What’s Your Brand’s Value System?

How do you determine when a site, campaign, product or idea is good for your brand? Well, first off, you can’t recognize good until you know what makes something good.

That’s not some twisting statement meant to confuse while sounding philosophical. “Good” is an ambiguous term. It means different things to different people, and different things to the same people in different contexts. What makes a meal good? What makes a design good? What makes a song good? What makes a choice good? 

You probably have an answer to each of these, but the traits of goodness almost certainly vary in different instances. For example, a donut covered with Nutella might be a wonderful choice for breakfast when on vacation but not good at all as a pre-race meal before a marathon; or showing images of seductive adults might be good for perfume and cologne ads but not so great when selling kids’ toys. On the surface this might seem like “good” is always malleable because we — as individuals and brands — don’t ascribe it consistently to the same things and acts. But such a shallow conclusion is only the result of shallow analysis.

Someone might say a donut is obviously a bad choice before a marathon because it won’t provide long-lasting energy for an hours-long race. OK, if you feel this way, it means you might want to finish the race and place high overall. What about for someone who just likes the thrill of running with people for the first few miles and plans on bowing out? For him or her, a donut might be a fantastic choice. 

If you believe questions like these can be answered easily, you’re not thinking hard enough. People and brands are complicated beasts. Consider the many possible reasons behind many possible choices, and you’ll begin to quickly see how thorny this process can become.

So How Do We Get Beyond the Superficial?

Responsibility is the cornerstone of a value system. Responsibility clearly defines actions — this is what I did; this is what I can do or want to do. People unwilling to take responsibility create a sort of action fog where no person or persons are clearly doing anything. This may protect someone’s job in the short term when a decision turns out poorly, but think about this in relation to your brand. If your brand is not clearly taking a stance, not clearly responsible for certain things (or clearly disassociated from others), it gets lost in a haze wherein an audience may not recognize what it represents. When this happens, in consumers’ minds the brand is elusive and indistinctive, so they might unintentionally align it with things you want to stay miles away from, or they may fail to recognize all the great things you think it embodies.

Strong, clearly defined, proudly responsible brands shape markets and audiences. They show an awareness of what people care about while also compelling them to care about the same things the brand cares about. They’ll appeal to like-minded people initially and then begin to attract those drawn to the brand’s values. If a brand never puts a stake in the ground, never clearly communicates what it values and why those things are valuable, then it will get lost in the swirl of hundreds of other brands that constantly shift in a never-ending effort to pin down the ever-changing wants, needs and beliefs of customers. If your brand is generally solid and steadfast, everyone will be able to find it. If you allow your brand to roam loose, free from any moorings, the best you can hope for is irregularly bumping into people from time to time.

Great, But How Do You Go About Solidifying a Brand?

Before discussing what does and doesn’t best suit the brand, there needs to be a discussion about how the brand determines value — about how you can even conclude something to be good.

What we deem good reveals our values. The fact that you can call anything good or bad, or better or worse, means you’re ascribing some sort of value to it. The positive news (and the challenge) when it comes to brands is that YOU get to ascribe the value. It’s not absolute or innate. There are many, many things your brand might value and many, many reasons why you (or it) will value those things. And those reasons are totally up to you.

Consider this example: One of the most common reasons for declaring something good, in relation to a brand, is because it makes money. This is a bad rationale. Money is not a reason. Money is a medium that represents arbitrary values. So if you say something is good because it makes money you’re essentially saying “I value this because it has value.” Not helpful.

The more revealing and important part comes when you start to look at why you and your brand revere money. Why? Because it helps you stay in business? OK. Because staying in business allows you to employ others? Now we’re getting somewhere. Because employing others with a steady job provides stability and optimism to your immediate community? See!

This is much more character revealing than just saying you want more income. Of course you do, but why? What you want to do with that income — and their reasons for those actions — reveals the fundamental traits that define and differentiate your brand.

Some Value Systems to Consider

Until you clearly define what you value and why, there is no way to determine whether something is supporting or degrading those values. If you can’t do that, you can’t determine if that something is good or bad, or even better or worse. And bottom lines are not the bottom line! If the bottom line were all that mattered, you could justify cutting as many corners as possible, lying to customers and breaking the law. After all, each of those things could increase profits. But just because you could do that, you (hopefully) believe you shouldn’t because even in pursuit of profits you have a moral compass that proves profits aren’t all that matters.

Let’s look at some value systems to be more clear about what this means and how this can be applied to a brand strategy. Generally, when discussing ethics and how to determine good and bad, right and wrong, there are three major schools: consequentialism, virtue and duty. Consequentialism looks primarily at the outcome (or consequences) to determine if an act is good. Virtue looks at consistency in character and is somewhat flexible in terms of how that character manifests through choices, and duty believes in holding resolutely to certain ideals regardless of outcome or situation.

In many business situations, it’s consequences that take the lead as people look down the road, determining right or wrong actions based on which ones will bring about a more recognizable logo, make the brand more popular with 20- to 30-year-old mountain bikers, or achieve some other desired outcome.

Virtue is seen in actions that reveal character. This doesn’t have to be totally separate from consequences, but the goal is to do the thing that exemplifies the character traits you wish to have. For example, donating to charity could be virtue based if generosity is a character trait a person or company wishes to have. Same goes for boldness, innovativeness, etc.

Duty is seen when blatantly not allowing consequences to factor in, but rather believing an act to be what someone must do (ideally in all times and places). This is most obvious when people deal with family and friends. It’s your duty to care for your child; it’s your duty to be honest to your spouse. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it or if your act doesn’t necessarily result in good consequences. It’s believed to be a good action because it’s what you simply ought to do. In terms of business, this is most often seen by believing you should not break the law. As mentioned before, you could break the law and lie to customers to increase profits, but most believe you shouldn’t regardless of how it might help the company financially.

How to Get Started in Determining Your Value System

To start, you should sit down with all parties that need to be involved and discuss what your brand values. Do you want to provide unforgettable experiences? Do exactly what you promise and never overpromise? Make people more optimistic? Make a difference in impoverished locales? Then ask “why?”

If your discussion shifts to considerations looking at outcomes, at the near and far-reaching effects the brand will have on customers and society at large, then you’re slanting toward consequentialism.

If your discussion lingers on notions of character and you begin to debate what such-and-such type of person or brand would do in this situation, with less focus on absolutes or outcomes, then you’re focusing on virtue.

If your discussion often comes back to beliefs that “this is just what you/we/one should do” with little or no room for exceptions, then you’re leaning toward duty.

One big thing to keep in mind is that people and brands don’t usually stick to one value system all the time. The norm is to bounce back and forth between several depending on the context and considerations. There might be a couple of duties you agree on and some character traits you’d like to exhibit that will require different choices in different contexts. Sometimes you’ll want to look at the outcomes to determine value. But so long as choices are largely consistent in terms of rationale, the brand’s integrity will remain clear both internally and externally.

You might be thinking, “But this solves nothing! I still have the whole brand to define!” No on the first; yes on the second. 

The point of this exercise is to solidify the foundation upon which to build your brand. This way, when a question later arises as to why your brand should or should not partner with an influencer, you’ll have reasons and rationale as to why. (Maybe your duty is to never associate with influencers, or the outcome wouldn’t be ideal, or you don’t think a brand of your character would associate with a person of their character.) Think of this as the difference between memorizing multiplication tables versus understanding why they are what they are. A 3-year-old can correctly say “2×2=4” but probably not give a correct answer to 234×14. Similarly, average brand managers can follow rules that declare what a brand can and can’t do. But until they have a solid understanding as to why a brand can or cannot do something, they won’t be equipped to make good decisions when new and unexpected situations arise. Once this knowledge and skill is established, a brand can be defined and consistently applied to any situation.

Cody Cash is the creative director at LimeLight Marketing. Questioning is at the core of Cody’s approach to branding, marketing, and life in general. Asking why and trying to uncover answers has been a driving force in his education and career, leading down a path that has helped a wide range of brands and products in B2B and B2C channels. Cody earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Missouri State University and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arkansas, specializing in philosophy of mind. Though not necessarily the norm for a career in copywriting and creative direction, philosophy and a philosophical approach has proven to be a valuable asset when working in advertising. After almost two decades spent primarily in food marketing — working with brands such as Bush’s Beans, Frito-Lay, PepsiCo, Nestle, Tyson Foods, Starbucks, and more — Cody moved to LimeLight Marketing in the role of creative director. Connect with Cody via email or LinkedIn.