Finding, identifying and living your brand values

How strong principles make a solid foundation for business growth.

At Traina, we believe that values are something every brand should have on their radar because they keep your culture improving, your brand moving, and provide the foundation for growth. In this conversation, David Traina, CEO, and chief strategy officer Matt Bachmann discuss brand values in terms of the why-now’s, the what-for’s, and of course, the how-to’s.

Why does a brand need values in the first place? 

MB: The rule of thumb today is that a brand touting clear values will outperform a brand with less-defined principles, all other things being equal. This coincides with the school of thought, some of which is research-backed, that consumers care about the moral and social compass of the companies and brands they buy from.

So a brand with values will beat one that doesn’t—how did that become a rule of thumb?

MB: Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, was possibly the start of that notion, with his research that “great” companies tended to have values identified and embodied within the organizations.

The values of a brand—of any organization, really—touch so many other aspects that are essential to its success and growth. If you don’t have defined values, you’re rudderless.”

DT: Right, the values of a brand—of any organization, really—touch so many other aspects that are essential to its success and growth. If you don’t have defined values, you’re rudderless. Your employees don’t know what you stand for, so they’re less connected, less motivated, less inspired and less loyal to the business. As for customers, Matt touched on it: they’re inclined to associate with and support brands that reflect their personal beliefs and values.

But the truth is, Traina hasn’t always been on this bandwagon. We used to be really tactical in our approach, just delivering the tools clients needed to have a consistent brand presence in the marketplace. But what I’ve noticed over time is that the strategy work that Matt and his team do—values being a big part of that—really does inform, enlighten and inspire the creative work that follows, the stories that we tell, the way everything is expressed. Take Stater Bros. for instance, a very recent example: we helped them to define and elevate their values, and those values drove the creative effort. The result is a brand identity that has fundamentally transformed their culture and reshaped their business. 

When does a company usually decide they need brand values, and where do they go from there? 

DT: Take Traina for example. Our origin story is not unlike that of most of our clients. When I started the agency 17 years ago, I had no vision of a future state, much less any values in mind. I just wanted to do great creative work with people I’m excited to work with. There was never a moment where I thought: “I’m going to start a business, and it’s going to be built on a deeply-held set of values.” Never crossed my mind.

A lot of companies started like that. They never really thought about the core components of their brand and business; many never thought much about their brand at all. They just knew they wanted to be in business and they made it happen without giving much thought to why. 

And at first it’s fine because they’re small, and it’s a tight-knit group, and the culture and spirit of the place is easy to control. But then as the team grows without defined and embraced values, the culture quickly unravels. The need arises to really figure out: “Who are we as a company? What do we want to do? Where are we going?” Those questions naturally lead into a discussion of values, or you could ask point-blank, “What do we value as a company?” It’s around this point that panic sets in and we get a call. The answer to that question may not be something anyone has thought about up to that point, so usually leadership will look to their employees to see if they have the answer.

MB: Very common. Using employee surveys to define your company’s brand values is a fine way to gather ideas, but ultimately leadership needs to select and define the values, because they have the long-term vision of the company in mind, and the values you instill should be in concert with that vision. 

In my experience, when we meet with new clients and the topic of brand values arises, I’ve seen a few scenarios. Either, “We have values somewhere, maybe in an onboarding doc or our About page, but they aren’t front and center and they aren’t an active guide.” Or, “We have values, but they reflect previous ownership or a previous iteration of the company. We’re not the same company anymore.” Third is, “We don’t have them. Can you help us identify and activate them?” And last, and least likely, is: “We have very specific values and they are a vibrant part of our culture and business.”

The clients who come to us are typically in a state of transformation, and they know that to do the transformation well, something about their brand needs to change, and they realize the importance of brand values in making that change.”

So, once you’re ready to pursue values, how does that begin? The identification and articulation? 

MB: Getting your team around a table—physical or virtual—in a working session is usually how it starts. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. When we lead those working sessions for our clients, we begin with an icebreaker exercise or simple prompts such as “If you were to describe to a classroom of kids the values that you hold at work, what would you say?” It’s amazing how quickly things evolve from there. It’s like picking out hardware for your kitchen cabinets. You don’t realize how strongly you feel about handles and knobs until someone else starts suggesting a certain style. 

When it comes to the articulation part, there are some common pitfalls. Sometimes companies treat values like book titles—one big, monumental word, or two or three at most. But to do brand values well, you need an abstract too. It has to provide enough detail that you can act on it and accomplish something with it.

For example, can we hire, fire, review, and reward people based on these values? Sometimes the words alone are so high-level that it’s hard to do that, so giving some kind of concrete definition to the value is important when it comes to articulating what they actually mean to your organization.

Quantity is another common misstep. How many brand values should a company have? We’ve engaged clients with 8, 9 even 10 values. That’s too many. To be effective, core values must be easy to remember and able to be repeated throughout the organization. In most cases, we encourage our clients to narrow it down to no less than three and no more than five.

Practically, then, how do you pick the right ones?  

DT: At Traina we started with—I don’t know, a list of at least a couple dozen values, all of which we thought were massively important. But by identifying similarities and prioritizing, we filtered it down to just four. It comes down to knowing what really matters to your culture and team, and then being able to separate the good values from the best values—your core values. 

But it’s tough, and it’s especially tough to do for yourself. I’ve decided that a branding agency trying to brand itself is like a hairdresser trying to cut their own hair. Really, any company trying to do this would benefit from an outside moderator.

Why is that?

DT: There’s a bit of distance, so you don’t feel it so acutely. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to say “These are the same” or “Let’s just call it this”. They can really hear things objectively, cut through the internal jargon, and they aren’t influenced by who says what. They’ll just tell you straight up—”Integrity? That’s not really a unique value.” Matt, does that sound right?

MB: Oh yeah. Cookie-cutter values like honesty or integrity come with two major pitfalls—unless they are really, really true and uniquely demonstrated, you get either 1) the eye roll from employees, or 2) they are just forgotten. 

Seems like a good time to talk about living values. How does a brand live its values in a way that they can never be forgotten?

DT: Every day, every decision, every move. It starts with top-down encouragement—not indoctrination, but really inspiring people to rally around these values. Then making sure that every decision is influenced, if not determined, by brand values.

MB: I’ve always thought there’s a hazard in calling them “brand values,” a risk that everything having to do with “brand” just gets put into a brand guide and becomes the domain of the marketing department. They really should be “company values,” and they are by no means like “set it and forget it.” You have to revisit them, celebrate them, evaluate your employees by them. They have to be a part of the whole organization. 

They can create action, too. One thing we recommend to our clients is to consider their values as they think about reshaping their everyday practices—what they will continue to do, what they will start doing, and what they will stop doing, according to their values. 

We recommend to our clients is to consider their values as they think about reshaping their everyday practices.”

Can you think of a moment or decision with Traina where values played that role? 

DT: Hiring, for one. Every time I interview someone, our values are front and center. I share them with the candidate, ask them to share an example or two of how they’ve exhibited those values at work. Whether or not we hire someone depends largely on our alignment on Traina’s core values. 

It wasn’t always that way. Before our values were adopted as criteria, I hired some people who wouldn’t have made the cut today. Back then it was just, “You’ve got the skills, you’ve got agency experience, you’ll get the job done.” But it didn’t last, because our values weren’t aligned. It can be a hard lesson to learn, and I’ve certainly learned it the hard way.

Pop quiz: What are our Traina values?

DT: Fearless.

MB: Passionate.

DT: Good humans.

MB: Changemakers.

Nice. Let’s keep going with those—how did we go about identifying, articulating, and living them?

DT: Well, we did bring someone in, a third party to help moderate and go through the exercises with our leadership team. I recall one exercise where we were asked: “If you had to move to the moon and rebuild Traina, and you could only take three team members with you, who would you choose, and why?” It was an incredibly helpful exercise. From there we could think of at least 20 qualities or values that we all agreed on—that was the foundation. From there we discussed, debated, then streamlined the list until there were four.

And how did we go from the word to the abstract? Where did that come from?

DT: To Matt’s point earlier, eventually leadership has to own this. So once we got to the point where the raw materials were identified, it was mine and Matt’s job to get them across the finish line. That included choosing our final four, and then drafting language to define them, capturing the ways we embody and express them. I now understand why our clients are so stoked when we wrap up that phase of their engagement. When your values are finally set, and they ring true, it’s a cathartic experience—it’s like the fog burns off and suddenly everything is clear.

And how do we live them? 

DT: We activate them in quite a few ways. Internally, they’re the essence of our awards at Vision Day every year. Our “good human” and “changemaker” values are activated routinely on Traina’s volunteer days: the beach day cleanup, working with Feeding America, the community activities that our Happiness Committee puts together. Both our Happiness and DE&I committees are products of the brand values we adopted.

They also play a huge role in our new business department. How well a prospective client’s business aligns with Traina’s core values is a major factor in determining which companies we will partner with.

And they keep leadership beholden, as well. If someone ever has an idea and I’m reluctant because it’s a bit out of my comfort zone, you can be sure I’ll hear the word “fearless” in that pitch. They can empower everyone in an organization. It’s not just trickle-down values; they can be applied up the ladder, too.

MB: We have a slide in our workshop deck you’d like—a quote from Patrick Lencioni that says, “When properly practiced, values inflict pain, they make some employees feel like outcasts, they limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom, and constrain the behavior of its people. They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations, and they demand constant vigilance.”

DT: That sounds harsh, but it’s awesome. Nothing unifies a team like a set of shared values that apply to all teams on all levels, from the entry-level intern to the CEO. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that once you set those values, you’d better be prepared to deliver on them. Because the moment you do something, anything, that’s even remotely misaligned with them, you’ll hear it, loud and clear. And that’s a very good thing. It means people are paying attention, that they know and understand what you’re all about, and they believe in it enough to hold you to it. When that happens, you know it works. 

Let’s move things forward.