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Lessons on brand values from sinners and saints

18th Oct 2017
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Another week, and another brand fails to live up to its values that promise so much. It seems that 2017 has picked up where 2016 left off with a series of household brands making the front pages for compromising the very principles that seemingly make up their business DNA.

One of the recent falls from grace featured aviation giant, and fifth biggest airline on the planet, Ryanair. The low-cost carrier cancelled flights of 700,000 passengers and were soon forced to tackle the strongly rumoured unrest amongst pilots and cabin crew as talks of a mass strike and exodus to Easyjet surfaced. The airline revealed that it will now carry 4 million less travellers than planned, reducing the number from 142 million to 138 million.

Nick Trend, Telegraph Travel consumer expert, explains the scale of the problem.

"Ryanair has managed not only to mess up its staff holidays, it risks jeopardising the holiday arrangements of hundreds of thousands of its passengers. And — by not announcing a full list of cancellations in one go — it has thrown the travel plans of everyone who has booked with it over the next couple of months into doubt.

"It is a cock-up of monumental proportions and it comes after more recent bad news for its customers. For an airline which consistently boasts that it is “always getting better” — the last couple of months have been a customer relations disaster."

Compare the above expert opinion to the brand's original core purpose statement: "To become Europe's most profitable airline by rolling out proven low-cost, no frills service in all markets in which we operate to the benefit of passengers, people and stakeholders."

Well, Ryanair did indeed become Europe’s most profitable airline…to the benefit of its shareholders, not least CEO Michael O'Leary. However, the benefit to people and passengers is less clear. 

O’ Leary unpacked this statement further with a commitment to "Fix things that customers do not like and improve the traveller experience, improve the digital experience and improve the brand."

With such high customer experience aspirations, one has to question the degree of strategic intent that those statements were founded on. There is a world of difference between a brand that uses rhetoric as just another marketing message, and a brand that treats its values as the most important foundation for all business activity.

Some credit is due to the Ryanair leadership team who have responded quickly to remedy 99% of the original cancellations and a further 90% of the second wave of cancellations. The brand has also stated that common ground is now being sought throughout its staff.

Crossing the Gulf

Business commentators have highlighted a gulf between leadership decisions and expected staff behaviour. The mass cancellations and disruptions of a leading airline should be expected to have a knock-on effect on staff and not just the passengers. The reason for this is simple – it jars when brand values fail to make it beyond the confines of the boardroom in terms of observable actions. It reeks of shallowness. The hard reality for business leaders hoping to inspire advocacy is that how brands view and implement their values will affect output, staff confidence, loyalty and retention.

Global production house the Weinstein Company finishes each year with notable box office results, and often numerous Oscar and Emmy nominations. This month they have announced the sacking of their founder and have been told to expect a very turbulent commercial period. Before mass allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour, here's what Harvey Weinstein boasted about the reputation of his company:

"When we acquire somebody’s movie, they can bet that we’ll make it a success. So I don’t think there is a producer of an independent film who wouldn’t be flattered if this company took it, especially now, where if we’re taking a movie we have the time to concentrate."

And Weinstein has delivered on that promise. He and his company have been one of the biggest success stories in Hollywood. The issue is not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’. The problem is that the commercial success seems to have a created a culture which does not value the very lifeblood of that success –the talent that is needed to make the scripts come to life and sustain that success.

Despite its making great movies, the biggest names in the global film industry are now fleeing any link to the Weinstein brand, many of whom stating that their 'brand values' have been compromised. This is a prime example of the gulf between the standard that a brand claims to adhere to, and the reality. The recovery effort for the Weinstein brand has been written off as impossible by many critics. A change in the name and a total rebrand might be on the cards for 2018.

Who does it well?

Brands like Patagonia and giffgaff are bold enough to place values and purpose very high on their priority list and have the resolve and culture to back it up. Recent research carried out by Enso has revealed that millennials are increasingly sceptical of big institutions. This sense of scepticism soon turns to anger when a large corporation fails on the very values it proclaims are company DNA.

So what can the corporate giants learn from stand-our disrupters like giffgaff or the hugely respected Patagonia? Well, take the first paragraph of Patagonia's mission statement:

'Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environment crisis.'

There's no messing around there and zero grey areas. It's bold, beautiful and believable. Customers of Patagonia clothing more often than not become loyal advocates such is the quality of their product and the mission of their business.

Where can you start?

A great starting point for brand leaders hoping to reduce the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality is Shaun Smith and Andy Milligan's book On Purpose. It's a holistic approach to delivering a customer experience that people love, with practical solutions to business culture problems.

Here are some starters to get the discussion going:

  • Talk to your teams to find out how important the brand values are in everyday activity.
  • Work to reimagine and deepen the brand values across your teams.
  • Discuss how to constantly reinforce the values both internally, and externally and ask yourself how these two approaches will differ.
  • Use your 'brand values' to influence wider brand activity and behaviour (Marketing, HR, Sales, R&D) to embed accountability, confidence and trust at the heart of your culture.
  • Remember that brand values shouldn't be seen as tools to control or restrict employees, but as a compass showing true north. And the responsibility for navigation remains with leaders who dictate the company direction.

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