Points of principle

Values, like sterling, have been devalued. The solution could be brand principles.

Politicians like to talk about values. However, as electorates regularly find out, values are much easier to say than stick to – and unfortunately politics isn’t the only arena that likes to deal in values. They are beloved of marketers – but in my view, values have (like the pound sterling) been devalued. Too often, when given the option to define the values of a country, a political party or a brand, the default answers are obvious; apple pie and motherhood statements that no-one would argue with.

What makes it even worse in marketing is that brands often express their values as single words, plastering them around the office on brightly coloured posters. Having reviewed countless brands and their values over the last ten years I can confidently say that there is an awful lot of repetition. Among the most common: caring, integrity, co-operative, innovative, consumer-centric and, more recently, (environmentally) responsible. Fine words – but what impact do they have? As brand strategist Mark Di Somma has written: “Values are worth nothing because they mean nothing. They should probably be renamed ‘convenient ideas’.”

On two grounds, values fail to do what they are supposed to do. Firstly, as a key component in brand definition, they should help describe and differentiate your brand from others. But the current practice leads to blandness, not brand-ness. Secondly, they should help set the parameters for how a brand wants to behave and how it wants its employees to act. Single word values may provide some general direction, but they don’t really help employees answer the question, “But what do you want me to do?”

I would suggest marketers (and indeed politicians) need to think a little harder and longer, and not be scared of using a sentence or two to define their principles. A dictionary definition of a principle is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning.” For brand positioning, the key point is that principles provide a foundation for a system of beliefs or behaviour – the very thing that’s missing when brands use generic values. A good principle defines what a brand will do and how it should behave, but will also clearly set out what it won’t do and how it won’t behave.

Limits are a good thing, not a problem. A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money

I have been arguing for principles rather than values for years. The objections I encounter are threefold – inertia, a love of single-word simplicity and, perhaps most vehemently, the view that principles limit what brands can do competitively. My reply is always the same: limits are a good thing, not a problem. A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money. It’s easy to sign up to loose values that are hard to measure, but real beliefs are something you need to live up to and be measured by. A true principle is something a brand is willing to stick with, even when it carries some cost.

Take Disney’s principle that in its core animated film business, everything it does should be suitable for all the family. It has the resources and capabilities to produce films that would appeal to an older adult audience, but the Disney brand wouldn’t make them. Instead, the business makes such films under other brands it has acquired.

Capturing a brand’s DNA shouldn’t just be about agreeing a handful of words that no one would disagree with. Marketers need to define and express their whole brand in distinctive and practical terms. They need to be principled.

Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers.