If you’re so good with brand values, how have you defined your own?
It’s an entirely reasonable question. So, in the spirit of “physician, heal thyself”, here are my values. In fact here are my values, three ways.
There are options for how to approach this exercise. And, as you’ll see below, the choice of framework can have a significant influence on the output. Part of the skill in defining a brand is choosing models and frameworks that fit with what your client is trying to achieve, that are appropriate to context, and that are compatible with culture.
If you want to skip straight to the three ways, here they are:
Way 1 : Simple list
Way 2 : Netflix exceptionalism
Way 3: Principles
Brand and company values are much abused. Your brand should set you apart. And yet many brands, perhaps even most, choose values that are similar to everyone else’s. The list of usual-suspect brand values includes things like integrity, innovation, learning, diversity, teamwork, partnership, passion, customer focus, leadership and so on. There is nothing wrong with these traits. Heaven help any company that doesn’t have these attributes. They should be universal. And that makes them hygiene factors rather than core values that set your organisation apart.
Your brand values should act as strategy. They should guide behaviour in unforeseen circumstances and they should inform difficult decisions. And it really shouldn’t be a difficult decision to encourage teamwork, embrace diversity, or behave with integrity. So, as well as being generic, hygiene values such as these are actually unstrategic.
Values should be specific and strategic. With that in mind, here are my values, three ways.
My values, three ways. Way 1: A simple list of things that I value
A simple list is the most common approach to brand values and it is much abused. The main form of abuse is the apparent carelessness with which many lists are put together. As mentioned above, there is a tendency to choose values that are the same as everyone else’s. Too many brands take this easy way out. It’s actually hard work to identify what makes you different and special.
Good role models for specific and strategic values are few and far between. People have only seen values done badly. The usual suspects are their only point of reference. So, when you talk about values with leaders and employees, they tend to gravitate to the lowest common denominator options. This is a particular problem for brand definition workshops. Groupthink kicks in and everyone defaults to cliché. Also there is safety in generic values. It’s hard to argue with innovation, integrity, and collaboration, and that’s another reason why people are happy to suggest them in workshops. But, precisely because it’s hard to argue, these values are meaningless for the day-to-day functioning of an organisation.
I prefer one-on-one conversations with team members and customers, followed by analysis and interpretation. It’s a more fruitful approach to defining values than workshop co-creation.
Your values are the things on which you place most value. Companies encourage and reward behaviours that align with their true values. And they call out and penalise behaviours that don’t. If you truly value punctuality, your meetings will all start on time. If you truly value respect, no one will check their email during a presentation. It is obvious to everyone in an organisation what its truly held values are, and what they aren’t.
It’s obvious to all concerned when the values that are declared are different to the values that are enacted. Values lose all value when they are divorced from reality. Sadly, it happens quite often that a company will say one thing with its values and say another with its actions. That’s worse than a waste of time. It’s demoralising.
Three tends to be the magic number for any list, and it works well for brand values. But I’ve worked on projects where we’ve ended up with just two values. If you want people to live and embody your values you have to make it easy to remember them. I’ve yet to meet anyone in any company who has been able to accurately replay more than three values without checking their notes.
Some people list their values as adjectives. I prefer nouns. Values are the things you value and things are nouns. I wince when I see a list that is a combination of nouns and adjectives.
There’s also no reason why your values have to be a list of single words. That’s just a convention. The shorthand approach might help with memorability but it inevitably sacrifices precision. I’ve used a combination of longhand and shorthand for my list below.
Lastly, a few words about context and framing. The context for my values is my work as a freelance brand strategy consultant. And I’ve framed this simple list of values as the things on which I place most value when choosing whether to take on a piece of work.
Without further ado, here are my values as a simple list.
MY VALUES, THREE WAYS : WAY 1
As a brand strategy consultant, I place great value on:
1. Dealing directly (Access)
2. The potential for novelty and learning (Adventure)
3. A well-balanced working relationship (Mutuality)
Dealing directly (Access)
I prefer to deal directly with the people at the top of client organisations. That’s usually the founder or the CEO. They appreciate the value of grey hair and they respond well to direct, unequivocal advice. If they invite you in to do some work, it’s because they think the work matters. Dealing directly at the top also keeps projects clean and relatively apolitical. It’s unlikely that decisions or approvals will be reversed. It’s likely that invoices will be paid on time.
I like to have access to my clients’ clients or customers. In fact I’m unlikely to take on brand strategy work if I can’t do primary research with the people who buy from my clients. Service businesses and b2b organisations tend to have proper relationships with their customers. So their customers are well informed and opinionated about them and their brand. Access to these informed opinions is essential. Naturally, my clients are protective of these customer relationships and it is a privilege to be trusted with this kind of access.
The potential for novelty and learning (Adventure)
I want to work with clients who won’t settle for average. Of course, no one is going to admit that they would. But after thirty years in this game I’ve got a good nose for these things. I work with my clients to create the building blocks of charismatic brands. To do that you can’t play it safe with unstrategic brand values that are straight out of Central Casting. Nor can you go through the motions with a one-size-fits-all approach to brand strategy. Whilst it would be efficient to have a proprietary approach to impose on every project, it would be no fun, and, more often than not, it would be wrong.
Of course there are models and frameworks that I’ve used more than once, but I approach each project with an open mind. And the best projects are those where the client gets a perfectly tailored solution, and I generate some new intellectual property and learn something new. Those are the projects on which my clients get a good blend of silverback experience and youthful enthusiasm. The greater the potential for original thinking, the less concerned I’ll be about my fee.
A well-balanced working relationship (Mutuality)
A well-balanced relationship doesn’t mean an equal relationship. I am a service provider after all. I am a supplier. However, I have over three decades of experience and I’m good at what I do. To me, therefore, well-balanced means that each party commits to the project and the relationship in the right way and to the right degree. A respectful upfront conversation across several variables is entirely reasonable. Haggling over price less so. I’ll negotiate but I won’t be mucked about.
My values, three ways. Way 2: Netflix exceptionalism
This is a framework that explicitly calls BS on those anodyne, usual-suspect values that I listed above. It explicitly calls attention to the fact that important attributes like integrity and collaboration are hygiene factors. It deliberately focuses attention on what makes an organisation or brand different and special. And it’s ridiculously simple, so what’s not to love?
It’s in two parts and it goes like this:
Part 1 – “Like all great companies, we strive to hire the best and we value integrity, respect, inclusion, and collaboration.”
Part 2 – “What is special about Netflix though, is how much we:”, followed by a list of five things that are distinctive about Netflix culture.
The image below is a screenshot from the original version on the culture page from the jobs section of the Netflix website. The latest version has been toned down, and the list of hygiene factor values has been removed, and it is worse for it in my opinion.
These are values expressed as ways of being. Values as the basis for culture. You can tell that this list really does encapsulate how things get done at Netflix. You’re almost taken aback when you read it because you’re not used to seeing values expressed with this level of conviction.
Personally I’m not sure that I’d want to work there on this basis, but I absolutely admire their approach. It’s impressive when you meet a person who clearly knows what they’re about, and the same goes for companies and brands. Netflix knows what it’s about. They are being brutally honest. Indeed, they are being “extraordinarily candid,” and they are happy to polarise opinion if it ensures that they only attract people who will thrive in their culture. By being transparent about what they’re like to work with, they don’t waste anyone’s time.
I’ve used this framework with clients a few times to nudge them away from those safe values that make every company sound the same as everyone else. And it works. Thank you Netflix.
When I apply this framework to my values it takes me into different territory compared to the simple list. That list – Access, Adventure, Mutuality – is quite inwardly focused. It’s about me, and it’s mainly for me. The Netflix approach encourages a more outward-looking approach. It’s about ways of working and the culture of my client relationships. It’s about things that I want my clients to value. Here goes.
MY VALUES, THREE WAYS : WAY 2
Like all brand strategy consultants I bring collaboration, attention to detail, creativity, experience, and know-how. What is special about me, though, is…
1. how I really get my clients, in ways that other outside advisers have failed to do.
2. my ability to bring out, and bottle up, the latent charisma of a brand.
3. the radical simplicity and clarity of my advice.
4. how pragmatic and user-friendly my strategy is for people like copywriters, designers, and content creators.
As you can see, the Netflix approach is no friend of modesty. It generates a list of things that your brand does exceptionally well and/or things that make your culture extraordinary.
My values, three ways. Way 3: Principles
Principles are not the same as values, although they are related to each other. However, stating your principles is another way of being clear about what matters to you or your brand.
Talking about principles has an effect on language. You start dealing in absolutes, which carries added conviction. A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something after all.
This conviction can be formalised into the structure of your principles. The Brooklyn-based consulting firm, August, does this using a simple but powerful formula: We believe in X, even at the expense of Y.
I’ve also seen principles written as X > Y. In other words, in situations where the organisation has to choose between X and Y, it will always prioritise X. So, taking an August example, Learning > Efficiency.
I haven’t applied a uniform structure to my principles but sticking to each of them does involve a cost or an element of risk.
MY VALUES, THREE WAYS : WAY 3
As a matter of principle I…
1. pay my suppliers early. I usually pay freelancers immediately.
2. make sure that I understand things properly. I will prod at things which are vague, and I will look under stones that other people take for granted, even if it means asking ostensibly naive questions.
3. push in the direction of the different, the original, the exceptional, even if it makes things uncomfortable sometimes.
4. will work on something until I’m happy with it, even if my client would be happy with less.
- Choose your role models carefully. Most companies are doing this wrong.
- Brand values, or company values, should be specific and strategic. They should guide behaviour and inform decisions. They should set you apart. Brand values are an exercise in conviction.
- You have options in terms of how you choose to contextualise and frame your values. These choices will have a significant impact on the structure and tone of your values.
If you liked My values, three ways, you might also like Getting your story straight.
Wonderful post. I always love seeing models compared against one another.
Thanks so much Brent.
I’ve been working in marketing for 30+ years, client and comms agency side. I have worked with some A List brand agencies in that time (and some Z listers, sadly), and worked on one of the biggest ever financial services brand mergers, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better explanation of what makes for strong brand values and provided a practical framework for developing them. Fantastic thinking, fantastic article.