by Elsa Gouws. In an age of high competitive intensity and a tough economic climate, companies are struggling to drive brand differentiation and attract top talent. As a result, it is critical to express who you are as a company through a distinctive set of values. Indeed, strong values provide a unique window into workplace cultures; they drive internal behaviours and they guide decision-making frameworks within businesses. In essence, values that truly mean something to employees will be profoundly felt by the customers and communities they serve.

Sadly, we regularly see outdated and clichéd company values such as “integrity, teamwork, quality, customer satisfaction, respect, excellence and innovation” bandied about — without taking into account what they really mean to the business or staff. In a study[i] of 150 multinational companies, 74% claimed integrity as a core value, 41% espoused concern for customers and 39% respect. Yet employees, for the most part, just don’t know what to do with such generic brand values…

So who’s getting it right?

Brands that have a strong, values-based approach to doing business drive individual accountability and engagement through their inspiring, high-performance workplace cultures. Google, Wholefoods and GE are standouts. Their organisational cultures are grounded in a set of core beliefs and commitments expressed through values that steer their respective business strategies, and determine their ways of working. For them, it’s not about the writing on their office walls but about the who that are committed, live the brand and do their part in achieving the business goals.

Brands with strong, values-based approaches

WholeFoods, an organic food retailer, specifically states that it believes in “selling the highest quality natural and organic products available” — which makes it very clear to employees how it should be sourcing, delivering and designing its products.

Similarly, Google doesn’t just claim “customer-centricity” as a core value. Instead, employees adopt the mantra “focus on the user and everything else will follow”, which translates into meaningful products and services that truly serve the needs of its users.

So when is it a good time to consider relooking and adjusting your company’s values?

  • When your company is going through massive organisational change and/or brand repositioning
  • When social and economic contexts change, thereby changing your customers’ needs and expectations
  • When it’s clear your company’s current values hold little meaning for your employees
  • Lastly, when your ‘company values’ are different from your ‘brand values’ — these should be consistent

Here are six tips on how to create distinctive values within your business:

  1. Make sure your values are aligned to your purpose and positioning, and bring these to life in tangible and practical ways.
  2. Try ‘bottom up’, not just ‘top down’: through collaborative workshops, involve people from all levels inside the organisation in the creation of values.
  3. Select a core group of brand advocates to lead the change: 5-10 individuals (depending on size of company) from anywhere in the organisation who best represent what the brand stands for, have a gut-level understanding of the culture of the organisation, and have the highest level of credibility with their peers[ii].
  4. Reinforcement is critical — repeat, reward and recognise.
  5. Involve the people that interface with your customers on a daily basis.
  6. Treat the process with respect and have patience.

[i] Notre Dame University, Do corporate values make a difference? 2016
[ii] Jim Collins, Aligning Action and Values, June 2000

General reading

  • Harvard Business Review, Make Your Values Mean Something, July 2002
  • A Great Place to Work, Organisational values, November 2014
  • Business Insider, The 5 values Facebook looks for in every employee, 2016
  • Forbes, Enron, Ethics and Today’s Corporate Values, February 2013
  • Linkedin Pulse, 10 Lessons in Defining Your Company Values, May 2013

Buy your copy of Brands & Branding 2016 today.


Brands & Branding 2017 preliminary coverElsa Gouws is a strategist at Yellowwood. She has a master’s degree in business science and the management of luxury goods and services from the International University of Monaco in Monte Carlo, and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Stellenbosch.

The article first appeared in the 2016 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research. Editorial contributions and sponsored brand profiles accepted until early August for the 2017 edition. Copies of the current edition are still available — buy one here.

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2 replies on “Brands & Branding: Clichés vs meaningful company values”

    1. Hi Litha – you are right. The story was written in 2016 before exposés on the toxic culture at Uber started to appear. We’ve edited the piece to take that information into account.

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