Why Your Core Values Aren’t Your Brand

Once I was speaking with a Senior Vice President at a long-established company.  He told me the following:

“My CEO said we’ve done okay for the past 150 years, so he doesn’t see any reason why we can run the business the same way for another 150 years.”

The senior executive, a man wise to the ways of the world, naturally scoffed at that idea and vowed to change course once the CEO had left. Sadly, however, this CEO’s view of business continues to be popular, even when it’s not stated so overtly.

What’s going on here?

The half-truth that becomes gospel truth

In some sense, the CEO might be correct, but only to a point. Yes, it is true that the core values of the business (customer service, community involvement and so on) should continue into the future. But how those core values manifest themselves in forming (and re-forming) the company’s brand is another matter entirely.

Let’s take the example of Wegmans Food Markets, a popular supermarket chain in the United States. Their core values are: “Caring, High Standards, Making a Difference, Respect, and Empowerment.”

Now, those values are important, obviously, but they’re not the same as the company’s brand.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. They don’t force any obvious, necessary or specific conclusions about how Wegmans should run their stores or what “face” they should show their customers.
  2. Inherent in any great brand is differentiation, something that other companies can’t copy very easily. The core values Wegmans listed can be imitated, will be imitated and are being imitated. (For more on this point, see my post The Art of Differentiation.) For those more philosophically minded, think about the many variations of the same Golden Rule.

So when we say that a company needs to execute on its core values on a daily basis, what we’re really saying is that the company needs to have a great brand, with all that entails. But your brand is about more than even execution. It’s about the creative, new and unique ways in which you execute on your core values.

And how has Wegmans done that? By understanding customer needs and responding accordingly. According to the Washington Post, Wegmans differentiates in various ways that customers love:

  • Size – The stores are many times larger than typical supermarkets
  • Freshness – It has some of the freshest produce
  • Price – It keeps prices low by controlling its distribution process
  • Experience – Wegmans’ size lets it offer “a number of twists on traditional supermarket makeups”

If Wegmans didn’t meet customer needs in new and creative ways, it would lose market share and go out of business, core values be damned. Indeed, I’d wager that most people don’t even know or even care that Wegmans has core values. But even if they do, your branding is your proof that you, well, value your core values. Talk is cheap, and so are core values — unless there’s action to back them up.

Be better through branding

What’s the moral of this story for your brand?

It’s this: While your brand must of course be consistent with your core values, it also goes beyond your core values because it reaches outside of your four walls into the world where customers live. It’s the door in the photo that opens to the wider world.

Your brand is a conversation between your company and your customers, where you’re constantly working to make a valuable/profitable connection between your products or services and the deeper emotional or psychological needs of your target customers.

Put in plain(er) English, your brand is more than your logo. It’s more than your core values. It’s what makes you different (your differentiators) and it’s what makes customers want to do business with you.

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