13 August 2020

‘You are what you start’ – the competitive advantage of unwavering brand values

Nick Ford-Young


Earlier this year whilst fine tuning our proposition for the impending launch of Boldspace, our chairman Simon Sherwood gave us a particularly valuable reminder – ‘you are what you start.’ An especially astute statement where brand values are concerned.

Values are pillars that guide and define behaviour – traits you believe to be present, crucial to your being, that you want to be known for.

Many brands don’t think of values as one of the most important, active guides, definers and markers for distinctiveness and growth they have at their disposal; but time and time again we see that where values are ignored, brands fall down, either internally, in public or both.

Any brand not looking at hiring, innovation, expansion, acquisitions and sustainability (to name a few) through the lens of their values is missing out on a huge, cohesive, brand-driving and differentiating opportunity.

Internally, high staff churn rates, demotivation and discord are almost always because proclaimed value expectations are not met with consistent behaviour. Externally, loss of consumer trust is almost always when proclaimed value expectations and not met with consistent action. Just ask Ellen DeGeneres or L’Oréal.

The challenge is to build your values, so they are accurate enough to define your brand, and meaningful enough to guide your brand, providing a distinct competitive advantage.

Often you look at brand values and they feel generic – ‘honesty’, ‘authenticity’, ‘care’. Agencies must take responsibility for some pretty lazy work on many of these. But brands must also not accept work which doesn’t get them in their gut, and scream – ‘that’s who we are and who we want to be.’ Your values must make you feel something.

To avoid genericism I’ve heard strategists describe a good value as one that can have ‘an opposite which could also be attributed to another brand’ e.g. one brand might have the value of ‘fearlessness’ whilst another might have ‘diligence’, but I think this is a hamstringing approach. You don’t always need a value with a clear opposite.

You do however need each value to be productive; i.e. a value should not be a complete given. ‘Honesty’, ‘integrity’ and ‘authenticity’ have to surely be givens for any half-decent brand so are redundant in aiding distinctiveness. Common horrors ‘results-driven’ and ‘customer-centric’ simply aren’t values, let the record show.

Another common culprit is ‘care’, but whilst it may feel obvious, I would argue has true value in defining some brands’ approaches. For Nivea or the NHS it’s clear why it makes the list, but the use of ‘care’ for Phillips and LEGO says a lot about the commitments they hold themselves to internally, which offers an external perception, internal guide and adds a meaningful dimension.

We must also remember that values never sit on their own, so the make-up of these behavioural pillars together, should characterise a brand distinctively, clearly and characterfully. Furthermore, like all strategic exercises – from functional benefits to positioning territories – adding specificity will help paint the picture and make it much more ownable.

Here is how the NHS incorporate ‘care’ into their picture of values:

Respect and dignity · Commitment to quality of care · Compassion · Improving lives · Working together for patients · Everyone counts.

Google look to add specificity and ownability to their quirky collection of values or behavioural parameters. For example, three of their ten are:

You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.

It’s best to do one thing really, really well.

Fast is better than slow.

Google’s nicely demonstrate how values should not only guide your people, personality, character and tonality but can and should act as the building blocks for business strategy too. You can see how Google’s values translate into their physical business approach and growth plan, which they have indeed executed and continue to – freely, focused and very fast.

For Boldspace’s values we wanted to keep them honest enough to feel like behavioural traits we will abide by forever; but collectively contrasting enough to give us an edge in the market.

Boldness, transparency, empathy, challenge and progressiveness underpin how we work. We exhibit these in all actions from hiring and technology, to sustainability policy and ensuring an internal ethos of reading, challenge and debate.

Not compromising on or veering from these and being determined to ‘be what we start’ has been a truly interesting commercial lesson, immediately seeing the results of practicing what we preach.

Our job applicants have been heavily aligned with the values we have laid out, often referencing them in their interviews as key components that attracted them. Hiring great staff from established businesses as a start-up is not easy. But value drivers have played an incredibly important role in building an amazing, aligned team of people, our first quarter just passed.

It’s also fascinating how our clients actively share the same values. With backgrounds in lifestyle & luxury (myself) and financial services (Mike) our initial eight clients have not necessarily been what we would have expected, but instead are a very eclectic mix of challenger brands that are largely united by the values we convey and are driven by, not our old portfolios.

This is no coincidence, but proof that the benefits of being unwavering about living and breathing a set of values from day one – that you put out to the world and never compromise on – is a crucial strategic building block for business.

What are your values?