms, legs, breathing oxygen and so on – that are governed by shared genes. But it’s the 1.2% of genes that make us distinctly human. It’s the 1.2% that define our difference from other apes.

Brand values work in a similar way.

There are values that are shared by all brands. That’s because, like humans and chimpanzees, there are activities and attributes that are common to all organisations. But there’s a small subset of values that make each brand unique.

Too many brands – let’s call them the chimps – focus on the values that make them the same as every other ape in their jungle. 

Chimp values

We can all recite a list of these chimp values. They’re the usual suspects, the lowest common denominators, straight out of Central Casting for brand values.

  • Integrity.
  • Quality.
  • Customer focus.
  • Trust.
  • Innovation.
  • Accountability.
  • Passion.
  • Curiosity.
  • Professionalism.
  • Confidence.
  • Excellence.
  • Whatever.
  • Yawn.

There’s nothing wrong with these common characteristics. Every brand should have integrity. Every brand should reflect the customer focus of the organisation behind it. But every brand and every brand’s customers should be able to take these things for granted. They’re essential but they’re not the stuff of brand essence.

It’s a chimp move to elevate these attributes to the status of brand values.

If the role of brand values is similar to the role of genes –  namely to dictate attributes and behaviours –  then we shouldn’t waste time dictating behaviours that are generic and obvious.

Champ values

What do “character” brand values look like? What happens when your brand’s gene pool is drawn from the 1.2% that makes it unique rather than the 98.8% that makes it the same? What does it mean to be a brand value champ, not a chimp?

Netflix recognises the the vital relationship between values and culture. It explicitly addresses the need to focus on what makes it different rather than what makes it the same. When describing the values that define its culture, it contrasts the things that it has in common with all brands with the things that set it apart.

  • “Like all great companies…” (followed by a list of chimp values)
  • “What is special about Netflix, though…” (followed by its champ values)
The brand values that define Netflix culture

Notice how pointed the Netflix brand values are. They precisely dictate specific behaviours.

Notice how this is not a list of nouns or adjectives. Brand values do not need to be expressed in single words. Indeed, if you’re seeking authenticity and specificity, then longhand is usually better than shorthand. Not always, but usually.

It might not sound like your kind of culture, but you can feel how influential these values will be if strictly adhered to. Netflix knows what it’s about.

Brand values champs like Netflix are extraordinary. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re very difficult to find. A Google search for “unique” or “unusual” or “exceptional” brand values is a depressing exercise. The vast majority of articles are full of the usual suspects. It’s a one way Google ticket to Central Casting.

Maybe only 1.2% of brands aim for the 1.2% of values that make them truly unique, and that’s why they’re so difficult to find.

Flagship Pioneering also knows what it’s about. It’s the entity behind a raft of (genuinely) transformative organisations, including the mRNA company Moderna. It has a set of principles that befit a self-styled pioneer. Like Netflix, it’s a champ not a chimp when it comes to values.

The principles of Flagship Pioneering

It’s a bit polysyllabic for my tastes. And it flirts with jargon here and there. But it’s high on champ and low on chimp.

Notice the heavily loaded language – “unreasonable propositions”, “we are insurgents”, “far beyond the adjacent”.

Notice, again, that it’s not a list of single-word nouns or adjectives.

Notice that it’s not poetry. The language is (relatively) plain and simple. But, individually and collectively, the principles are saturated with conviction.

Listening to the founder of Flagship Pioneering, Noubar Afeyan, on the How I Built This podcast, it is quickly apparent that he knows what he’s doing. It’s obvious that Flagship’s principles are sincere statements of strategy.

The important thing to realise is that we are set up to make innovation leaps that are beyond adjacencies. Now, what defines the size of that adjacency? It’s how far people are willing to go before they stop thinking that something is reasonable to work on.

Noubar Afeyan, Founder of Flagship Pioneering, How I Built This podcast, 11th October 2021

By definition, operating in the elite 1.2% zone at the far right of the bell curve is the preserve of the few. By definition, being a brand value champ is not easy. Netflix and Flagship Pioneering know what they’re about. And in both cases it appears that this self-knowledge came from the top and was baked in from the start.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve found that inside organisations with chimp values, there’s often a champ waiting to be let out. Helping these potential champs find their voice and realise their potential is the most rewarding work.

I find that the necessary self-knowledge is usually there within the organisation but it doesn’t necessarily reside with one person. In these circumstances, the brand’s champ values are what I call Unknown Knowns – things the organisation doesn’t know that it knows about itself.

In these circumstances the role of an external adviser is to find, aggregate, and articulate these unknown knowns. The beauty of this work is that the end result is not a consultant’s fabrication that needs to be sold in. It’s intrinsic knowledge that has merely been brought to the surface. A typical client reaction in these circumstances is one of relief. They knew that they deserved better and now they have a set of brand values that allow their organisation to be its full self.

As an outside adviser, I’ve found that the best way to identify champ values that are authentic and vital is a combination of:

  • Dealing at the very top of the organisation (founder, CEO)
  • Exploring culture and values obliquely, using techniques designed for depth of insight rather than breadth of inclusion.
  • Doing deep, well-structured primary research with the brand’s clients or customers.

At face value, none of this is a revelation. The secret sauce is in how you do these things. Rarely, if ever, does this process involve workshops. Workshops have their uses but I find them unfit for this particular purpose.

An aside on workshops

If you want to operate in the elite 1.2% zone for any creative endeavour, I’d question workshops as the means to get there.

You don’t generate elite concepts in a comfortable environment where there’s no such thing as a bad idea.

Brand strategy workshops are not the same as television writers’ rooms. A writers’ room is entirely populated by elite, specialist, creative people  who can balance collaboration with ruthless quality control. A brand strategy workshop is populated by talented people, but not in the same way.

On being a brand values champ

  • It’s a useful exercise to compare brand values with genes.
  • Both are designed to dictate characteristics and behaviours.
  • Think about the 1.2% of genes/values that make all the difference. Think about chimps and champs.
  • Steal the Netflix approach to force an explicit separation between the common values and the truly distinctive.
  • Find ways to access unrealised self-knowledge about a brand – unknown knowns – to define its champ values.


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