wear your values on your sleeve

Every brand should have a point of view – it should represent certain values. These values may be about the quality of the product, or they may reflect the ‘conscience’ of the brand. The healthiest brands have a mix of both, because customers increasingly want their brands to balance the pursuit of profit with a sense of responsibility. The two are always linked.

As we discovered in tip no.1, every brand has a personality, and a crucial dimension of personality is the conscience, in other words, the values that a person lives by. Well, brands have a ‘conscience’ too, which is to say that the way products and brands are developed and marketed inevitably reflects the values and ethics of the brand owner.

For some brand owners, such as those in the luxury sector, their values are focused on the quality of the product, from the sourcing of the materials to the excellence of the craftsmanship or the service delivery.

For others, brand values are simply a matter of moral integrity, and they don’t shout about it. In other words, ethics was part of the brand story from the very beginning, such as the great 19th-century Quaker brands in the UK like the chocolate makers Rowntree’s and Cadbury’s, or Lloyds and Barclays banks.

The Quakers were a comparatively small Christian sect founded in 17th-century Britain who believed in combining savvy commerce with strong Christian ethics. Many of their families set up businesses in the 18th and 19th centuries that went on to dominate a range of industry sectors including confectionary, food, banking, and steel. Quaker businesses had a reputation for unshakeable honesty and fairness, and for treating customers, staff, and suppliers well. As a result they became trusted brands without ever talking about their values, although their legacy brands might do so today.

Then there are other brand owners who, while they might sign up to a set of ethics in the way they run their headquarters operations, haven’t yet learned to connect the ethical dots with the way their products are manufactured or their staff are managed in other countries.

This kind of ethical disconnect used to be the prevailing culture of business and brands, up until very recently. The concept of a brand having a conscience would have been laughed out of court as either completely financially unviable, or a piece of marketing fluff. Today however it is not unusual for the ‘brand conscience’ to be the one holistic principle guiding the way a brand is built.

There are many examples of this holistic values branding in the world today, because some of the world’s most famous brands have taken care to weave their fundamental values both into their business practices and into their brand. It is a winning combination, because even morally neutral financial markets are beginning to understand the connection between ethical behaviour and sustainable income, and are rewarding companies accordingly with their investment dollars.

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The Body Shop is one of the world’s most successful values-driven brands, passionately involved with issues ranging from animal rights, fair trading and labour practices, to human rights and protecting the environment. Starbucks is renowned for its fair trade policies, employee care and commitment to literacy, while HSBC is rightly famous for its focus on the environment.

But values branding has to be both genuine, and seen to be genuine. It can’t simply be stuck onto a brand like an accessory, or as a PR-driven marketing ploy. Benetton offended a lot of people in the 90s with its so-called issues-driven advertising. It was seen as exploiting human suffering for profit. Shell, like BP, has become a born-again environmentalist, but not very convincingly. Nike, with its membership of the Fair Labour Association (FLA), is trying to live down its reputation for exploiting third-world labour. The jury is still out on the sincerity of all the above.

Whatever the business or industry, identifying your values and making sure you live by them is important, because customers, staff, business partners, even financial markets, are beginning to reward companies who take their values seriously. Indeed, corporate values are beginning to be seen as an integral and inseparable part of the total value that a company should create.

To this end Michael Porter, one of the world’s most influential thinkers on strategic management, famously advanced his concept of creating ‘Shared Value’, which is based on the premise that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities surrounding it are all mutually dependent. This school of thought goes far beyond just emphasizing values, or even corporate social responsibility as a good end in itself. ‘Creating Shared Value’ is about companies restructuring and readjusting their business model to pursue market strategies aimed at both economic and societal development. In other words, companies are not just ‘doing good to look good’, they are now ‘doing good to do well’.

As a result, their brands are doing well too, which brings us round to our next article in this series on branding, how brands create value.