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It’s become a standard part of brand work to articulate the core values that should lie at the heart of the corporate identity (they then sit there in the brand book alongside the usual mission and vision statements).

Values are fundamental to identity. They are a way of describing some of the most important things that define us, that guide our behaviour. They are not a fixed guide, in that under pressure we may from time to time compromise our own values, or indeed change them. Nor will they usually define our unique individuality: we are social beings and tend to hold shared values with those whose company we can choose. But they are important to our sense of self.

We don’t normally speak of our own values. We let them speak for themselves in our behaviour. The principle of “show, don’t tell” is useful in many contexts, but especially so here: there seems something particularly misplaced about declaring that you rate values like honesty or kindness highly (isn’t this what everyone expects, so the fact that you need to say it only looks like you’re trying to convince yourself). This is true on a personal level, but all the more so for businesses.

Why do customers need to know about your values? They will hold you to account for what you do, not what you say. This is dangerous enough in marketing communication, where businesses routinely underestimate the cynicism they are likely to provoke when they call attention to their values. But when this way of speaking is used in the very different circumstances of internal communication the effects can be truly damaging.

Managers or brand consultants might feel that staff need to adopt these values so they know how to behave, but how do they imagine this is going to work? It’s an assumption which ignores the most basic psychology. People generally will take their behavioural cues from those around them, “the way things get done around here”. Influencing those behaviours is going to take a lot more effort than listing some bland “corporate values”. Indeed presenting these things as “values” may even be counterproductive. It’s not at all clear what I’m supposed to with someone else’s values. Make them my own? Translate them into things I have to do at work? But why then impose this need for a translation? It’s far better to say simply and directly what the business wants of its staff.

Some of the attributes that typically get put forward in corporate value sets (honesty, respect etc) are more or less hygiene factors, the things you’d want to take for granted. Other things that make it into those corporate value sets are harder to translate into sensible instructions, which is often because they are not values at all, but desirable characteristics such as innovation and creativity (it makes no sense to tell people that you want them to be innovative – you have to create the conditions in which they can be, and that means looking at the management culture of the organisation as well as its processes – most organisations are run in a way that excludes the possibility of creativity, which makes brand-led exhortations to be creative sound all the more hollow).

This conceptual muddle isn’t a minor thing. It reflects how poorly much that passes for “brand thinking” connects with the real world.

There is a strong case for the articulation of corporate values among the senior management of a company, because it is at this level that the primary translation of those values into policies and behaviours needs to be addressed. Even here I’m not really sure it helps to call these things “our values”. What really matters is that senior managers should agree and regularly think about the nature of the business they are trying to develop. You should be able to capture the “values” in the statement of your corporate vision or purpose, for instance

“We want to build a company that is innovative, exciting to work for, that respects the natural environment, etc etc”

This statement should be crafted primarily as a touchstone for senior managers in the way they set priorities and policies for the things they are trying to manage. It is their job to create the conditions in which these implicit values will thrive and influence everyone else’s behaviour. They need to be exemplary in their own behaviour, and they need to set policies (not vague and platitudinous value statements) that communicate clearly what the business expects of its staff and the policies or service they themselves might develop.

But more often organisations typically focus on how to “bring the values alive” though some form of cascading workshops or awaydays with staff. The result is likely to be increased awareness of the brand values, which is also what tends to get measured, but that awareness is meaningless unless people start to behave in a more productive way as a result (however broadly that “more productive” can be conceived). By introducing “corporate values” we’re inserting an extra layer of complexity and indirection, which seems to discourage managers from thinking harder about any specific behavioural changes they want to see, and how that behaviour might be directly brought into being.

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