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11 March 2015 / Are your brand values a waste of time?

Brand values: like puppies in a basket

Image by Carlos Estrada

A brand without values can’t really be a brand at all. To have any power in the marketplace, brands require trust. A brand with no principles would provide little or no basis for such trust. So whether they’re conscious or unconscious, spoken or unspoken, values are vital to your brand.

But brand values can’t just be any old values. Some of your important values will, quite naturally, be shared by your competitors. These are vital core values but their very ubiquity among your peers means they are of limited use in distinguishing your brand. Brand values need to help make you distinctive.

Let’s suppose, though, that you have a well thought through and distinctive set of brand values. It is still quite possible they’re doing very little for you. Why? Because brand values must have influence on staff behavior if they are to have any effect. After all, if your staff aren’t influenced by your brand why should anyone else be?

There’s a simple and useful test for this: if each member of your staff is asked to cite your brand values off the top of their head, how well will they do? Chances are their recall will be less than perfect. And the longer your list of values, the worse their recall will be. If staff can’t easily recall your brand values, just how influential are they going to be on the work they do each day? If staff have to reach for an employee or brand handbook to check your brand values, that’s a fail.

Sometimes lists of brand values are too long to be remembered easily. Values are like puppies in a basket. They can be very hard to resist and, unlike those puppies, there are few barriers to taking them all home. Googling any list of values will show you that they seem to be universally positive. Who wouldn’t want to be innovative? Creative? Honest? How about dynamic? Research by Adobe, for example, suggests that 68% of companies say that they are ‘creative’. So if that’s on your list of values it may be doing little for your brand.

Put simply, there is a very high risk of producing a bloated feel-good list of values that are really little more than platitudes.

At Jog, we’ve been chewing on this problem for a while. We long ago started to recommend that clients keep their brand values lists tight. Ideally just three words, because people can remember three words. Faster, higher, further, for example. But in itself this is nowhere near enough.

You can have a really well defined, distinctive, and tight set of brand values and still get too little from them. The problem is lack of definition on how you expect staff to put these values into action.

Let’s suppose that your marketing department is all over your brand values list and ensures it drives their work. This may be a good thing. But if they have limited influence on the rest of your team, you risk creating a brand gap.

A brand gap is that cavern which can open up between your marketing promises and people’s real-world experience of your brand.

Beyond all of that lies another issue. Even if each and every staff member can intone your brand values with near religious fervor they can still be next to useless, even counterproductive. Why? Because values lists tend to rely on simple words like ‘innovation’, ‘creativity’ ‘quality’ and ‘dynamism’. While the assumption may be that these are all positive attributes this is almost never the case. Innovation can be bad. (Cyber criminals, for example, are hugely innovative.) Quality can be low as well as high. In fact almost all of the words typically used represent a broad concept that, in reality, is too loose to truly and clearly affect behavior or set properly measurable expectations.

So how do you ensure that a well-considered list of brand values actually goes to work for your brand? How do you take your values and put them to work?

How do you ensure they aren’t, metaphorically, just loafing around on your reception sofas making meaningless promises to anyone that walks through the door, while doing very little else?

The answer lies in turning your values list into a mantra that’s simple, measurable and actionable. This may prompt you to think of SMART goals, which are all of the above with ‘Realistic’ and ‘Timely’ thrown into the mix too. So why shouldn’t a brand values list also be realistic and timely? Well that which isn’t realistic isn’t actionable, so having both qualities seems superfluous. And this mantra is designed to be relevant long term. Time is not of the essence, in fact timelessness is a virtue.

To see the difference a values mantra can make, consider the following values list:

• Innovate • Challenge • Influence

Not bad. It’s relatively distinctive. And it’s instructional, a call to action.

But then compare this values list with the following values mantra:

• Do it first • Make trouble • Inspire change

When comparing the list of brand values above with the brand mantra that follows it, we see the same basic values but a world of difference. ‘Innovate’ isn’t measurable. ‘Do it first’ is. ‘Challenge’ means many things. How do you know when you’ve really challenged people? It’s much easier to know when you’ve made trouble. But making trouble can be pointless and simply annoying. So it’s vital to know why are you making trouble. Let’s suppose you were making trouble to create ‘influence’, how and why will that occur? When you know you’re doing it to ‘inspire change’ all becomes clear. Leading change through inspiration is a much richer idea than simply gaining influence.

Who owns the brand mantra: do it first, make trouble, inspire change? It belongs to Channel 4, the UK’s fourth TV channel.

Anyone familiar with Channel 4’s content will know just how powerfully that mantra has had an enduring influence over what the channel does. Channel 4 doesn’t need to put this mantra on screen in words because it is exemplified in its output. Channel 4’s mantra is manifest on screen in the content that it commissions and broadcasts. And this is true because it’s simple, measurable and actionable. It ensures that everyone at Channel 4 knows what they are there to work to achieve each and every day.

So, do you need to dust off your values list and develop a mantra that in turn transforms your brand? And once you’ve done that, what changes could your brand-values mantra inspire?

13 November 2014 / The limits of skin-deep branding

Branding is a word used so liberally nowadays that it’s easy to forget its origins. Etymologically, brand is a Germanic word that means ‘to burn’. It came to mean a mark of ownership since branding irons were used to mark the hides of cattle to determine which beasts belonged to which owner. In most cases the word branding signifies something rather different nowadays. But these skin-deep origins are still in evidence.

Branding in a modern business context exists because of commercial considerations. The same was true with branding cattle. Cattle were important. They were the earliest form of money, with some of the first metal money taking the form of bull’s horns as a result. Unbranded cattle could belong to anyone or be assumed by anyone that applied their brand. This was especially true in free-roaming plains like those in the USA where, famously, a certain cattle owner with the surname Maverick refused to brand his cattle. This gave rise to the use of ‘maverick’ for pretty much anything that resists convention. It is often said that Maverick’s refusal was out of concern over hurting the animals.

But it is just as likely that cattle ownership – very much an incidental sideline for Maverick – held little interest for him. Maverick had broader business interests and did not consider his cattle to be a commercially-important activity. Those that saw their herd as an investment branded their cattle.

Branding as we understand it today is a term with its origins in fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). The rise of individual packages gradually overtook selling in bulk containers, and brands became a marks of origin applied to packs rather than hides. But in some important ways brands in FMCG and elsewhere do the same job today that cattle brands did way back: they prove not only ownership but responsibility. If we don’t know the origin of something it is much harder to be assured of its quality and to get response when something goes wrong. If a loose bull rampages through a town, knowing who owns it means knowing who to go to to get the problem sorted. Likewise we need the same traceability with products and services.

In this way branding and reputation are synonymous. This is why the great majority of things we buy are either branded or purchased through a branded source. We value that traceability and transparency. In our branded world, mavericks are rare. Muji, for example, claims to eschew branded goods, but Muji is in itself a powerful brand.

There is, of course, no rule that says non-branded goods bought in a non-branded context (say off an anonymous market stall) aren’t every bit as good as their branded equivalents. But in most cases we will only buy such goods where they are sold at a distinct discount to their branded equivalents. This observation, the recognition that branding is fundamental to adding value, has led many companies to focus on brand management as their foremost skill. Brand management can include everything from promoting the brand to designing the products, but increasingly manufacturing and client-servicing are outsourced to third parties. The irony is that this more skin-deep focus on the pure practice of branding can dilute the power of a brand.

In electronics, for example, the outsourcing of manufacture has led to an increase in quality across the board. If one factory makes flatscreen TVs for a number of different brands the standards of the most quality-focused brand are likely to have the greatest influence on factory policies and the quality of all products produced. When this happens people still want to buy a brand but are less fussy about WHICH brand. Put simply they know the goods will all be made in pretty much the same factories to very similar quality standards. The same applies to service brands. If your customers all end up being dealt with by the same identikit call centres that are used by your competitors differentiation all but disappears.

This leads us to an important conclusion. The most powerful branding tool is not words or even images; it is actions that make the real difference. What your brand does differently and what you do differently in creating, developing and managing it are key. The pressure to outsource a call centre or add a feature just because a competitor has it

can be very great indeed. And both may be the right thing to do. But with each and every move it is vital to reflect on whether you’re strengthening or weakening your brand.

15 May 2014 / Cut-and-shut branding

Dixons and Carphone Warehouse are to merge in a deal worth £3.8bn. Strangely the new organisation will be called Dixons Carphone. This brings together the device-retailing and support expertise of Dixons with the connectivity expertise of Carphone Warehouse. This strategy reflects the way the world is changing and seems to make great sense. The naming strategy isn’t so clear.

Dixons ceased to be a high-street name nearly a decade ago, pushing Currys and PC World instead. And using ‘Carphone’ while dropping ‘Warehouse’ flags up just how dated that name has become. Carphone? What’s that?!

Perhaps the Dixons Carphone brand name will never be seen at retail. But investors are a vital audience too. The chosen name seems to us to do the very opposite of projecting the future-thinking that apparently inspired the merger.

17 April 2014 / Crowd-coining: names from the nameless

At Jog we’ve been involved in more than a few naming projects. We’ve minted names for several clients and helped many others in the process of arriving at an apt moniker. It’s wordsmithery with the most minimal output (often just a single word). Yet seldom is it an easy process. So it interests us when names are coined or adapted through use.

For example, when was the last time you travelled on ‘The Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (BS&WR)’? Believe it or not there was a brief struggle to maintain that name, driven by the then editor of Railway Magazine who found the unofficial but commonly-used ‘Bakerloo Line’ undignified. He failed (obviously). Just as Norman Foster had to admit defeat in his lonely crusade to resist 30 St. Mary Axe being ubiquitously called ‘The Gherkin’.

Closer to home our client Addition Plus (an online advertising specialist) was tautologically renamed by popular opinion.

Originally our client simply called their brand ‘Addition’. Our simple logo placed a series of plus symbols after the word Addition, and thereafter clients referred to the business as Addition Plus. It is now the official name.

You could call this crowd-coining. The results of which are nearly always better than what went before. But it’s a process that really only works if it’s informal. It’s not about naming competitions, judging committees and photos in the local paper. And it’s often hard to pin the origin of the idea to a specific individual. Even where you can identify the original wordsmith it is adoption by the crowd that holds the true power.

Crowd-coining just happens. And when it does, resistance is futile.

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