Fake news, post-truth events (e.g. Brexit or Trump's election), 'tired' and insincere values statements… There's never been a better time for businesses to consider what their brand represents, especially to their customers. This includes ensuring that what the brand owners think it stands for is in fact consistent with what consumers are saying about it.

Building businesses for the future

Doing a spot of social listening is time very well spent. For what customers say about you, when they don't realise you're tuned in, can provide moments of rare truth about how strong your brand really is. It's not always easy listening, but it's better to know and change, than to jog along merrily believing your own hype. Too many businesses do...

For as nations, businesses and politicians have all learned to their cost in the last 12 months, there's a real danger in assuming that everything's under control and that there is no need to invest in finding out how you are perceived (and more fundamentally, verifying whether that perception aligns with your expectations and objectives).

You might have the best written plan and some first class advisers, but if your brand isn't credible or on the same wavelength as your customers, you're unlikely to be around for long. 

What's true for politicians is just as true for business.

Because brand values matter more than ever in a post-truth world. When spin and emotion become an accepted narrative, such that they take on undisputed factual status (despite not being fact), it is our brand values that help us to ride out the storm and to get the right result. 

Without strong and credible brand values, the simple fact is that whoever we are, we just don't get chosen; we make it easy for others who shout louder and use different tactics to topple us.  

The linked article provides some great examples of brands who are responsibly investing in their brand reputation and making sure their brand purpose is clear, to notable success. It also examines why they are making such an effort to do so. 

Great brand reputation Is made over time, not bought

Crucially, it's not about achieving a quick fix by chucking money around or appointing one person with a new fancy title. You don’t need to have a lot of budget to harness the opportunities.

This is summed up well by Glimpse's co-founder, quoted in the article, who emphasises that it isn’t about 'going after the activist dollar'. Any initiative taken by a brand has to be 'rooted in an authentic sense of purpose' that is coherent with the business and, if necessary, 'backed up by real changes to core business' he says.

Coming up with the money may in fact be the easiest part of it. Demonstrating lasting, compelling brand integrity and turning it to your competitive advantage takes people, not money.

Those people must feel that clear sense of brand purpose and they must buy into and feel empathy with it, which inevitably means experiencing it themselves on a regular basis.

So it's definitely not about a marketing or HR department (or an agency) coming up with a set of glossy and well-designed corporate missions and values, to which the leadership of a business pay lip-service only and which employees are mandated to memorise and recount.

Paying lip-service is as damaging as doing nothing

With ratings and review opportunities everywhere these days, hugely influential social media channels and well-consulted job/recruiting sites like Glassdoor, (well-known for encouraging employees to 'say it like it is), there is nowhere to hide for brands who might claim to take honest actions or to be ethical, non-discriminatory and community-spirited, but who would appear to be anything but those things when it comes to what is experienced by those whom they impact.

Diageo's first 'head of culture', Leila Fataar, is also quoted several times in the linked article. 'Brands who don't live up to their billing are being found out,' she confirms.

And that's a rapid slippery slope down towards consumer and employee outrage, sales and recruitment challenges and in some cases, boycott.

Great brand values are evidenced, not promoted

Brand purpose and values aren't advertising tools or slogans. They form an essential part of the environment in which a brand grows, creates and finds its route to market. They're what informs brand messaging, supply chain choices, production practices, sales and marketing approaches.  They're the guardrails in difficult times, the watermark below which nobody is permitted to go, the targets to be met and exceeded.  

I remember the first time I was involved in creating a values programme for a large business. This goes back over 15 years now. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this from some colleagues, mostly due to the expectation that our marketing and promotional materials could all evidence this wonderful initiative in which we were engaged and on which money was being spent.

'Don’t our stakeholders expect us to have values and do these things already?' I remember asking. 'If we start putting references to them in our marketing materials, are we in danger of making people think we've changed and that we didn’t do these things before? Don’t our clients expect us to act with integrity, ethically source, treat workers fairly, etc.?'

We hadn’t changed. But if we had turned this into a marketing campaign, we could well have ended up creating that sort of adverse impression, which would definitely have heavily undermined our intentions, not to mention the damage to our reputation.

As Diageo's Leila Fataar points out, these kinds of commitments must permeate the entire business. They are never about 'blowing a trumpet' or looking like a boast. They are not the same as a product innovation or an operational project - which would clearly be appropriately and safely deserving of such treatment.

I remember another occasion at a different business: 'honesty needs to be one of our stated values' a senior colleague declared. 'Yes and integrity!' another proposed.

This was a professional services advisory business. One handling very sensitive and confidential third party information, responsible for outcomes affecting people's livelihoods and businesses. One that was expected to be expert, ethical and honest at all times, both by its clients and by its regulator. Honesty and integrity were a bare minimum; basic 'hygiene' factors enabling any business, such as ours, to have a licence to operate.

I raised almost the same point as before. In that line of work, anyone who needs to assert that they are 'honest' almost automatically raises the suspicion that fellow professionals might not be, or that they themselves might not have been previously. Values are often seen as a reminder of what we stand for, after all. They are often partly aspirational and seen as an operational standard by which behaviour and results are measured.

'How honest were you this year?' would be an odd conversation for an appraisal session, wouldn't it? How would you quantify 'average' honesty as opposed to 'excellent' honesty? Or handle a 'room for improvement' rating? Honesty and integrity aren't on a spectrum for a professional services firm. It's an on/off switch. And if you switch it off, you should be out of the job.

Though perhaps, given all the concerns about fake news, 'honesty' could be a good value criterion for media-related businesses! (Though I wonder whether being 'average honest' would sell more copy than 'excellent honesty'? … Let’s not go there…)

What makes a winning brand strategy in a post-truth world

What is an honest fact is that the post-truth world is creating real winners out of those businesses who are properly in touch with customers and who are serious about having, and living up to, an authentic sense of purpose in every facet of what they do. 

When their values and sense of purpose show, it's not in a blaze of words or 'shouty' assertions. Instead, they are evident often without any specific statement about them having to be made. 

Dove do this particularly well. You can see what drives the products created. Their products strike the right chord with their customers, who understand and appreciate what they do - that's what makes them a success.

In a world where emotion and negative narratives often distort our understanding or perception of 'facts', these are the winning brands that weather industry ups and downs. Through their ongoing actions and conduct, they've created an environment in which their customers' default position is one of trust, not suspicion.

And to the sceptics and 'bean-counters'...? I say it's about being better when it matters

What about when someone says 'I don't care about values - I just want sales? Our customers don't care about our values, they just want the best price and that's enough for them, so it's enough for us. Let's not waste our time.' 

I've heard this question and statements like this often enough. And it's a reasonable question, even if values champions don't much like it.

I come back to the post-truth world. 

Even without any cause to question your business integrity, if someone else can offer the same price as you, or near enough, but they have more to commend them, you may suddenly find that your price is not enough to maintain customer loyalty. After all, there is plenty of competition out there for most of us. Soap is soap. Law is law. Politics are politics. 

Customers are no different from voters. 

And we're all increasingly less 'bought' by client golfing, spa or racing days... Corporate hospitality no longer holds the power it once did.   

Values alone may not seal a deal. Having a clear sense of purpose and being values-driven means, however, that you're likely building better products / services over time, with better people, better connections, better brand reputation and better prospects of growth because your consumers are more loyal. (You're also less likely to be disrupted or to caught unaware by a disrupter.) 

Simply put, you become easier to choose. For some customers, you may become the only choice they see. 

And you'll find it easier to operate, innovate and grow. That's where the brands in the linked article win and will carry on winning. 

And in a post-truth event, brands that have made the effort will ride out the bumps in the road easier and faster. Leaving them free to carry on building, connecting and growing. 

So when you next sit in a meeting and someone from management starts talking about values, or brand or culture, take a quick moment to reflect on how clearly you understand your corporate purpose and how far you buy into those values. Better still, the next time a decision is made or you witness particular behaviour or commentary, ask yourself how consistent it is with your corporate values.

Customer and employee cynicism, especially when coupled with management disingenuity, are the biggest killers when it comes to your brand's authenticity, your customers' loyalty to it and the opportunities for growth that lie ahead of you.

Is yours a brand what will be easy to trust and to choose? Are you achieving your full potential where you are? Does your business get the best of you? If you're working for the right brand, you won't need to think about saying 'yes' to all of those questions.