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A Reckoning for Brand Values

By Chris Ross | July 06, 2020 | 0 Comments

marketingCMOBrandMarketing Leadership and Strategy

A moment of reckoning

Times of crisis expose who we truly are as people, as organizations, and as brands. Over the last few months, we’ve all had to navigate an increasingly volatile, fluid, and dangerous world. The scourge of COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the safety of our families, friends, and co-workers and radically altered the business and economic landscape. The cruel and horrific deaths of George Floyd and far too many others have sparked a more serious, and long-overdue re-understanding of our history and the realities of black Americans. Politically, economically, culturally we are a country in crisis. We’re being challenged on what we REALLY believe and value. It’s a crucible for brand leaders. 

Consumers are hyper-attuned to brand messaging. Everything your brand puts out into this highly-charged, intensely-polarized environment will be ground down, filtered, and evaluated. The authenticity of your message, alignment with consumer values, tonality, intent, and the details of your creative execution will all be heavily scrutinized. What you say and do, or don’t say or do, will have consequences. 

Many brands are floating in an ambiguous soup of well-intended mission statements, brand vision, brand value, brand purpose, brand promise, and brand personality. The spirit of those carefully crafted, well-meaning statements and proclamations may be genuine, but the combination of muddy definitions and a lack of tangible organizational commitment to those ideals has left many brands adrift. The lofty language on the walls of your reception area won’t tell you how to respond to a pandemic or a social justice crisis. 

For some brands, clarity about values makes navigating this tumultuous environment slightly easier. Patagonia is frequently recognized as a brand that’s extremely clear and committed to their values. You can imagine the internal conversations at Patagonia are not hashing on their values, but instead weighing strategic options that flow from their known and well-established values. Most brands lack that same level of self-awareness about their ideological center. 

So who are you as a brand? Who would you like to be? This is your opportunity to prove to the world what you’re about. To get to the soul of your brand, you’ll need to be brutally honest about the current state of your brand values. Ask yourself:

Are you willing to pay the price for your values? Having big, inspiring values is easy until it requires hard decisions and the investment of real resources. There’s a price tag associated with brand values. Committed to sustainability? Are you willing to use more expensive, sustainably sourced materials and providers that may negatively impact margins? Committed to the health and safety of your employees? Are you willing to invest in additional materials, safety protocols, protective gear, and forego revenue opportunities to protect your people? Committed to social justice issues? Are you willing to invest in people, programs, and other tangible resources on an ongoing basis to create change? Real values require real investment. 

Beyond the direct economic impact, asserting your values can spark intense reactions. The Nike Colin Kaepernick campaign drove both the burning of Nike products and the deepening of brand connection. Campaigns in support of BLM or the LGBTQ community have created similarly polarizing responses. Regardless of what your values may be, rest assured that in the current environment even the most benign messages have the potential to incite the ire of someone out there. Be sure your organization is committed enough to your values to weather the inevitable storms.  

Are you walking the walk? Brand hypocrisy is certainly not a new problem, but the consequences are starting to become more serious. Consumers want and expect that brands are at minimum behaving in a way consistent with the brand’s own values. Our own Gartner research makes it clear that a brand’s ability to remain true to its own values is a significant driver of brand trust. Be candid about whether your organization is comprehensively and consistently operating in alignment with your values. If not, seriously reconsider both your commitment to your values and how those values are reflected in your brand identity.    

Aspirational values are OK if you’re genuinely committed to change. We see this playing out in the context of BLM with many brands acknowledging their limited understanding of the problems as well as their failure to actively address the underlying issues. Many brands are nowhere near where they need to be on this issue, but are sincerely committed to the journey. Ultimately, organizations will need to demonstrate ongoing investment and dedication to BLM, but in the interim, the aspirations and near-term progress can be seen as a positive. 

Whatever your ideology and underlying values, take a moment to gut-check if your brand is actually living your values. 

Are your values authentic? Where are your brand values coming from? This is one of the most complicated aspects of identifying and distilling brand values. Brand values frequently flow from company founders who create the original culture and define brand values. Founders leave, companies merge, get acquired, spun out, repositioned and rebranded. Over time, the soul of an organization, and the values associated with it, can be lost. 

Be sure your brand values are driven not by what the marketplace or public says they should be, but from what feels authentic and real. Start with the internal view of your values, then map them to the outside environment. Contrived values lead to contrived brands.   

Being committed and true to your brand values has never been more important. The best brands are continuously calibrating core values, the realities of the world, and the desires of the audiences they serve. Knowing your values, being organizationally honest, and tuned in to the world can make navigating the craziness a little easier. 

Learn more – Activist, Poser or Patron? Use Brand Ideology to Determine Your Profile (Subscription Required)

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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