How to show, not tell
Brand values are the first “name on the teamsheet” when constructing brand guidelines. Ubiquitous. But as in a bad team, if mis-managed they never quite find their role on the pitch. The golden rule I was taught is:
Don’t pick brand values where a competitor wouldn’t willingly choose the opposite
This helps avoid the cardinal sin of saying “Our brand values are that we are honest and professional“. Because who would ever say they’re dishonest amateurs? Even if we avoid the trap of being so generic as to be banal, it’s still very easy to be wooly, over-aspirational, and fundamentally lacking in resonant meaning.
We should be able to trace a connecting thread of meaning from the words or phrases in our brand values, through the copy we use in marketing assets, all the way to the favourite idioms we use in speech. There’s no greater resonance of brand then using a quote or saying you developed in the core branding and someone remarks “I remember the first time I heard you use that, that phrase has always stuck with me”.
That is brand saliency and mental availability achieved.
Ideating brand values to get to the raw nerve
In conducting brand workshops I’ll often ask about values early, just to get that generic list out in the open. Then, as the session progresses, I’ll prod a little at how flexible those are (as Groucho Marx said “Those are my principles and if you don’t like them…. I have others.”). I’ll perhaps even conspiratorially ask what advantages there might be in betraying those principles, y’know, on the odd occasion, if they money is right! Sometimes I’ve even done it to the point of slightly offending people, because I need to know where they really draw the line. Where the betrayal of brand would cause them to feel personal affront. Because:
Where your non-negotiables kick in, your brand values truly begin
A suggestion on formatting
I never express brand values as a single word or phrase. There’s far too much room for misinterpretation or cultural appropriation within different parts of the business.
Instead I do two things. I ask people to try and provide 3 data points of lived experience where someone would encounter that value. As an example, let’s say someone said “empowerment” was a value. I’d ask how a client might be empowered, how a staff member might, and how a supplier might. Those explanations will often reveal useful context.
I express values as “this, not that” providing a contextual anchor and then a short positioning description. Perhaps something like:
“Empowered, not fixed: At ACMECORP our software encourages greater human contribution and enables better accountability. It never seeks to supplant a human decision or mask the value of a human contribution.”
The idea is to show intentionality behind the value, that locks tight with the product or service. It also signals how you might use the value, and a sense of where that betrayal lies. That helps a copywriter convey that sensibility when writing about products or services, it might help the board benchmark the direction of policy for HR or even influence how a sales manager asks his team to treat a client when they come to the office. As a follow-up activity to brand development I will often help surface all sorts of unusual ideas for small touches within the business to bake the brand into how everyone works on a daily basis. It’s the little things and I’m a big believer in the signal strength provided by a culture of “How we do anything is how we do everything”.
Maslovian or Meatlovian
Sorry I couldn’t resist that sub-title, it made me laugh too much. But our brand values should be born of need. We just need to be honest with ourselves about where on Maslow’s hierarchy we’re prepared to plant our flag and say, I don’t compromise beyond here. Or as Mr Loaf so eloquently put it: “I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do that”
In summary: What would Tommy Lee Jones do?
This scene from ‘The Fugitive’ (1993) is a parable for not letting what people think in the moment, affect your core values.
Note how the actions are empathic, but the messages are sacrosanct. The character of Gerard explains, in hardly any words, his entire leadership style and team culture. Showing where there’s flex and where there is not. Beautiful.