Turning company values into active principles

Do you dare translate company values into action principles?

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It’s all very well having a purpose and company values, but how have you translated those into actionable principles that guide what you will do and won’t do?

It seems obvious at first glance that companies would use the values they have created to decide what is in and what is out in terms of activities and opinions. And yet many brands seem not to have connected their company values with the business realities. They have not translated what was agreed into principles that define what they consider to be acceptable to and for the business overall. Or the business environment has moved beneath their feet to the point where those values can no longer act as effective guidance. (Take a look at this long and insightful article on the dilemmas facing Facebook.)

Google has come in for sharp criticism over what it allows to happen on its sites

For example, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued its 2017 Digital Terrorism and Hate Report Card, it was quick to point the finger at the social media giants for not doing enough to prevent or discourage the online marketing of terrorism and hate groups. At a briefing for the release of the Report, the Associate Dean of the Center said, “Google/ YouTube earned a C- on the digital report card for allowing the proliferation of “how to” videos that instruct people on how to build and deploy explosives from materials found in the home.  They also earned a “D” for their failure to remove thousands of hate group posting[s].”

None of this seems, on the face of it, to align with Google’s own unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil”, unless you only interpret that statement to mean that as long as Google itself doesn’t do anything it considers to be evil, then any evil that happens through or because of Google’s presence in the world does not count. That’s not a distinction that consumers find easy to make. For many of them, Google’s undertaking can be read as the company saying it won’t associate with anything that can  be considered evil.

Which brings us back to where this started. How does your brand fix limits around what it tolerates and what it doesn’t? And who gets to decide? For me, the onus is increasingly on companies that pride themselves on their values to explore the implications of those commitments for not just what they stand for but how they behave, who they do business with and what they will and will not tolerate.

“Because we value [this], we will always do this”. Or “because we value [this], we refuse to do [this] or [this]”. That way the boundaries are clear and the risks of overstepping what your own people and your customers expect are much reduced.

Guiderails for what your company stands for

I’ve raised this a number of times in workshops over recent years and the pushback is always that such an approach limits what the brand can do competitively. That, I’ve always counter-argued, is precisely the point. Building active operating principles out of your company values helps guide what you initiate and how you respond. It sets clear and consistent parameters around what is acceptable to your brand and what is not – and while, yes, that does tell your competitors how they can expect you to behave, it also tells customers what your company continues to stand for and to value.

There’s plenty of noise now from brands about their social awareness and their advocacy for good things to happen in the world, and all the signs are there that they will continue to move this way. According to a recent EY Beacon Institute and HBR study, 85 percent strongly agree that they are more likely to recommend a company with strong purpose and 84 percent strongly agree that business transformation efforts will have greater success if integrated with purpose. But the realities of behaving in ways that are consistent with what the brand says it stands for are much lower: only 46 percent think that their organisation has a strong sense of purpose and 37 percent believe that their business model and operations are well-aligned with purpose.

The very real risk here is that companies will continue to espouse their values and purpose publicly but only act on them when it suits them to do so. That in itself says a lot about how company values have become vanilla bullet point items in the strategy slidedeck rather than the underpinning characteristics for competitive distinctiveness and consistency. Such values are worth nothing. They mean nothing because they decide nothing. They should probably be renamed ‘convenient ideas’.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title Why Brand Principles Supersede Brand Values.


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