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Brand, values, growth: Do you know who you are?

The title of this article feels a little bit like a self-help article, doesn’t it? Like one of those articles that’s going to get really deep and force us to turn a mirror on ourselves to examine what’s inside.

Lucky for you (or maybe unlucky if it’s your sort of thing), this is not one of those articles.

Oh, we are going to grab that mirror, but rather than looking at ourselves, individually as people, we are going to look at our business and the collective people and characteristics that make it what it is.

Thing is, a lot of the time when we talk about our businesses, we use pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘our’ as opposed to being more formal and always referring to the business by its name.

Doing this is a nod to the fact that a business, just like a human, has an identity, a persona, a ‘way of being’ that customers and partners become familiar with and get to know it by.

Just like people, as it starts up, as it grows, and even later on, our business, can have an identity crisis. From one moment, one situation to the next, the brand can convey different characteristics and that inconsistency can not only be really confusing to your own staff, it can be quite confounding for your customers and can push them away, eroding any chance at loyalty.

Creating that consistency in persona, knowing ‘who’ your business is, helps your brand grow more rapidly, powerfully and successfully.

That persona and the characteristics that drive it come from a lot of elements, but one important piece that underpins the persona of our business is the values-set behind the brand.

Unfortunately, in a lot of businesses, from the smallest to the largest, developing values and using them well, is often overlooked or considered unnecessary and not worthwhile.

What are brand values?

Ok, we promised you don’t have to turn a mirror to yourself and self-examine, so let’s not get too deep, but as a person, have you ever considered your values?

For me, hard work is right up there and it sits comfortably with my commitment to and search for truth/honesty, fairness, loyalty, family and compassion.

Those values underpin how I naturally behave, my default. They also drive how I organically think about things and consider decisions — who I’m drawn to and invest in as friends, how I treat people, the way I do my job, even the types of businesses and clients I choose to work with (maybe now more than ever).

Like people, brands should have a set of clear values that also drive them, that bring together every part of the business with clarity and consistency.

What are business or brand values for?

The short answer to this question is: everything.

So many businesses see values — if they take the time to create them — as merely a collection of words that came from a workshop. Ironically, they don’t see the true value they offer, or how they can be used to actually make businesses better. They are tokenistic at best.

Years ago, I worked for four big multinational companies, and interestingly, their approach to values was the same.

It was the ‘done thing’ to have them, so they brought in notable consulting firms (you know the ones) to run workshops and do research and deliver to them a set of four or five words or phrases and descriptions to go with them — their values.

They then proceeded to… put them on posters and hang them in the building. Pop them in internal email signatures and newsletters. Print some pull-up banners, proudly showing them off.

What they didn't do, is actually live and work by them.

This was their mistake. They ticked a box but didn’t see the true value of what they had — a road map to a truly cohesive business, and staff with genuine buy-in.

Values should be used across every part of the business.

When we do marketing programs, we should check in that the creative developed, the messages sent, align with, support and don’t contrast with our values. That helps us know we are doing the right thing for our brand and that consumers will be able to see it for what it is.

When hiring (or firing) people, our values should be at the foundation of the decision. If we hire people who don’t live those values, we start to seriously mess with to culture.

If we see something going wrong with the business or the people in the business, check in with the values — are they misaligned? Are they able to live up to them?

If we’re forming strategic partnerships, make those decisions with values in mind — do those partners also align with our values?

When we make decisions based on agreed values, we ensure we don’t lose our brand, the original intent we had, our reputation, along the way.

Here’s an example...

We worked with a business that offers software that helps facilitate NDIS services.

The business had established values like: compassion, empathy, openness and transparency, among others.

They were moving along well, but they wanted to dive headfirst into the next phase of growth.

When it came to building out their sales team to achieve this, they forgot the important role of values in recruiting. They hired relentlessly ambitious, fast-talking sales people who talked more than they listened. They talked about the brand, themselves, their extensive knowledge — but they didn’t ask questions, and on the rare occasion they did, they didn’t wait for the answer — they answered it themselves!

The business went backwards, not just in sales, but massive conflict developed between the sales team and other departments — people who were truly compassionate, empathetic, open.

This business went through a really difficult period over more than six months that nearly sent them under — yet before all of this, they were quite successful and on their way to greater success.

The moral of the story here isn't don’t be ambitious — in business, the goal is to grow. The message here is if you forget your values or push them to the side to achieve that growth, it’s just not going to work. You’re going to deviate so far from what you wanted your business to be that your people and your customers will see it and feel it too.

Mistake one with values is treating them as tokenistic — see them for what they are, for the powerful tool and guidance they offer, and genuinely embed them in every part of your business.

Being inauthentically authentic: the cool trap

There is a long list (like 400+) of fairly common values from which most people subconsciously, or consciously select the values they live by.

They are values like I mentioned above — loyalty, compassion, through to things even like money or status. Everyone’s different — no judgement.

When we organically talk about our own values, if we’ve really thought about them, a) we don’t fancy them up, we naturally use wording exactly like those listed above, b) we do that because they feel right, and because other people share those values, so common words give us a way to relate, to group together.

As a marketer, what I see most in businesses, is the need (because of a trend) to get fancy, to make their version of ‘honest’ sound unique and different and special — because for some reason ‘honest’ isn’t cool or trendy enough.

What has happened, largely as a result of this, is we’ve ended up investing so much in turning our values into catchphrases, into trendo agency-speak, that they lose some

of that realness and relatability. They become so poetic and complex that our people need training to actually understand them and work to them (I've literally delivered this training!).

Beyond this, we deem the usuals — the things most people do relate to — like trust, as too basic. So we try to take the essence of it and turn it into something magical, or more ‘cool’.

We try to emulate big brands, with big agencies, and create values that are almost ads, instead of just saying what we mean.

In doing that, we end up with values that are what I call 'inauthentically authentic'. They started somewhere meaningful, but we’ve changed their clothes and their makeup and where they sit in the classroom and now, even though they say they were that original thing, no one believes them or really understands them, it’s confusing.

Interestingly, some of the big brands are now trending back. Check out Apple’s current values — just regular words, not campaign slogans, much closer to just saying what they mean, for example; a healthy respect for wellbeing.

There’s nothing wrong with values sentences, or phrasing in a way that has particular relevance for you and your people, but do it because it’s meaningful, because it makes your values easier for your people to understand them, relate to them, live them, not because it’s cool and everyone else is doing it.

Creating your values

Last tip for making values that can really drive your business forward, is take them from the right place; do the right research.

Whether you like it or not, your culture comes from the people who are in your business, and from their values. It’s impossible to be something you’re not, or behave in unnatural ways for any period of time, so their inherent values are inevitably going to shine through and impact your brand values and persona.

When creating values and getting into those workshops, a lot of organisations, especially larger ones, invite leadership to the table, and collect their opinions, their values, their thoughts. Yet, official leaders, by design, make up the smallest number of people in the business. Theirs are by far not the majority values (unless you’ve hired by values purposefully or just organically).

Start by doing research on the ground. Talk to, interview and focus group with people in the sales team, on the shop floor, in the factory, in the back office and find out who they are, what’s important to them, what they look for in friends, leaders, brands, employers, themselves.

Find the consensus among them.

Then workshop. Takes these insights to a series of workshops that include leaders AND carefully selected representatives of your teams that live those common values, and you can work from a much more informed base.

In doing this, you will almost fall upon a set of values that already drive your company and your culture. This is an unearthing exercise, not an inventing exercise.

Once you know what those existing values are, it’s decision time. Bring your leaders together and decide if these are the values upon which you want to build your business and brand, or if they aren’t right -- if they won’t serve you on your mission to achieve your goals.

Tweak as needed, and arrive at a final set of values.

If the values you arrive at are not those that came from the people, know that they can’t walk that walk for any considerable length of time; you can’t make people what they’re not when it comes to values, they are too deeply embedded.

Over time, you need to fill the company up with people who naturally align with your values, who can seamlessly and consistently walk the walk.

Values; they really are the foundation of marketing, business decisions, objectives, hiring — select them wisely and honestly.


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