”Do you have brand values?”
“Yes, you’ll find them in the kitchen.”
Turns out this particular client had six kitchens and to this day I don’t know in which kitchen they were kept!
Of course, you can’t keep values in kitchen cupboard because it’s not possible to interact with other humans without displaying values. If meetings always start on time that says something of the values of the place, if they rarely do, that says something else.
In this article I take a look at the influential role Brand Values play in an organisation and then share three case studies where values have played a fundamental role in the brand’s success.
The Role of Values
When I discuss values with clients it’s often in the context of the need to capture what’s in the ether, in the fabric of the place, because the environment in which we work will reflect how we all behave. For good or bad. Most of the time it’s good, but if it’s not defined then it will keep evolving, and so what employee number 3 thinks of the values of the workplace may be different from employee number 30. So, there is a need to define and write them down because values play a vital role in how the brand is developed. Because if you can’t define your values, you can’t use them.
A brand’s values describe the character of an organisation – how it behaves, how it treats its staff, the tone it uses in communications, how it presents itself to the world, and the products or services that it produces.
Values play a vital role in keeping you and your customer focussed on what your brand stands for.
For your team, brand values can be used both as a source of inspiration and guidance when developing new brand related initiatives. They also enable the team to sense check whether their resulting work reflects the brand values.
For your customers brand values help them recognise your brand, reinforce the relationship they have with it and critically act as a benchmark for the brand to live up to.
Six values are usually enough to provide a great sense of the character of your brand along with a sentence to define exactly what each value means as this helps those charged with delivering the brand really get to know its character.
Of course, only writing down a set of values does not make them valuable. The value comes when they are put to work in driving how the brand is both created and experienced.
Values Deliver Direction
It is said that the values of the IKEA brand – togetherness, simplicity, respect and cost consciousness – are in fact the values of Almhult, the birthplace of its founder Ingvar Kamprad (1) Those values have played a fundamental role in shaping the brand and helping IKEA become the world’s biggest furniture maker.(2)
If you have ever shopped at one of their stores, you know for the larger items you’ll need to go and grab a trolley and load up your flat-packed furniture yourself, and this, of course, means you do the work that would normally be done by an employee and so this delivers a saving that is reflected in the cost of the item.
The whole idea of flat packed furniture was popularised by Gillis Lundgren, a catalogue manager for the firm who in the early days of IKEA, when tasked with taking a table to a photo shoot, had to take the legs off to get it into the back of his car.(3) This got him thinking about how much easier it would be to ship their products if everything was flat packed. Not only would it substantially reduce transportation costs, it would also reduce the labour costs as much of the assembly would be done by the customer and not the employee. A great deal of these savings could then be passed onto the customer, thus helping to fulfil IKEA’S founder, Ingvar Kamprad ambition to make good furniture available to the masses.
By embedding the value of cost-consciousness into all its business practices, tied to its vast scale, IKEA’s customers can expect to buy furniture that is remarkably good and remarkably inexpensive. So, IKEA’s values are influential, they shape how the brand is developed and how it is experienced by customers.
Values Deliver Cohesion
Let’s look at a brand that has been able to consistently deliver its values to bind the experience of its brand, not only across different products, markets and regions but it has done this without wholly owning many of the companies that use its brand. That brand is Virgin. Started by Sir Richard Branson as a record label in the 70’s it has grown to be one of the world’s most iconic brands, often tearing up the rule book about what a brand can and can’t do. There are over 60 Virgin-branded companies across the world running a mind-boggling diversity of services including airlines, banks, mobile networks, gyms, trains, healthcare, and even space travel.(4) There are many reasons why Virgin is able to do this successfully, and one of the most important reasons is its focus on brand values to frame a set of customer expectations across its varied portfolio.
Virgin refers to its values as the brand’s backbone and lists them as follows: providing heartfelt service, being delightfully surprising, red hot, and straight up while maintaining an insatiable curiosity and creating smart disruption.(5) Let’s have a whistle-stop tour of how customers are being treated to Virgin’s heartfelt service
Virgin Money (the bank, established in 2000 after the collapse of Northern Rock) offers its members free access to one of 8 city centre lounges, where they can relax in comfortable surroundings, read a paper, take a meeting, enjoy free refreshments and wifi access. (6) Virgin Holidays builds customer excitement around their booked holiday by creating a tailor-made series of interactions from their travel experts that offers excursions and events to get the most out of their holiday.(7) Virgin trains has recently partnered with Amazon’s Alexa to enable customers to buy train tickets simply by using their voice. (8) And of let’s not forget one of Virgins most iconic companies, Virgin Atlantic, from picking up business passengers in a limo to introducing for the first seat back videos and free wifi in its cabins (way back in 2009!). (9,10).
This, along with all of the Virgin values really do provide the backbone that ensures that all its different companies can stand up as single brand.
Values Deliver Differentiation
Only a few years ago the British High Street was not the place for a chocolate lover. Customers had to choose between cheap chocolate bars sold in general stores, a specialist chain with a rich heritage but an unexciting range or super expensive providers that were out of reach for all but the most avid connoisseur. This is a problem for a country that consumes over 8 kg of chocolate per person per year! (11) In 2004, Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris changed all that by launching Hotel Chocolat on the values of authenticity, originality, and ethics.(12)
The entrepreneurs started by making sure the amount of sugar in their chocolate decreased and the amount of cocoa increased – sugar is cheaper than cocoa and many milk chocolate bars have as much as twice the amount to sugar to cocoa. Two years later the pair bought a cocoa plantation in Saint Lucia that enabled the brand to truly become an expert in every part of cocoa cultivation and production. The brand was able to leverage the passionate members of its Chocolate Club, launched in 1998 and made up of thousands ‘chocaholics’ who provide an expert sounding board for the brand. (12)
What makes the Hotel Chocolat so successful is aligning that authenticity to its originality. For example, instead of producing the traditional chocolate bar with its ‘break off’ squares, the brand offers customers a single slab of chocolate with all kinds of exotic combinations like pistachio and honey or banoffee pie. Even calling itself a hotel is original although ironically, as well as over 100 stores, it does own a hotel, cafes, restaurants, and a school of chocolate. (10) At the same time, Hotel Chocolat ensures the cocoa, the prized ingredient the brand is built on, is ethically sourced by creating its own programme to engage with the cocoa farmers across a range of subjects like fair pay, women’s empowerment, education, and stable trading. (12)
The brand ‘s foundation was and still is based on authenticity, originality, and ethics and these three values have marked Hotel Chocolat out as very different from what the high street offers, much to the delight of the British chocolate lover!
Finally, a sober word of warning, if your claimed values are ignored for even abused, your brand can be torn apart. We all know VW is famed the world over for its value of reliability – look down any street and you’ll find all ages of its models still going strong. This value has been severely compromised by the recent revelation in the US that it installed software in over half a million of its diesel cars that falsified emissions data. The company has since been fined billions, executives are serving jail sentences and the scandal continues to play out. (13) That’s a pretty catastrophic example, but the principle is the same, ignore your values at your peril because you will be judged on them.
In summary, it’s clear to see that Brand Values play a significant role in how your brand is delivered and consumed.
Internally, Brand Values keep you focussed on what your brand stands for, help deliver a cohesive experience for customers, differentiate your brand from others in the sector and sometimes act as an antidote to problems you are trying to solve.
Externally, they are just as influential, shaping how the brand is experienced by customers, helping customers recognise your brand, reinforcing the relationship they have with it and critically acting as a benchmark for the brand to live up to.
So, by defining and living by your Brand Values you will know yourself, and critically, your customers will know and love you too!
Bruce M McKinnon is a Brand Strategist and author, and has developed winning brand strategies for clients globally for over 25 years.
As well as speaking to audiences around the world on all things brand, Bruce runs Mission Brand, his own successful brand consultancy and holds an MBA from the UK’s Cranfield School of Management and the Chartered Institute of Marketing Postgraduate Diploma.
His latest book, What’s Your Point? Can be preordered at Amazon and is currently Number 1 in the Hot New Releases chart.
1. Clarke L. IKEA: Corporate Culture of the Heart. 6Q BLOG. Available at: https://inside.6q.io/ikea-corporate-culture-of-the-heart/ (Accessed: 14 April 2019)
2. IKEA. I KEA Facts and Figures 2018 Shared passions : The key to success Opening doors to diversity. 2019. pp. 1–6.
3. Gillis Lundgren. The Times. 2016. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/gillis-lundgren-j0xtwg80l (Accessed: 5 July 2019)
4. Virgin branded companies | Virgin. Virgin. Available at: https://www.virgin.com/virgingroup/company/branded (Accessed: 5 July 2019)
5. Virgin Group. Our purpose and values | Virgin. Available at: https://www.virgin.com/virgin-management-limited/careers/OurPurposeandValues (Accessed: 14 April 2019)
6. Rob. Relax in an Upper Class seat in Virgin Money lounges. Head for Points. 2014. Available at:
7. Saran C. Virgin Holidays simplifies holiday experiences with Adobe. ComputerWeekly.com. 2017. Available at: https://www.computerweekly.com/news/450430191/Virgin-Holidays-simplifies-holiday-experiences-with-Adobe (Accessed: 22 April 2019)
8. Virgin Trains gives its customers a voice with Amazon Alexa ticketing partnership. SmartRail World. 2018. Available at: https://www.smartrailworld.com/virgin-trains-amazon-alexa-ticketing-partnership (Accessed: 16 April 2019)
9. Cameron N. What Richard Branson has to say about experience delivery, leadership and disruption – CMO Australia. CMO. 2018. Available at: https://www.cmo.com.au/article/635509/what-richard-branson-has-say-about-experience-delivery-leadership-disruption/ (Accessed: 22 April 2019)
10. Clarkson N. How Virgin has innovated across industries | Virgin. Virgin. 2017. Available at: https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/how-virgin-has-innovated-across-industries (Accessed: 6 July 2019)
11. Do You Eat This Much? Imogen Blake for the Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/food/article-5549105/Mintel-reports-average-British-person-ate-chocolate-Europe-2017.html (Accessed 10 July 2019)
11. Hotel Chocolat. Our Story – Find Out About Hotel Chocolat. Available at: https://www.hotelchocolat.com/uk/engaged-ethics/our-people/Our-Story.html (Accessed: 14 April 2019)
12. Stahler P. We “totally screwed up”: Volkswagen business behavior | Business Model Innovation. Business Model Innovation. 2015. Available at: http://blog.business-model-innovation.com/2015/09/values-and-behaviors-in-volkswagen-business-model/ (Accessed: 14 April 2019)