Brands Need to Decide and Communicate Company Values That Define What They Stand For
For many of us, the past 30 months have been the most professionally turbulent period we’ve experienced: a global pandemic that changed work habits forever; bitter political divisions that have split our nation; racial strife and killings; extreme gun violence; severe economic disruptions; the war in Ukraine; the great Resignation. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
As brand leaders try to cope with all these challenges, they need to be asking hard questions:
- What will business look like when we finally move beyond the chaos?
- What can I do to help my business and my customers today?
- What can I do to maintain my well-being, and the well-being of my business, during these acutely challenging times?
Then, another question is likely the most important for business leaders to consider as they look toward the future.
What does my brand stand for?
It’s a simple question in many ways. But the past two and a half years make it vitally important that every brand define what it stands for and broadly communicate that positioning. Things are so inflamed that we believe stating what your brand stands for is the most important marketing decision you’ll make (or refine) in 2022.
In doing so, you will need to accept that some customers and prospects will receive your positioning positively (even if they disagree with it), and others won’t accept it so willingly. And it’s OK that some won’t be on board with your positioning.
Take a Stand
To understand the stress we’re all under, it’s worth recounting the factors weighing on us and our businesses. The likely starting point is the intense political division that split this country. For those of us who are old enough, we can identify things in the past 20-30 years that led up to today’s division and gridlock. Still, we could also agree that the divisions grew sharper with the leadup to the 2016 presidential election and have worsened consistently since that time.
Then there was:
- Covid in early 2020, the shutdown debate, the vaccine debate, the who-to-blame debate
- Racial strife that reached a crescendo with the killing of George Floyd in May 2020
- The gun violence that continues to rock our nation weekly. Of course, the highest profile recent tragedy was the killing of 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas, but even singling out that one event runs the risk of reducing the tragedies in other communities
- Russia started the war in Ukraine
- Inflation in the United States is causing more economic pain in the wake of Covid-19’s economic impact
- The Great Resignation, which started in 2019 but is ongoing
Companies need to stand up and make their voices heard amid the turmoil and divisions. They need to take a stand.
Five Areas to Take a Stand
It’s relatively easy to say that companies need to take a stand, but much more difficult to recommend a set of actions or recommendations on how they live up to that. So, we’ll raise five specific issues that brands need to consider and how we think they should act on them. These are viewpoints of one brand in the spirit of advancing a discussion on a timely, important topic. Disagreements, and discussions, are welcome:
#1: How do you define your values and communicate them?
At the heart of your approach to the events in the world and how your brand projects itself is the concept of your corporate values, which you can also think of as a belief system. If you haven’t defined your values and communicated them to your employees at a minimum, now is the time to do so. This belief statement is different than a mission statement and think of your values as principles your employees strive to live by daily.
When an employee needs to make an unsupported decision on behalf of a customer and isn’t sure what to do, the company’s values should guide that employee and bring clarity to the decision-making process. Think about defining three to five values, sharing them with employees, and telling customers (and the rest of the world) what they are.
How to communicate your values: hang them in your offices, post them on your website, add them to your social media feeds, include them in your email tagline, and print them on your business cards (if you still use those quaint icons). Be prepared to have customers and employees hold you to those values. You may have noticed that in recent times, many companies list some variations of the “Don’t be evil” principle popularized by Google, but in a more positive sense, such as “Be good people” or “be good humans” or “show empathy.”
Avoid overused phrases that do little to differentiate your company from all the other core values and mission statements.
A good set of company principles might include being customer-centric, being biased toward action, and promoting employee work-life balance.
#2: How do you engage with customers, given everything happening worldwide and that face-to-face contact is dead or on life support?
Make a regular practice of checking in with your customers – ask about their wellbeing, their business, and whether there’s anything you can do to help them professionally or personally. It’s become somewhat trite to recommend practicing empathy, but you should be considerate and caring. The mental health crisis that arose out of Covid is real, and people will appreciate it when you ask about their well-being.
Once you have established personal concern and compassion, ask how you can help their business and how they would like to engage with you, given all the changes we have experienced. Would they want to meet face to face? If not, what is their preference? What do they prefer to avoid? If videoconferencing is their preference, do they have a preferred platform, and what would be most convenient for them?
Check for signals as to what they prefer, and don’t be surprised if they are reluctant to spell it out. If they’ve stopped returning phone calls, don’t keep calling them. If they aren’t returning emails, try checking in by phone. If they frequently turn down face-to-face meetings, take that cue and focus on Zoom/Teams/Webex meetings.
More than ever, your customer is in the driver’s seat, and you must respect that position.
#3: How do you attract and retain employees? How do you engage with employees, given all the stresses and pressures they feel?
Work from home and the Great Resignation aren’t the only seismic changes in the workforce over the past two-plus years. More and more employees of all ages have re-evaluated their willingness to log marathon hours, to work weekends and late evenings, and to stay online at all hours just in case the boss comes calling in “off” hours. Yes, employees still understand that will occasionally happen. Still, they’ve also come to recognize that such inquiries or outreaches often don’t warrant the urgency that their managers and senior team members may be assigning. Senior staff members are accustomed to receiving prompt responses, even if the timing or nature of the inquiry doesn’t necessitate that. So, people have gotten wiser; they’re less willing to drop whatever they’re doing to appease a big ego. And that’s a good thing.
What does it all mean for employee recruitment and retention? Employers need to do more than publish a list of values and profess allegiance to them. If they say one of their values is work-life balance, they must live up to that statement. Online reviews and word of mouth are powerful factors influencing an employer’s ability to attract and retain employees.
And wouldn’t it be nice if more employers banned some brazen recruitment practices, including:
- Going far down the recruitment path then ghosting a prospect
- Trying to get work out of a candidate to mine their ideas and contacts
- Hiring an employee then radically changing their role without any discussion or warning
These practices can haunt an employer. The recruitment process should be a natural give and take, with respect from the employer to the prospect and vice-versa.
Similar thinking, but different practices, apply to employee retention. Some things to not do encourage people to take time off but work in such a fashion that it’s clearly indicated you can’t take days off or need to be available on your days off.
Make resources available to help employees cope with the stresses and pressures that we’re all experiencing. Talk to them yourself, have mental health counseling as part of a benefits package (if feasible), and bring people together to share their concerns and feelings. Sharing feelings should not always be viewed as a negative, touch-feely experience but rather an opportunity to convey concern and compassion.
#4: How is your business changing, and what do your customers need from you today?
It’s never been more important to keep your ear to the ground, so to speak, or to be attentive to any signals (implicit or explicit) that customers are sending. There is no doubt that your business is changing; it’s a given for most businesses that they can no longer interact with customers in all the ways they did pre-pandemic. In many cases, customers’ needs and preferences have changed.
That makes it incumbent on leaders to emphasize the need to be agile and stay responsive to customers to ensure your company is doing what it can to retain them. In some cases, you may not be able to maintain them because things look so different (for them and you) today, but that’s no reason for acrimony or bitterness.
You never know when you may cross paths again or when they may be a prospective customer again, so even a breakup today calls for a measured, respectful response that leaves open the door to future opportunities.
#5: What and how do you communicate about significant events? What do your employees and customers expect from you?
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling that reverses Roe v. Wade is a prime example of a significant issue confronting your business in the immediate term. It’s a hot-button topic to which those who speak out on either side risk angering a healthy percentage of their prospective customers.
For those reasons, it’s been fascinating to see many companies and leaders come out with statements about their corporate policies and responses to the ruling; the issue is that important to their employees and customers. Kudos to those who have made concrete statements, even when those statements pose risks to their business. Putting aside their specific responses, they have shown respect to their customers, employees, and shareholders (for those with shareholders) to go on the record with a direct position. We suspect those who do so, even among those who disagree with them, earn respect for being straightforward and candid. Such an event presents a golden opportunity to demonstrate values that define your company and help you build a track record of honesty, credibility, and integrity. To state clearly what you and your brand stand for.
A rule of thumb, in our view, is that anything so important that it dominates the news while grabbing the attention of political, economic, religious, and other parties – and is likely to divide people – is worth developing and communicating a public position.
An effective marketing strategy in 2022 necessitates having a position on the day’s hot-button issues. Your customers expect it, your employees expect it, and you will likely find that your brand position impacts your marketing messaging and your employee recruitment and retention efforts.
When someone asks you what your brand stands for, it’s time that your company has an answer at the ready.