What are brand values and why do we need them?
At best, a brand is much more than the products or services it sells. Otherwise it remains interchangeable and one of the most important driving forces is missing: its value system. And that is precisely the engine that shapes the vision and keeps employees engaged.
At its core, a brand is what the people behind it stand for. Logo, website, services – these are all easy to change. But values as the North Star for how we work, make decisions and deal with each other are constant and provide clear orientation both internally and externally.
But for that, they have to be real values: lived values that are reflected in our daily actions, or aspirational values that we actively strive for as a brand. These are not just advertising values that we put on our banner because they sound good or go down well with the target group. We humans have very fine antennae for advertising values. We often instinctively recognize empty empty phrases or contradictory values and become suspicious. This is because we look for connecting points in our favorite brands with which we can identify. By now, it no longer matters where our food, clothing or smartphones come from. Or how companies we shop with treat their employees.
While the visual and communicative elements of a brand, such as the way it speaks to its target audience, its corporate design or its name, can help create awareness and likeability among the target audience, it is the brand values that create genuine trust and engagement, leading to a stronger bond with the target audience.
And well-defined brand values are extremely important for other disciplines as well. The Voice and Tone Guide is based on them, which is important for marketing and content strategy as well as for UX writing. So the values lay the foundation for Content Strategy, Product/ UX Writing, Marketing and more.
Brand values, but the right ones!
As described earlier, brand values can be divided into real (or aspirational) values and promotional values. This division takes place from the brand’s perspective. Equality can be a genuine value for one brand, and a promotional value for another.
Promotional values are values that a brand neither lives by now, nor plans to live by in the future. The emblem is to adorn oneself with false feathers. Looks fancy, but all it takes is a gust of wind to blow away the false values and expose the goosebumps underneath. (In my head, that metaphor works – I hope it works in your head, too. No offense to geese, though.)
Real, lived values are values that are very important to the people behind a brand and that manifest themselves in their actions. The 9spaces tool platform additionally distinguishes the above-mentioned aspirational values in the group of genuine values. Aspirational values are values that we would like to prioritize, and also firmly plan to do so, but do not currently do so.
How do you find out which values are really important?
Brand values are individual. They are influenced by the people behind the brand, the mission and vision. But there are basic principles that you can keep in mind as a checklist when defining values.
This is how values should be:
- Clear and defined
Vague values like innovation or enthusiasm say everything and nothing. Both internally and externally. Innovation can mean something different for everyone. That’s why it’s important to clearly state values and even come up with a little definition à la “What does innovation mean to us?” That way, outsiders and employees know exactly what the brand stands for.
- Actively liveable
For outsiders, but also for employees, it must be clearly evident that and how values are implemented. It is not enough to value a “positive error culture.” Describe what that value looks like in actions, and what happens when, for example, someone really screws something up. This also means kicking out values that don’t translate to the active action level. Empathy is only an actively lived value if we translate our empathy into action.
Away with empty phrases, and in with the values that really mean something to the people behind the brand! This also means that you would be willing to fight for those values and make uncomfortable decisions. For example, a law firm might ask itself whether innovation as a value really matters so much that it should be prioritized over other values.
- Valid in the long term
Values should be the most stable component, the common thread, the north star of a brand. This is usually already ensured by defining real values rather than advertising values. Of course, values can also change over time. A regular cross-check helps to determine whether values are in conflict with each other or have lost validity and why.
Okay, but how do I know what my brand’s values are?
Here’s our step-by-step process on how we found our values.
The scoping workshop is our starting point in the Continuous UX process. With good scoping, we make sure that we prepare and define a project smartly so that it doesn’t blow up in our faces afterwards. For the value check, we modified the workshop slightly, since it was not a classic product.
It looked like this:
- Determine workshop participants: In our case, these were all team leaders, the management and our internal brand team.
- Focus on the problem/open questions: Who do we want to be? Who are we? Do we have more than one heart beating in our chest? Who do we not want to be, but are?
- Define circles as areas of impact of the brand and its value system. Such circles can be internal and external cooperation, corporate culture, external presentation or the like. These circles make it easier and more focused to start brainstorming. In our case, we defined ‘Code of Conduct’, ‘Collaboration’, ‘Spirit’ and ‘Vision’ as circles. These circles can be changed again later, split or merged.
- Visualize the desired customer persona, scenario and user needs so that everyone is in the same boat. Because we exist and work for these personas.
2. Brainstorming phase
For the defined impact areas, we listed all the positive situations we could think of in this context and assigned a value to these situations. This step is brain dumping: here everything is collected unfiltered and written down. A digital whiteboard with sticky notes is best for this, because later we will move and rearrange some things here.
This is what exemplary situations and values looked like in our case:
- When I need help, someone is always there to help – Willingness to help.
- I always learn a lot from colleagues – Learning together / knowledge sharing
- We are open and honest, even if others may not like it – Authenticity
- My decisions in my area of competence are not questioned – Trust
If you do this exercise in a team, it is very likely that the same situations and values will be mentioned again and again. This is already a good indication that these are genuine values of your brand.
By taking the detour of talking about specific situations instead of talking about values directly, we have ensured that our focus is on values that are already manifested in our behavior.
For this step, you can also involve more people of a company, for example via survey tools. This way we avoid a too limited leadership view on the value system and may uncover some surprises in circles like collaboration or corporate culture.
3. Definition of all values and clustering
After this exercise we had a long list of values, and through the related situations already the approach of a definition for these values. We then went through this list again, this time with the goal of clearly defining each value. In doing so, it helped us to google the terms to cross-check whether we had the meaning of the term correctly on our screen.
Through the definitions, we realized for some values that they overlapped with other values and could be clustered. Or that we had the wrong term in mind for another value, e.g., we noted mindfulness but actually meant empathy.
In this step, the sticky notes whiz back and forth across the board. We did a lot of shifting, clustering, defining new circles based on the clusters, and dissolving old circles.
During this stage, the list of values is condensed and a value mind map is created through the clusters.
4. Add action level
This step happened hand in hand with the definition and clustering. However, it can also be done afterwards. This is about the action level of our defined values. We clearly define how we actively translate the defined values into actions.
5. Testing values for conflict situations
In the next step, we put our defined values to the test. For each value, we looked for situations in which we would behave, work or decide against that value.
After this exercise, we had before us in black and white the areas in which our self-image might have been slightly off. This is a good common ground to identify which values are more aspirational and what we need to change to really live those values.
6. Fill in the brand framework and think about a metaphor for the value system.
In this step, the value system is already on solid footing. Now it is translated into a brand framework.
My favorite example of a successful framework is the Lego Brand Framework – the mission, vision and values of Lego in one Lego brick. Here, everything fits together and therefore appears all the more authentic.
That’s why we looked at the same building blocks as Lego for our Brand Framework:
- Core Values
While working on the Brand Framework, the essence of all preceding steps emerges. In the process, a metaphor for the visualization of our Brand Framework has organically emerged:
Shared groove and drive
As in music, our collaboration is based on the bundling of talented people who, on a competence and personality level, produce a uniquely good groove, a harmony, a melody, like when musicians jam together. This groove triggers feelings, inspires, is intoxicating. That is the drive.
For your brand, this metaphor is probably quite different. An example often chosen is the value compass. It’s a nice image because a compass provides orientation and always points in the same direction. But it can really be anything.
Be creative here! Anything is allowed that makes sense for your brand and can be presented well and clearly so that people can read about it and work with it.
Values are an important component of a brand. Values offer identification potential, orientation and emotional docking points for external presentation, customer loyalty and employees.
For this to happen, however, they have to be lived values, or aspirational values that the brand is actively and comprehensibly committed to implementing. Hands off advertising values that simply sound good but do not manifest themselves in action, either today or in the future.
There are different approaches to developing a value system. You don’t have to guess at your values or copy them from other brands, because you most certainly have your own authentic values. You just need to systematically uncover them and bring them into an organic system.
This works well with the right team and a small-step approach via your brand’s impact areas and the values relevant therein and their level of action. Involve the people behind your brand. Look closely at conflicting values. And have fun finding a creative metaphor for your value system.
You’ll definitely notice the positive effect of an authentic, strong value system. Have fun workshopping!