Before we start, a small confession. I’m guilty of the crime I am about to complain about. In fact, I’m a persistent offender.

My horrendous crime? Brand Values.
Those 4-5 words that are probably sitting on your walls right now – laminated or framed, possibly both.
They’ll sit there, possibly printed on a stress ball, until a new Marketing Director or agency gives you a new set. Every 3 years. And a new stress ball to go with them.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t define your brand character. You 100% should. What I’m objecting to is lazy sets of generic words that are, to all intents and purposes, totally useless to man or beast.

I’d hazard a guess that pretty much all UK brands have at least one of the following words in their brand triangle, onion, square, parallelogram, whatever:

It’s possible some of you might have just Brand Value Bingo’d the lot for your particular brand.
But think about it for a second. Is there a single product or service in the UK that wouldn’t say it was those things? Have you simply just written a set of generic traits for any or every product or service on Earth?

For starters, just play the antonym game with them.

We’re passionate. Great. I’m sure it really differentiates your brand from all the others out there who say they are pretty indifferent about what they do.
We’re caring. Because everyone else out there is “proud not to give a shit”.
Trustworthy? Possibly a table stake in business if you do… er… ANYTHING AT ALL.
Professional? Because I can think of loads of brands that vehemently stand by their value of being totally shambolic.
Simple. Really? “Amerisoft – The overly complex people”. Can’t see it, can you?

I think one of the main problems with brand values is that they tend to have to get signed off by such a wide range of people from the CEO to HR that they have all the corners or any spikiness knocked out of them. What you are left with is a bunch of Hallmark generics that are great for stress balls and terrible for anyone with a heartbeat and a pencil. I also came across research that showed that 1/3 of companies don’t even track whether or not they adhere to them, and 1/2 of employees thought their company acted contrary to their stated values. Why bother having them if you’re not going to follow them?

But, my main objection to this game of ‘Pass the adjective’ is how useless they are to people who actually have to do anything with them, especially in comms.
“So Dan, can you write this copy in an authentic fashion, maybe a bit more caring?”

Some brands, for example Guinness, do have some better brand values such as “muscular’ or “fearless” that I think start to get you somewhere. At least they give me something to push against. I can think of loads of clients who would be scared to brief ‘fearless’ as a value. So I start to see some clear water versus the competition. Think about Paddy Power and ‘Mischief’ – suddenly more useful, right?

Is there a better alternative? To reiterate, I am 100% behind brands defining what they stand for, especially if that is a core founding belief or a set of behaviours. It doesn’t need to be distilled down to one word that Dave the CFO won’t argue with – the world is more complex than that.

Patagonia are a good example. They have a set of behaviours and beliefs, not distilled down to one word (one word? Blimey) – that help to direct how one should act. When we were developing the #KeeponIntenetting work for we talked of the “relentless enthusiasts for internet awesomeness”. It led to some really simple evaluation criteria, and also some pretty ace work. I understand in the old days Virgin always wrote and acted as the “Robin Hood” challenger to the big boy in the market. That’s suddenly interesting, differentiating and very useful in defining what to do and what not to do. I believe 42Below vodka act as the “loveable rogue” – much more useful than a set of bland words from the dictionary accompanied by a few Getty images of handshakes and smiles.

Less words, more direction.
If you’re a Brand Manager, CMO or agency person, the next time someone comes up to you and suggests you’re the HELPFUL brand beat them to death with their own brand onion.

This article appeared in Marketing Week

Kevin Chesters – Executive Planning Director at mcgarrybowen.

Follow Kevin on twitter @hairychesters.