2 Common Brand Values Missteps That Keep Companies From Creating Authentic and Interesting Brands

Authentic brand values are one of the most critical parts of your brand strategy. Most companies have some version of them posterized on a wall in their often – often labeled as ‘Core Values’.

So many companies find it necessary to have these values but very few of them actually have ones that are distinctive – truly authentic to the brand they’re building.

Think about it: how many times have you seen companies with values like ‘customer service’ and ‘quality’ and ‘professionalism’?

It’s like all these organizations use the same 10-word handbook of ‘core values’ and then just pick their favorite 5 to 7. And while these values aren’t usually bad, in and of themselves, they leave everyone (leadership, employees, customers, and even vendors) wanting something more.

Authentic Brand Values are Different

True, authentic brand values help inform everyone about the core beliefs and ethics of the organization. They flow from the purpose of the company. And when they’re expressed deeply and creatively, they become something much more powerful than a list of words that everyone learns on Day 1 of employment and then never thinks about again.

Let’s take the example of Southwest Airlines for a moment. Here are their values:

Live the Southwest Way:

  • Warrior Spirit
  • Servant’s Heart
  • Fun-LUVing Attitude

Work the Southwest Way

  • Safety and Reliability
  • Friendly Customer Service
  • Low Cost

What can we notice about these values? They start with ‘why’ and are highly internalized. They’re specific. And they are unique.

Look at the first one: ‘Warrior Spirit’ brings to mind resoluteness, tenacity, and action. It helps us identify that this is not just about behavior (outward actions) but a mental state. It shows us how the value can be internalized and then expressed outwardly.

Southwest could have just said: “action” or “tenacity”. But these would have only guided us to an outward behavior. Instead, they depict the frame of mind representatives of the organization need to be in – and if they’re not, no outward action will be quite right.

And when we think about the experiences Southwest has built, they reflect that their brand values start from within. They’re not just surface level, superficial beliefs that everyone in the organization talks about but doesn’t really believe or internalize.  No, it’s clear that most staff and leadership, in most situations, really believe in these values. And that leads to truly authentic, resonant experiences that keep customers coming back again and again.

Gutcheck Your Values

So maybe you’ve got some brand values already. How deep do they go? Are they truly unique and different? Do they help everyone in your company really understand the mindset of the brand? Do they inspire people to create experiences that ring true to the brand?

If the answers are not a resounding ‘yes’ it might be worth revisiting your brand values. And as you do, here are two common missteps in discovering your true brand values. This will help you discover and communicate your values with authenticity and clarity.

Misstep #1: Mistaking Goals (or Outcomes) for Authentic Brand Values

I often find this misstep with companies with strong, visionary, action-oriented leaders. These leaders mean well – and they are great at getting everyone on the same page about where they want to go as an organization. They see the world in outcomes and goals – what are we trying to achieve? And then point everything back to these future achievements.

The problem is that values are intrinsically not goals. If they were they would constantly need to change. Instead, we should think of values as beliefs or ethics or viewpoints on the world. They are lasting guideposts for how a brand should behave.

Here’s a common goal that is confused for a value: ‘Success’.

You might be asking, “That actually sounds like a decent brand value. I mean success isn’t bad, right? Shouldn’t our organization be aiming for success?”

Success Doesn’t Show Anyone How to Move Forward

Sure, success is great to aim for. But success is not what you value. It’s the end goal. It’s the outcome. ‘We are striving toward X and if we get there, we’ve achieved success.’

But if we remind ourselves that values are beliefs or viewpoints on how things should be done, we realize that ‘success’ isn’t really a belief or viewpoint on the world. It doesn’t tell us how to think about our work. It doesn’t guide our mindset as we execute for the brand. Nor does it tell us how we should go about getting to that successful end. It simply states where the endpoint is.

And let’s be brutally honest for a moment, everyone defines success differently. So maybe it’s not even a great way to communicate your goals, let alone a ‘value’.

Even if you get more specific with your success: profits, revenues, strategic goals, expansion, employee development, acquisitions…these aren’t brand values.

They’re all endpoints. They merely tell you, ‘hey, we did it!’ Values stand the test of time. They outlast your temporary goals and they don’t change with each year’s new strategic plan. They are the pillars that support your brand. They’re the rules by which you play your game.

Misstep #2: Mistaking Operations for Authentic Brand Values

This is probably the most common misstep. It’s far too easy to mistake the operational necessities of your organization for values. If you’re in the business of making tires, you might be very tempted to make sure “Tires” is your #1 brand value. And if you have customers, it sure helps to keep them around if you create a good experience for them…so let’s get ‘customer service’ up on that wall poster!

But just like goals, these are not true brand values. They’re operational imperatives. The actual needs of marketing, selling, producing, delivering, and collecting payment for products and services are simply the table stakes for a business. If you don’t care about your products or your customers or your operations…good luck keeping the lights on, let alone creating a brand that connects deeply with people.

Sorting Out Your Authentic Brand Values

How do you know if your brand values are edging into a statement of operational necessity? Check your competitors. What are their stated core values? If you find any that run across organizations (including your own) it’s highly likely these aren’t brand values. These are simply statements of what it takes to do business in your industry.

And beyond that, stating operational needs as values can harm you in the long run. How would Nike have thrived as one of the most sought-after brands of all time if they had made one of their core brand values ‘running shoes for pro athletes’? For many years that is all they did (and their designers and engineers prided themselves in their niche focus). But if they’d formalized that as a value, plastered it everywhere, and if Phil Knight had made it his daily mantra, they’d never have grown into the incredible brand they are today. Instead, they made ‘achievement’ and ‘victory’ their core values. These spoke to the deeper, more foundational beliefs that drove both their entry as a pro-shoe producer and their eventual growth into hundreds of other products.

A Caveat:

I guess I can caveat this one a bit: if there’s something particularly interesting, distinctive, or unique to your operations it MIGHT be worth calling out as a brand value. Or if there are some things that just have to be top of mind all the time, forever, then, by all means, call them out. BUT be careful, if you stick with only these, you’ll find yourself lacking in brand values that truly reflect the deeper attitudes and beliefs that really make your organization interesting.

If we look at the example of Southwest’s values again, they do highlight three more operational values: Safety and Reliability, Friendly Customer Service, Low Cost. But they do so only after outlining three deeper, more attitudinal values (Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, and Fun-LUVing Attitude) that foundationally inform the latter three. If it weren’t for those initial three values, I don’t think Southwest would be as iconic, distinctive, and interesting of a brand as they are.

Putting It Into Action

As you work to discover your authentic brand values, keep these common missteps in mind and start asking yourself, “What do we really believe? What set of values drive the way we do things? How can we make them memorable and compelling?”

It’s one thing to find your brand values. Do the hard work of digging deep, confronting your wishful thinking, and being brutally honest about what your organization really values. But you can’t stop there. Turn those values into a digestible, understandable, memorable framework for creating all your brand experiences. Break them down – explain what they mean. Get into real-world examples. You should show people how to use them in their everyday execution of the brand – whether in marketing, HR, customer service, sales, or even operations. And then give people memorable and ‘sticky’ ways to communicate them. I’m a big fan of slogans and mantras…but it’s your brand so you do you.

And as always, if you need a helping hand, we’re here. We’ve got some great free tools (like our Brand Values Class or Brand Values Worksheets) to help you out in your discovery process. Or go deeper and contact us about our brand strategy workshops and consulting services. We love helping brands find their authentic selves and show them to the world.

And remember, you are remarkable.