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February 20, 2019

The trouble with corporate brand values

One of the many challenging tasks leadership teams set themselves is the definition of corporate values. In the evolution of business in Africa, this is now seen as a mandatory component in professionalising an organisation. Setting the ‘core values’ often involves a small group of senior people batting words back and forth across the boardroom table. Trying to find the exact words that explain how they would like the business to be seen. Trying to find words that will resonate with outsiders when they visit the website.

Working with words is much harder than you might think. Firstly thinking up words. Then debating the nuances of their meaning. Then trying to get senior colleagues from different disciplines to agree on them. And finally spelling them correctly when the time comes to publish.

Perhaps that is the reason why so many organisations end up with the same words. Here are some examples of published value sets from our own region:


Kenya Airways – Safety, Integrity, Customer First, Passion, Innovation, Trust.


Orient Bank – Service, Passion, innovation, Resilience, Integrity, Teamwork


MTN – Leadership, Relationship, Integrity, Innovation


Retirement Benefits Authority - Firm and Fair, Transparency and Accountability, Profeciency, Intergrity (spellings all their own).


Kenyan Red Cross – (the short version) leadership, respected, quality, transparent and accountable, committed, teamwork, results oriented, confident, independent, professional, and responsible.


East African Breweries – passionate, value each other, freedom to succeed, proud of our achievements, be the best.

Now there are some very good words and expressions in this small sample. Usage that stands out for me as being truly different. But there’s also a lot of meaningless dross. And repetition.

So it might help if we all put a little more thought into whom we wish to address when shaping our organisational values. If your answer is ‘everyone’, the values have to be incredibly short, clear and simple. They must resonate with many audiences; and that’s a very high benchmark to set.

If your answer is ‘investors’, you need to work on words that press the buttons of the moneymen.

If your answer is ‘trade customers’ rather than ‘consumers’, clearly they will want to see values that define the very specific kind of relationship they can expect from you. And they will wonder how far from the truths such values are.

If your answer is ‘employees’ then perhaps they’d like some guidance on how you would like them to behave, and how they can expect you to behave towards them.

All of which leads me to ask what you are trying to achieve when you publish core values? For many I think this could be summed up as ‘the way we hope our staff will behave…but we’re not sure that they will …. so, fingers crossed.’

That is why we see words like integrity and innovation so very often. But if these messages are intended for internal audiences, why on earth would you put them on your website?

Hello? If I am about to bank with you I rather expect you not to steal money out of my account. If I am interested in how well your toothpaste will address my tooth decay l expect you to innovate. It’s a given.

Some organisations then go on to create even harder rods for their own back by publishing silly and unachievable claims in an attempt to explain what their words mean.


Here’s a cracker: ‘Passion - We shall always inspire passion in our people to create quality solutions.’

To which the intelligent reader will respond: no you won’t. Not always. Not even with the best will in the world. So why say it?

(Actually, I have a more straightforward reaction: what on earth does that statement mean? It is just gobbledygook.)

None of the above is intended to diminish the usefulness of having a set of words to describe ‘the way we do things around here.’ More so if you are a leader attempting to reform a business, or a successful entrepreneur wishing to transfer your personal values into organisational behaviour for your people.


But, before you embark on your next semantic adventure, do be clear about why you need a set of values and who needs to believe in them.


Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising, most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.


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