Why Brand Principles Supersede Brand Values

Mark Di SommaApril 10, 20178824 min

Why Brand Principles Supersede Brand Values

It’s all very well having a purpose and brand values, but how have you translated those into actionable principles that guide what you will do and won’t do as a brand?

It seems obvious at first glance that brands would use the values they have created to decide what was in and what was out in terms of activities and opinions. And yet many brands seem not to have connected the brand DNA with the business realities. They have not translated what was agreed into principles that define what they consider to be acceptable to and for the business overall.

For example, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued its 2017 Digital Terrorism and Hate Report Card, it was quick to point the finger at social media giants for not doing enough to prevent or discourage the online marketing of terrorism and hate groups. At a briefing for the release of the Report, the Associate Dean of the Center said, “Google/ YouTube earned a C- on the digital report card for allowing the proliferation of “how to” videos that instruct people on how to build and deploy explosives from materials found in the home.  They also earned a “D” for their failure to remove thousands of hate group posting[s].”

None of this seems, on the face of it, to align with Google’s own unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil”, unless you only interpret that statement to mean that as long as Google itself doesn’t do anything it considers to be evil, then any evil that happens through or because of Google’s presence in the world does not count. That’s not a distinction that consumers find easy to make. For many of them, Google’s undertaking can be read as the company saying it won’t associate with anything that can be considered evil.

Which brings us back to where this started. How does your brand fix limits around what it tolerates and what it doesn’t? And who gets to decide? For me, the onus is increasingly on brands that pride themselves on their values to explore the implications of those commitments for not just what they stand for but how they behave, who they do business with and what they will and will not tolerate.

“Because we value [this], we will always do this”. Or “because we value [this], we refuse to do [this] or [this]”. That way the boundaries are clear and the risks of overstepping what your own people and your customers expect are much reduced.

I’ve raised this a number of times in workshops over recent years and the pushback is always that such an approach limits what the brand can do competitively. That, I’ve always counter-argued, is precisely the point. Building operating principles out of your values helps guide what you initiate and how you respond. It sets clear and consistent parameters around what is acceptable to your brand and what is not – and while, yes, that does tell your competitors how they can expect you to behave, it also tells customers what your brand continues to stand for.

There’s plenty of noise now from brands about their social awareness and their advocacy for good things to happen in the world, and all the signs are there that they will continue to move this way. According to a recent EY Beacon Institute and Harvard Business Review study, 85 percent strongly agree that they are more likely to recommend a company with strong purpose and 84 percent strongly agree that business transformation efforts will have greater success if integrated with purpose. But the realities of behaving in ways that are consistent with what the brand says it stands for are much lower: only 46 percent think that their organization has a strong sense of purpose and 37 percent believe that their business model and operations are well-aligned with purpose.

The very real risk here is that brands will continue to espouse their values and purpose publicly but only act on them when it suits them to do so. That in itself says a lot about how values have become vanilla bullet point items in the strategy deck rather than the underpinning characteristics for competitive distinctiveness and consistency. Such values are worth nothing because they mean nothing. They should probably be renamed ‘convenient ideas’.

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Mark Di Somma


  • Steven Howard

    April 10, 2017 at 7:10 am

    Excellent article. Another great case study is Volkswagen. The automaker had a General Conduct Requirements book that included the following:

    The reputation of Volkswagen is determined in large part by the demeanor, actions and behavior of each individual employee. Inappropriate behavior by just one employee can cause serious damage to the organization.

    Wonderful words. But apparently not enougyh to spur any employee to go against an entrenched code of silence culture prevalent throughout the organization.

    It’s a shame they didn’t have an additional line in their corporate standards brochure:

    Appropriate behavior by any one employee can prevent serious damage to the organization.

  • Ron Strauss

    April 10, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Small nit to pick: principles often are values. Values are defined as beliefs, ideals, principals and standards that guide our decision-making and behaviors. A better word than principals would be guidelines.

    Brand values only have meaning when they are translated into actions via Governance and Action Plans. The organization needs guidelines on how to do so, so that the brand (brand values) becomes the ‘invisible hand’ managing the organization.

  • Prof Anjan Bhattacharjee

    April 14, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    I think there is a conceptual crisis here on Business operating/transactions principles and the BRAND owned by the
    organization. Brand is a symbol of differentiated quality of goods or services offered by a business entity in the market
    for consumers to choose among competitors. Principles of business is the guideline under which BRAND is created.
    It is lack of Principles of organization behind the brand vitiates involvement without judging the image or activities
    of buyers in doing business. The confusion of Brand value and its principles as claimed will vitiate the source of the
    problem and action thereof.

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