Credible Brands Are Built on Purpose and Values
by Matt, on 2 Jun 2020
When hard-to-comprehend situations are unfolding all around us, it’s difficult to know how to respond. How should we act? What should we say?
As a business, it’s no different. We’re a collective of individual humans, after all, not a heartless machine. How should we communicate? What type of communication is appropriate? What might offend?
In this edition of SPT, we offer some ideas for entrepreneurs, early-stage, and growth-stage businesses on how – and how not – to communicate when the world’s antennae are up, emotions running high, and sensitivities set to max.
A viable business produces a solution – product or service – for which its customers are willing to pay because it addresses an otherwise unmet need.
To reach that point, the team behind the business must understand the need, develop a solution that delivers appropriate value, bring it to potential customers’ attention, convince them to buy it, and then continue delighting them so that they become repeat purchasers.
The mechanics of market analysis and product development are for another day. This post is about communicating with existing and future customers to earn and retain their business.
Specifically, the challenge of being heard above the noise when every communication channel is flooded with urgent, angry, upset, and sometimes insensitive messages.
The showman and circus owner, P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” (although there’s no hard evidence directly linking him to the expression). In times like these, we disagree. Publicity can be extremely bad when it associates your brand with the negative side of a social crisis.
Oscar Wilde perhaps said it better: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. As a business, we need to get our name out there. We rely on people telling people for our audience to grow exponentially.
How, then, can we reach this level of credibility, where people talk positively about us?
By running our business based on purpose and values and keeping those things front-and-center when choosing what and how we communicate.
DO PEOPLE REALLY BUY PURPOSE?
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” – Simon Sinek.
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that a business is more likely to attract potential buyers’ attention, convince some of them to evaluate its product or service, convince a few of those people to purchase, and turn most of those buyers into loyal customers if the company is visibly built and operated on solid foundations.
People are individuals. Individuals have values and beliefs that heavily influence their day-to-day actions and decisions.
If you can connect to those values and beliefs, you will gain their attention. If you conflict with those values and beliefs, they will ignore, reject, and even publicly discredit you.
As a smaller company, without the benefits (when they get it right) of a PR and communications department, this can seem daunting. Each advert, blog, or social media post is a chance to earn credibility and trust. It’s also a chance to strike the wrong chord and cause serious harm to the brand.
Two words here: authenticity and consistency.
Be yourself. More accurately, be your brand. How do you want to be heard and perceived? If you’re not sure how to answer that, a branding exercise can be helpful to clearly identify your brand’s voice, personality, and style.
And, be consistent. If you communicate a strong value one day but appear to abandon it another, that inconsistency will grate with your audience. Similarly, once you have espoused a clear purpose, your actions and words must always be aligned with that North Star. Don’t change your tune to suit the audience or current affairs.
PURPOSE AND VALUES IN PRACTICE
The first step is to understand and articulate the purpose behind your company and the values that you will uphold. These should be communicated to customers, potential customers, investors, suppliers, partners, and the community-at-large.
Hopefully, these are things that you’ve already put in place. If not, make time to do so as soon as possible – and seek help if you’re unsure where to start.
If it’s been some time since you reviewed and reconnected with your purpose and values, make time to do that too.
Importantly, either involve your entire team in the exercise or, if that group has grown beyond a manageable meeting size (whether in-person or online), reconnect as a leadership group and then communicate and discuss the outcomes with the wider team.
It’s important to discuss how the purpose and values impact day-to-day choices, using IRL examples. What do they cause you to do more or less of? What becomes a priority? What becomes a non-starter? How do they differentiate you from your competitors?
As you listen to questions and feedback from the team, be open to adjusting and fine-tuning how the purpose and values are conveyed. Semantics matter. You want their meaning to be clear and easily communicated, not necessarily snappy and clever.
Achieving this clarity is just one of many reasons why it’s valuable to build a diverse team across your business.
Be vigilant for team members who don’t identify with the purpose or for whom there’s a misalignment between the company’s values and their own. Unless it’s a case of misunderstanding or miscommunication, you should help them find employment elsewhere. It’s in their best interests, as well as those of the company.
With the purpose and values clearly understood and shared, integrate them into your daily work.
Almost any significant decision can be vetted with “which option aligns best with our purpose?” and “does either of these options conflict with (or best demonstrate) commitment to our values?”
When communicating with stakeholders – which encompasses all the outward-facing channels we mentioned earlier as well as internal messages to your team – apply similar filters.
Do your words, opinions, ideas, and suggestions demonstrate commitment to the company purpose?
Are they consistent with the values you’ve espoused?
Could anything be interpreted as inconsistent or inauthentic, based on how you’ve communicated in the past?
In an ideal world, you control the narrative. Messages to your audience are all carefully constructed, built on customer analysis, and deliver valuable content that engages and enlightens them.
The real world doesn’t afford you that luxury. Events beyond your control – from industry-specific to global pandemic – interrupt and demand attention.
Your audience wants to hear from you. They want to see how you react, hear what you’re thinking, feel how this latest turn of events is impacting you.
Suddenly, it’s not so easy. You’re in business to manufacture a product or deliver a service, not to express lucid thoughts on complex, incendiary topics.
Except, that’s not quite true. You’re trying to earn and maintain the trust and respect (and business) of your customers. And part of that comes from showing up and letting them see who you really are.
Your customers are experiencing strong emotions and, while remaining calm is an important part of leadership and clear communication helps provide the stewardship they are looking for, it’s still important to express feelings. You’re a human business leader, not a robot.
You can – and should – still set boundaries. It’s important to choose where your company is going to operate on various spectra: political to apolitical, opinionated to ambivalent, conformist to controversial, liberal to conservative, narrative to counter-narrative, leader to follower, and so on.
There’s neither a right answer nor a best practice when it comes to deciding your place on these spectra, but what we can say is that customers – be they individual consumers or enterprise buyers – expect to know who they’re dealing with.
Those choices should also align with your purpose and values.
Ultimately, you can test each piece of communication to ensure it stays within the guideposts you’ve established, is authentic to your brand, purpose, and values, and is consistent with how you’ve communicated in the past.
A quick word on communicating during a crisis. It’s important but it needs to be relevant.
We completely rewrote the Strategic Piece content calendar after the COVID-19 crisis began because many of the topics we had originally planned to write about would have been irrelevant or down-right inappropriate, under the circumstances.
Stick to your cadence – how frequently you publish and post – but be ready to adjust the content.
As a small voice amid much larger brands, it’s tempting to ask whether your communications are relevant. Of course, they are! Your stakeholders want to hear more from you in moments of crisis, not less – provided, once again, that what you have to say is relevant and authentic.
YOU CANNOT NOT CHOOSE
Staying silent on important issues can convey just as strong a message as putting pen to paper. If you don’t clarify your position, people will assume the worst.
If you are genuinely neutral when there are opposing views in play, make that clear and explain why you prefer not to take sides.
If the issue is innately political and your company values remaining apolitical, then reinforce that value and explain why you’re not favoring one of the positions.
However, if the situation or issue relates at all to your purpose or threatens any of your values, you must reconfirm what you stand for.
At Strategic Piece, our purpose is to impact the world through entrepreneurs, early-stage, and growth-stage businesses while creating value for our clients, our stakeholders, and ourselves. COVID-19 has caused us to reevaluate our products and services to redetermine how we can create that value and help our clients maximize their long-term impact.
Our values include maintaining a high ethical standard and employing radical candor with empathy. This has caused us to decline projects when the clients required extended in-person meetings, which would have caused us to compromise our social distancing policy, and to write candidly about rethinking business models and making tough choices to downsize teams in response to the crisis.
We also value diversity and inclusiveness, which means we reject the divisive political rhetoric that is fragmenting the United States and stand in solidarity with people of color and anyone else who is being blatantly discriminated against and unjustly incarcerated.
Our day-to-day business decisions have only a limited direct impact on these issues but our voices must be heard, and those who choose to do business with Strategic Piece should understand where we stand, what we expect, and what we will not accept.
To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there. – Kofi Annan
It’s hard to match the words of a Nobel laureate and former U.N. Secretary-General, but I think it’s possible to build upon them.
To establish a credible brand, your audience must know what your business is and what it stands for, where you want it to go, and why you want it to get there.
This requires you to communicate regularly, authentically, and consistently on behalf of the brand, which in turn requires understanding and routinely acting in accordance with the company’s purpose and values.
As your audience grows, so does the potential impact of the platform it affords you. Use that platform actively and judiciously. Do not be a member of the silent majority.
Finally, ask yourself whether you would feel comfortable looking your prospective customer squarely in the eye and explaining why she or he should do business with you. If the answer isn’t a resounding “hell yeah”, it’s time to shore-up the foundations and raise your communications game. Your audience awaits.
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