Values are the most underutilized tool in brand. When done correctly they’re more than flowery language on a poster no one pays attention to—they’re a tool that we can use to make impactful brand and business decisions.
What we value is a reason to say yes or no to tough decisions. When we use our values as a guiding light, we develop brand experiences that are clear and felt. And, what’s more, when we have strong values it allows us to make our mission/purpose tangible.
Brands today face a high level of public scrutiny and consumers wield increasing power, eager to call out companies whose actions or products seem to be misaligned with their stated values.
To avoid drawing attention to your brand for all the wrong reasons, it’s time to reassess your brand values and make sure they align with your mission, product, and audience.
Here are 5 ways to do it:
1. Make sure your brand values have teeth
First of all, avoid being generic! It’s probably safe to assume that most brands value innovation and hard work, but it’s important to go beyond bland assertions that don’t differentiate. In other words, your brand values need to have teeth.
When an individual is at a significant crossroads, they will make a choice based on their values. Similarly, your values will directly impact the choices your brand makes.
After assessing whether your values have substance and are on brand, ask whether and how these values impact your decision making. One problem with lazy value statements such as ‘we value hard work,’ for example, is that they permit a brand to say ‘yes’ to everything.
If your brand has strong values, acting on them will sometimes mean you have to make tough choices—decisions that will, perhaps, be unpopular or alienate some of your consumers. Your values might also require internal or monetary sacrifice.
The easy path forward will no longer be available. You have to decide whether that’s something your brand is willing to fight for, tooth and nail.
2. Assess whether your values are consistent
When you’re choosing values to highlight, it’s of course vital to focus on ones that make the most sense for your brand. If your brand has never expressed even a remote interest in social justice issues (or even worse, has a track record of negatively impacting certain communities), it’s obviously going to seem insincere if you start posting black squares of solidarity to Instagram or tweeting about #BlackLivesMatter.
When you publicly state values, you open your brand up for examination Your brand’s values need to be plausible, otherwise consumers will rightly call you out with potentially embarrassing consequences.
Some brands have consistently taken a stand on certain values throughout their history. The publicly stated values of Ben & Jerry’s, for example, include ‘human rights & dignity;’ ‘social & economic justice;’ ‘environmental protection;’ and ‘restoration & regeneration.’
These values may seem broad, but they impact the brand’s decision-making around everything from sustainable packaging to petitioning for social justice. Most importantly, the brand backs up its values with concrete actions, such as establishing partnerships with refugee organizations, helping register voters, and using its platform to amplify marginalized voices.
3. Be specific and focused
Along with ‘innovation,’ ‘sustainability’ has certainly become another buzzword where brand values are concerned. If you’re going to take a stand, be clear about what exactly your brand is doing to make a difference on this issue, like reducing its carbon footprint or using more eco-friendly packaging.
Communicate your goals, track your efforts, and provide stats that demonstrate what you’ve accomplished—and be realistic. Being transparent about your values also means that your consumers will hold you accountable for them. A brand only has so many resources, so if you take on too much your impact will inevitably dwindle.
At Material, we always encourage clients to think creatively about how their values and products can intersect. Ben & Jerry’s initiatives for example include creating clever new flavors to highlight causes the brand champions. ‘Change is Brewing,’ a Cold Brew coffee ice cream, is promoted with the statement, “it’s time to divest from systems that criminalize Black communities and invest in a vision of public safety that allows everyone to breathe free.”
While ice cream doesn’t directly relate to the issues Ben & Jerry’s is passionate about, the company has built in that meaning with thoughtful, memorable branding that provides an impact.
4. Remember that values can be business oriented
Brand values don’t all need to be altruistic. If you’re a petroleum company, ‘saving the whales’ is likely going to be completely irrelevant to your mission and product. If your audience doesn’t particularly care about immigrant issues or the rainforest (and if your brand has a reputation for helping neither), then it’s disingenuous to suddenly stake a claim as eco-warriors or humanitarians.
In other words, don’t distract yourself by jumping on the bandwagon instead of prioritizing values that are important to your brand. Such values might include keeping fans entertained with exciting new products or launching new loyalty programs. Values that are on brand — whether giving eyeglasses to underserved communities or adding a new soft drink flavor every month — will increase the bottom line.
5. Really understand your consumers
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: it’s imperative to understand both your consumers and the wider landscape in which your brand operates.
Audiences are increasingly polarized these days, and taking a strong stand increases the chance you could both alienate some consumers and potentially attract new ones. Segmentation studies and analytics can be useful to figure out whether consumers are drawn to your product or to your values, and how these interests intersect.
It’s also crucial to remember that missteps can backfire fast. Pepsi was widely criticized for its Kendall Jenner commercial, which it described as “as a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony.” While ostensibly highlighting a message of peace, the ad seemed tone deaf to the real experiences faced by people of color at social justice protests.
Don’t procrastinate or simply jump on the values bandwagon. Dig deep and make sure that your values are aligned with your objectives, then be creative as you find ways to build that meaning into your business with action.