Strong, distinctive brand values can be a crucial point of difference – they clarify our identity, remind us why we all get out of bed in the morning and serve as a rallying point for everyone in the team.

On the other hand, empty, generalised brand values are not just a weaker, harmless version of the above – they can be highly destructive. A disjoint between corporate words and working reality leads to cynicism among team members, alienates customers and undermines managerial credibility.

But coming up with strong values—and sticking to them—requires bravery and honesty. It’s important to distinguish between those values that actually make your company what it is (and set you apart), and those you share with your competitors because they’re the minimum customers expect. Worse still, beware of “virtue signalling” values – those you feel you should talk about because everyone else is.

So let’s clarify the different types of values so that we can judge for ourselves between actual, useful principles and empty words:

Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that govern everything a company does, at every level; they’re its cultural cornerstones. These should run through the veins (or at least the brains) of everyone in the team – inherent and sacrosanct; they’re never compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain.

Aspirational values are those on which the company’s future success may well depend, but aren’t yet part of your make-up. It’s crucial to be honest about this. Ask yourselves, “Is this really how we behave, or how we feel we need to behave?”. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having aspirational values – they can help you plan for changes in the market or the industry, introduce new strategies or overcome weaknesses. But it’s highly dangerous to promise what you don’t yet deliver, so keep them separate.

“Entry-Fee” values, to put it bluntly, are just the bare minimum behavioural and social standards required to be in business. They’re like food safety certificates in restaurants. “Our food won’t kill you” is not a recommendation; hygiene ratings are not Michelin stars. Entry-Fee values are pretty much the same whatever company you walk into – particularly those in the same industry – so they’re about as useful in defining culture as “showing up for work” or “not stealing”.

We’ve all seen entry-fee values in brand guidelines – vapid, wispy words like “Communication” “Respect”, “Integrity”, “Excellence”. Do they have any effect as cultural cornerstones? Well, the very fact that those values were stated in Enron’s 2000 Annual Report tells you all you need to know.

If you have an unusually rigorous process for ensuring integrity or excellence that sets you apart, why not talk about that instead? “We try to do one thing better each day” is more meaningful than a single, stale word that’s tainted by your competitors. If “Disruptive” is a quality you want to foster, make it a rallying point about what or whom you’re disrupting.

Accidental values are those which have arisen without management guidance and have become ingrained because they’re simply a common trait among the employees. A start-up company with young employees that go out together after work may feel their culture is one of “we work and play hard together”. But as the company matures and has to employ more older, married workers, this may no longer be a defining characteristic.

And let’s be clear – values aren’t words – they’re feelings, passions, reasons to get out of bed in the morning. Nobody throws back the covers shouting “teamwork” or “excellence”.

So given that 55% of fortune 500 companies claim “integrity” as a core value and 40% declare that “team-work” is the defining characteristic of the people that work together in their organisation (really?) What values can you honestly claim make your company different? What do you do that others in your industry don’t? And how do you do them to raise yourselves above the norm?

Once you’ve identified them, can you be sure that they’ll be integrated into every corporate process? Hiring, marketing, performance reviews, client care, aftercare?

Your brand is a walk-in experience – so every contact a customer has with the company (and every contact team members have with management and each other) should reflect and reinforce these values, or they mean nothing.

It’s hard, and sometimes it will be tempting to bypass them – but that’s why they’re called “values”.

As a guide – here are some of the better examples to be found: 


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