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Do Your Values Mean Something?

Do Your Values Mean Something?

What comes to mind when you think of values? How do you know you have values and not ideals?

June 4, 2021


When you read the word values, what comes to mind?

In our capacity as brand strategists, we see that values are one element within the brand mix that are consistently misunderstood. I would also add that they’re – ironically – commonly undervalued too. The focus within business communities of late has been that of brand purpose and brand why, and for good reason. We want to commit our time, energy, resources and ultimately our lives to things that matter, that are meaningful and that give us personal, and societal direction.

The example Simon Sinek frequently pulls on is Martin Luther King’s famous speech. Sinek argues that people gathered and unified around his dream, and not his plan.

‘I have a plan’ doesn’t quite land in the same way, does it?

However, how we go about fulfilling our purpose is just as crucial. The purpose is the journey, the values are how you actually go about fulfilling it. Metaphorically speaking, the values are the decision to choose to travel by car, boat, helicopter or on foot. They all provide a means of travel but they are quite different. Brands, and the people behind them, will see things differently, some believe a helicopter is the only way, others prefer taking a river cruise, and others want to hit the pavement in their Nikes. 

Expressed in what brands do, the nuts and bolts of everyday stuff, the approach they bring to the practical, are values.

Values connect our purpose to our practice.

Values shape and inform culture.

King had a dream, markedly his approach was that of non-violence, a practice was speaking. There was a value, a conviction, a commitment, that violence wasn’t the way to bring about change. Arguably it wasn’t the only way he could have chosen to see his dream fulfilled, but it was a way. It was this way, that informed his practice.

Why Values in Business?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Ford founder Henry Ford, clearly had a vision, a purpose, a why. He something that others thought was impossible, a bold and daring vision. Yet implicit within this, and any successful vision is that of how. An approach informed by a potent mix of values. 

Fortunately for us, Henry Ford decided not to consult the crowd. Because of that decision, we now have cars. It was bravery to stand for something, to see something that others couldn’t have seen that has radically impacted the world. Would Ford have  created his Model-T if it were not for a commitment to discipline, perseverance, genuine out-of-the-box innovation, that of challenging the status-quo?

Values are what we should see in how you do what you do. If, hypothetically, Ford claimed the above values yet only delivered improved equines, wouldn’t something feel wrong about that?

If a brand claims integrity as one of their values, yet on observation the brand takes questionable shortcuts, makes compromising decisions and conduct themselves in ways that put into question this value, it’s quite clear that it isn’t really a value. It’s an ideal. It’s just something someone thought sounded good. It was a box to tick.

There needs to be truth aligned with the claims the brand is making. 

'Duh' Values 

These are the values that you think you need to have. They’re participation values, in that without them you’re really off course but practically speaking, they’re meaningless. They’re not really that helpful. When an accountant says they value professionalism, they’re not saying anything. We expect that from an accountant. When a fast food restaurant says they value customer service, they not saying anything. It’s the minimum requirement that people expect of fast food brands. 

However, in some cases, values like professionalism or customer service are real core values because businesses demonstrate these values so clearly, compared to the market, that they really do stand out. Observably, and notably these companies do really tangibly demonstrate these values. In reality, few companies genuinely match these outliers.

Core Values

This is what a brand really believes. 

Public values are what brands tell people they believe, what they choose, what they say is important. Private values are what they tell themselves, what they desire, choose, and what they say is important. And core values are what they actually believe, what they actually choose and what they actually demonstrate as important. 

Unsurprisingly, we have a number of recent examples of brands claiming one thing, and doing another. It’s Nike stating they value diversity and inclusion, but their board doesn’t reflect that. It’s a corporate claiming to value pay-equity, where in reality nothing changed for their employees.  

You could say, it is less the value in and of itself, and more the hypocrisy that confuses, and frustrates onlookers. ‘Why bother if you never intended to genuinely live it out?’

Ideally these values would be the same across this spectrum but in reality there are often subtle differences as we move closer to core beliefs. The point being that core values are really what we see, when you take all the commentary way. It’s what the individual, teams, and brands actually do each and every day. 

It’s when someone chooses to be kind in the face of trial, not because it’s to their benefit but because they hold a conviction that being kind is important. It’s when you could choose to do otherwise, and still do what you say you value. That is a core belief. 

It’s when a brand chooses a sustainability process, where it would be quicker, cheaper, and almost just as good if they were to choose a less sustainable option. But they choose it despite all the alternatives. Asket is a stand out example in this category.

Aspirational Values

There’s something attractive to the human soul about elusiveness. We like the idea of something to aim towards. But it’s always just out of reach.

Realistically most of what businesses name as values sit in this category. They’re ideals that brands set before themselves, ideas to attain to and strive towards. Aspirational values can get confused with a brand’s purpose or a brand’s why. It’s not uncommon to see duh values claimed to be core values where they’re really aspirational values. 

An example of this would famously be Enron. Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence. Sounds great right? Well, if you don’t know the story, these ‘values’ ultimately led them to commit corporate fraud, seeing its shareholders lose $74B. 

Lying. Disrespect. Deceit. And ironically, stealing $74B is in a strange sense an act of excellence, albeit a broad misuse of skill. Whereas integrity was missed altogether.

I’d say much of what we call values exist in this category; very few businesses competently live out their core values consistently. And in that way, much of what we would like to call core values are often found to be aspiration. Businesses will often find themselves between the now (core) and not yet (aspirational) values.

We need values to aim for, we are human after all, but crucially, if we are genuine in our aspiration, we need to put in place practical systems, processes and effort to take that which is an ideal and let it become increasingly your reality.

Amelia Friedman of Hatch Apps shares, ‘When Tony Hsieh, founder of  Zappos, was asked what he’d do differently if he could restart his company from scratch, he responded with this: “If I could go back and do Zappos all over again I would actually come up with our values from day one.”’

How to Work out Your Values

I recently came across a podcast featuring Love & Money’s Creative Director Charl Laubscher, he spoke to this. 

“So when it comes to figuring out that stuff for a brand, the trick as far as I can tell, the most parsimonious way to kinda solve the problem is to kinda figure what do you actually think about this and this, what’s an actual priority for you? So if this thing kinda turns up on your radar, and it’s not a priority, then don’t talk about. Don’t ask me what your stance is, you know what your stance is.“

As a brand or business leader you need to know what you stand for. A good brand strategist will help you discover what your values are, help you understand your worldview and your vision but they can’t simply make up something. guy, Patrick M. Lencioni suggests that, when push comes to shove, you’ll need to accept the pain that having real values will incur. Otherwise you’re likely better off without them. At least then it’s honest.

Pulling arbitrary, ‘duh’ values into a business may tick the necessary boxes but when it comes down to it, if there isn’t any genuine intention to let these values inform, change and influence everything the brands does, instead of unity, you’ll find value based tribes emerging. Referring to my earlier metaphor, the runners will group together, the helicopter crew will make a plan and the sailors will make haste.

While there are many important things, not everything can be equally important to an individual, this is also true as an organisation. There are limitations in a businesses capacity to give things their attention. We can’t productively hold everything with equal tension. With focus, tension can become melody, harmony, yet without focus, without limitation, without a commitment to say this takes precedence, brands may well find themselves following the loudest crowd, and producing nothing more than noise.

Charl again notes.

“The truth is always easier than a lie. The problem with lying about stuff if you have to track what reality is doing, figure out where you’re being dishonest, and then cut and paste, insert your lie, and that has to happen with all potential tracks that that lie is going to touch.”

Eventually brands get found out. What may start as a seemingly viable solution to a problem can quickly snowball into something well outside the realistic control of an individual, team and brand. It takes a lot of energy and resources to perpetuate a lie. 

Values will and should cost you something. They will show you what you will say no to. They’ll let you know when something is finished. They may not show you where you are going, but they will show you the pathway to get there. 

Marcel McCarthy

Marcel McCarthy

Creative Director