Brand values are boring – and what to do about it

Here’s a joke: Why did the company change one of its values to “Productivity above all else”? Because “Widespread mediocrity and napping on the job” didn’t test well with stakeholders.

There comes a time in every copywriter’s life when a new client turns to her during a first meeting and says, “Our company is not like all the other [whatevers]. Our values aren’t the same as everyone else’s. We prioritise innovation, authenticity and flexibility.”

If you’re me, you hear this reasonably often, so you know just how to force down the bile, and smile, and resist the temptation to slow-clap. You also know that approximately 8 out of every 10 companies share some version of the following brand values:

  • Excellence in all we do
  • Exceptional customer service
  • Honesty, integrity and transparency
  • Making a difference in the world
  • Putting the customer first
  • Respect for ourselves and each other
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Trust and reliability

Ok. But with these values…are you a confectioner? A tax consultancy? A manufacturer of the machines that produce bricks? An optometrist? A money launderer*? A big company? A small company? I mean, with those brand values – customer service, excellence, integrity, transparency, collaboration, trust – you could be any of those, even the money launderer*.

The same old nouns

I’m comfortable taking a stand on this issue: The people who help companies to serve their customers are sick of hearing the same old nouns when it comes to what’s supposed to be important to them. And they’re not stupid, so when companies just convert the nouns to adjectives, like unique-real-agile, or verbs, like collaborate-respect-deliver, they can tell.

What’s more, they know that “Impact, Always” sounds beautiful in a deep, rich voice-over and looks cool emblazoned on the side of an escalator, but it is not the thing most organisations prioritise above cold, hard profit. Employees need something real.

Values vs slogans

And yet, brand values are not slogans.

Slogans – catchy phrases or taglines used to promote a company’s products or services – are crafted with TV ads, billboards and packaging in mind. Because they’re public-facing, they’re designed to seize attention and communicate USPs.

But brand values are internal, so they’re not communicated to the market. Instead, they’re reflected in the company’s products, services and reputation. They’re the beliefs and principles that guide behaviour, decisions and actions; that underpin – sorry, here’s the bile again – the mission and vision. This goes without saying, but I’m going to say it: Brand values must be lived.

Unsurprisingly, even the biggest, most impressive companies think hard (or pay agencies obscene sums to think hard) about their slogans, but neglect their brand values.

Take Nike. “Just Do It” is one of the finest brand slogans in the world, with longevity and resonance. But Nike’s brand values? Innovation. Performance. Sustainability. Diversity. Authenticity. MEH. It’s like they pulled them out of a Nike Air Yeezy 2 Red October Snapback (that’s a hat, valued at $1000 in 2015) and just called it a day.

Problem is, when it comes to their own people, companies either want to be a tiny bit different to the norm or they want to be everything to everyone. In both instances, they become invisible, their priorities diluted like fat-free vanilla yoghurt at room temperature.

Weirdness, amplified

My advice? Consider the qualities, behaviours, beliefs and quirks that make your brand, your culture and your people different…and amplify them. Celebrate them. The odder, the better. This is easy if your business is unconventional, eccentric, or just objectively interesting.

But what if your brand is middle-of-the-road? Not charismatic, chaotic or crazy. How do you stand out? Here’s how: By expressing your brand values in an interesting way.

Take a cue from brands that are comfy with irreverence:

  • Zappos: “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness”, reflective of a company culture that honours individuality and creativity
  • Ben & Jerry’s: “If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It?”, urging that work should be enjoyable and that employees should bring their whole selves to work each day
  • Menlo Innovations: “Demonstrate Restraint”, which is unusual in that it’s about what not to do; in this case, not over-committing or taking on too much
  • Buffer: “Default to Transparency”, encouraging employees to share information freely, including their own salaries and KPIs

What about Mailchimp’s “Listen Hard, Change Fast” and “Be Nerdy”? or Patagonia’s “Build the Best Product” and “Cause No Unnecessary Harm”? Those are lekker. And I’ll bet they speak to the hearts and minds of the people who carry out the actual work.

Of course, I’ve never worked for any of these companies. So I don’t know whether Buffer is a hotbed of TMI (too much information), overshare and office politics. And maybe Ben & Jerry’s is all about fun but not so hot on paid time off. But meaningful brand values are a good sign.

Go pro. Please.

Once you’ve made a start, I appeal to you to take your first few attempts and get them polished by a professional (not your daughter’s boyfriend because he got a distinction for English or your partner’s mother who’s a Wordle fanatic). If you’re going to use your brand values to enlighten, remind and stimulate your people, they need to be memorable, elegantly worded and sticky.

Like Hubspot’s:

  • Humble
  • Empathetic
  • Adaptable
  • Remarkable
  • Transparent

Can you spot the clever trick in Hubspot’s list of brand values?

* allegedly