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July 28, 2021

How Brand Values Are Easier Established Than Done

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eBrandcast / How Brand Values Are Easier Established Than Done

One of the very first steps in the branding process is to clearly define your brand’s values. At eBB, brand values are an integral part of your brand’s core for a reason: because they help you connect emotionally with your target customers. They also give your brand’s identity clarity and meaning, and provide standards by which consumers can hold the brand accountable for its decisions. But the greater transparency brought on by eCommerce and social media, means that brands are now being held accountable in real-time.

Of course, this is exactly why we advise brands build from the inside-out, founding themselves in a greater purpose. But even with strong core values, leading with your core in marketing efforts is guaranteed to rub some consumers the wrong way. But what happens when your marketing actually violates your stated values? And how do you make sure your messaging accurately reflects your intentions?

You'll Learn

How technology has made building a purpose-driven brand an imperative

Why purpose-driven marketing is the most powerful advertising… but also the most risky

How to mobilize your core in marketing efforts… the right way

Lots of examples – good and bad – of value-based marketing


Full Podcast Transcript

Hello Beings of Earth! I’m your host Neil Verma.

Welcome to eBrandCast, where we decode what branding truly is, so you can build a dominant eCom Brand.

Today, we’re going to approach things from a slightly different angle.

Although you’ll all know by now that at eBB we believe in brands having a core purpose and values, leading with those values comes with its own risks.

That’s what we’ll be looking at today, why purpose-driven marketing may be the most powerful form of advertising, but also the most potentially risky.

In particular, we’ll be looking at a few case-studies in brand values gone wrong, and how your brand can avoid this fate.

Let’s get started.

So as I just mentioned, a core part of your brand’s identity is your brand values.

Summed up in a few words, these values signal what your brand believes, what you’re willing to stand up for, who you serve, and the problems your brand cares about.

Values shape your brand’s attitude toward others, the kinds of decisions you make, and your overall business practices.

Clearly stated values help you connect emotionally with your target customers, but they’re also meant to be standards that keep your brand accountable for its actions and choices.

And we include values in the first of our 7C’s, Core, because your brand purpose and values are the foundation of everything your brand does.

It’s your brand’s identity, and your values will only feel sincere if they align every element of your business.

From your visual identity, like your logo and brand name, to website design.

Throughout your content and guiding your daily customer service.

It also includes your marketing efforts.

To some extent, although we talk about purpose-driven brands like it’s something new, business has always been closely associated with purpose.

The idea that business should be conducted in good faith, and work toward the greater good has always been around.

Not that it’s an ideal that has always been practiced, but when you consider the standard of corporate personhood, which legally protects companies as if they were citizens, this is a pretty old idea.

But, today, brand values have become a lot more important to the survival of a brand.

About 100 years ago, companies might succeed in growing to be well-known, national entities, but the globalization of brands is relatively new.

The top brands are now worth more than the GDP of many countries.

This growth has been enabled by the parallel globalization of media.

Almost 60% of the world’s population has access to the internet, and nearly 92.6% of this # access the internet of mobile devices.

This has been a blessing and a curse for brands.

On the one hand, it means greater marketing reach, and the ability to create global awareness of the brand.

Even the smallest business startup today, isn’t limited to their local market.

There’s no reason a business can’t open online today, and be selling to customers on the other side of the world tomorrow.

The other new development is that the internet has also brought with it unprecedented levels of transparency.

And social media has democratized it.

Now anyone can expose the missteps of a brand to the whole world within seconds.

In the 1990s, after labor organizations in Korea and Taiwan raised the manufacturing costs at Nike, they made the decision to work with new contractors in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Unfortunately, labor conditions in many of these factories weren’t just poor, they were outright abusive.

But it was only through a series of articles written by activist Jeff Ballinger for Harper’s magazine exposing the conditions of these factories that this became public knowledge.

Initially, Nike defended themselves by explaining they didn’t own the factories and therefore couldn’t dictate working conditions, but felt enough pressure to instill factory codes of conduct.

Although trouble was brewing for Nike, it hadn’t quite reached the level of a crisis.

This began to shift in 1992 when protestors appeared at the Barcelona Olympics, and investigative journalism continued to publish stories and interviews with Nike’s factory workers.

Even still, it took until 1996 for “sweatshops” to become a national issue.

It was triggered when Kathy Lee Gifford, a popular morning show host, tearfully apologized on air after she discovered her clothing line was being manufactured by children in poor conditions.

Protests continued into 1997, and it wasn’t until Nike faced weakening demand that they created the Fair Labor Association in 1999, and started doing factory audits in 2002.

For those of you keeping score, that’s a scandal that lasted nearly a decade before Nike was compelled by enough pressure to take action.

Today, as social media allows missteps to go viral in a matter of minutes, brands respond now within hours, or at worst, days.

Consider the scandal United airlines faced in April of 2017, when a passenger was forcibly removed from a plane, causing the man pretty serious injuries.

The airline was quick to release a statement the incident would be investigated.

But later the same day, a letter from the CEO to United employees was released, in which he falsely accused the passenger of being belligerent.

They apologized the next day, and the day after that, as each attempt to make amends for the incident fell short.

Or the current scandal developing in Amazon warehouses over the health and safety of workers during the COVID pandemic.

Employees are attempting to put public pressure on Amazon to be more transparent about the number of positive cases in warehouses.

They’re also demanding better disinfectant processes, and better benefits, like paid sick leave and health coverage for part-time workers.

Amazon has fired several of the most vocal employees as the scandal has unfolded.

It’s unclear whether Amazon will pay a long-term price for this, as right now they’re likely seen as too essential to consumers who are too worried about their own well-being to mount a significant backlash.

But that we’re watching this scandal unfold in almost real-time is what’s completely new.

Of course, consumers have always held brands to an ethical standard, but the internet and social media has intensified this relationship.

Another, newer phenomenon, is that what constitutes a scandal is also evolving.

In the cases of Nike’s sweatshops, or United’s abusive treatment of a passenger, these were both clear violations of public trust.

Today, brands are judged just as swiftly for actions that violate their stated principles, not just whether or not decisions create palpable harm.

Consumers are now such sophisticated media viewers, they can almost instantly sense whether a brand’s product line and marketing is in lock-step with its stated values.

This is part of the reason why deliberately crafting your brand’s core identity is no longer an option.

If you want to create a brand that thrives in today’s climate, you need one.

But today, I want to take a different approach to this.

Because the expectation today is for brands to have, and stand up for, clear values, has sunken in.

Most major companies have made a push to recommit to, or communicate for the first time, the principles at the heart of their business.

But, this doesn’t always go smoothly.

Several brands have gotten themselves in trouble because of the relationship between their brand values, and their marketing efforts.

One of the reasons many companies shy away from creating values-based marketing, is because they worry they’ll alienate some consumers.

They’re right to worry.

If you choose strong brand values, you will put off some shoppers.

There’s no avoiding it, and actually, if your values alienate someone, it’s a signal you’re on the right track.

Too many companies who see having values as just a passing fad, choose vague, inoffensive ones like “transparency,” and “accountability.”

So they don’t end up meaning anything to anyone.

As long as your values speak directly to and inspire you target audience, though, you can’t expect to please anyone else.

And this is precisely the way it should be.

Maybe without knowing it, brands that choose ambiguous values are still sending a signal.

The problem is that most consumers who feel you’re trying too hard not to ruffle any feathers will assume it’s because you’re going for the widest market possible.

And they’ll further assume that you’re willing to do anything to boost your profits.

Of course, in this climate, if you have defined brand values, and put those ideals in your marketing, you are going to create a stir. 

So, if you’re going to take that step, you need to be sure your brand values are absolutely clear.

This is something Hallmark learned very recently.

The greeting card behemoth is also the owner of The Hallmark Channel, a cable station known mostly for its family-friendly content.

During the Christmas season of 2019, the Hallmark Channel ran a series of 4 ads promoting Zola, a website that helps couples plan their wedding.

Of the 4 ads, 2 featured same-sex couples getting married.

But within days of the ad’s release, Hallmark bowed to pressure to remove it from the air.

A conservative group called One Million Moms, objected that the ads were indecent and threatened to boycott the channel.

Originally, Hallmark pulled only the 2 ads with same-sex couples, because they didn’t want to generate controversy.

But Zola then quickly pulled the 2 remaining ads as well.

Then, after the news broke, there was swift public backlash against Hallmark for jettisoning their commitment to the LGBTQ community.

And actually, this wasn’t the first time Hallmark had been targeted by One Million Moms.

Back in 2008, Hallmark Cards debuted their new line of wedding cards specifically for same-sex couples.

The conservative group attempted a boycott at the time, too, although to this day Hallmark continues to sell a range of LGBTQ cards.

But that wasn’t the end of the scandal.

Hallmark then received backlash for pulling the ads.

And eventually, Hallmark’s CEO Mike Perry announced that they were agonizing over the decision and came to believe they had made the wrong one.

Of course, this only further enraged One Million Moms, and did little to mend fences with the LGBTQ community who felt betrayed by the original choice.

Hallmark’s mistake here wasn’t having values, but not standing by them.

And frankly, the non-committal is what hurt them.

Now both choices reflect poorly on the brand.

Conservatives who were happy with the ads being pulled now feel abandoned, and any goodwill Hallmark had with the LGBTQ community has vanished, too.

What’s left in its wake is confusion.

And no matter where you personally come down on the issue itself, it’s the flip-flopping that reflects poorly on the Hallmark brand.

But Hallmark aren’t the only brand to get into trouble when a 2019 Christmas ad.

Peloton, the makers of a high-end stationary bike, had to pull their holiday ad after a swift backlash as well.

The ad shows a husband gifting a Peloton to his wife on Christmas morning.

She then documents her year-long journey with the bike, recording short videos on her cell phone.

At the end of the ad, she shows a montage of these videos to her husband.

The video tribute ends with her thanking him for the gift, and gushing that a year ago she had no idea how the bike would change her.

If you’ve seen the ad, you’ll appreciate why my description of it doesn’t really do it justice.

It was widely criticized on social media, first or all, because the actress playing the wife is already quite thin.

Also, the implication of gifting exercise equipment to your spouse didn’t sit well.

But what really makes the ad unsettling is the wife’s documenting of the journey.

The videos have an undertone of desperation to them, like she’s trying to please an overly controlling spouse.

This certainly isn’t the kind of commercial that makes you wonder what they were thinking.

On paper, it sounds innocent enough, but the ad does have an undeniably creepy undertone.

But it’s an interesting case, because unlike Hallmark, Peloton was sincerely trying to communicate a heartfelt brand value.

The ad’s title is “The Gift that Gives Back,” and it’s clear that what they were trying to communicate was that exercising is about much more than losing weight.

There are many secondary benefits, too.

It’s been well researched that regular exercise improves your overall mood, can keep your brain healthy as you age, and improves your sleep.

Not to mention the reward of creating and staying committed to a self-supporting habit.

The idea was a good one, and it was fully in line with their values.

Their previous holiday ads had a similar message.

It was a series of 2 commercials.

The first showed a husband hiding a Peloton with a big red bow on it in the shed.

But as the days countdown to Christmas, we see him using the Peloton himself.

A later ad reveals that his wife has discovered the Peloton in the shed, and she too, has already started using it.

She then pretends to be delighted and surprised on Christmas morning.

The actress who played the wife in “The Gift that Gives Back,” Monica Ruiz, explained in an interview that she blamed her face, and wondered if her eyebrows made her look worried.

It’s hard to say what pushed it over the cliff edge, but it does make an interesting point about how branding has evolved.

In a previous episode, we walked through the history of branding.

Where brands started as a way to indicate property, or to distinguish a product’s maker, it wasn’t until the 80’s that branding came to mean selling “added value.”

This value was often emotional, and positioned products as a way to build, fix, or express your personal identity.

Marketing pushed the message that you could buy happiness, confidence, or self-worth.

But as customers have become more sophisticated media consumers, messages like these almost never resonate anymore.

Most consumers today are fed up with brands trying to sell products by weaponizing their insecurities.

This ill-fated Peloton commercial has that feeling to it, whether it was the brand’s intention or not.

But, there’s a marked difference between Hallmark’s ad, and Peloton’s.

In Hallmark’s case, their response to controversy reflected a lack of clarity about the brand’s values.

Their brand purpose to help create a more emotionally connected world now feels a bit hollow, so long as they’ve left the impression that this connection isn’t universal.

Peloton made an ad that reflected their values, it just wasn’t executed well, and the real message got lost.

Since then, Peloton has definitely made a comeback, and the ad didn’t have a lasting impact on their brand value.

With the onset of social distancing during the COVID pandemic, Peloton sales surged as consumers looked for solutions to staying fit at home.

Because Peloton’s slip up wasn’t a total violation of their values, it certainly would have been surprising if the brand had sustained long-term damage.

And certainly, Peloton’s usefulness right now is enough to outweigh any lingering bad taste.

But there’s still a risk of marketing in a purpose-driven age.

You need brand values, and you need to lean into them, but you also need to be careful that your message is actually interpreted as you intended by your target audience.

This is the real challenge of marketing with your values, not the chance of offending someone your brand isn’t talking to.

2 more recent examples of value-driven marketing are Gillette and Lush.

Gillette, the iconic razor brand whose slogan has been “the best a man can get” for years, caused a stir when they released an ad titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.”

The ad tackled the #metoo movement by recontextualizing their iconic slogan to address bullying, sexism, and toxic masculinity.

Of course, it wasn’t well received by everyone.

In fact, it quickly became one of the most unliked videos on YouTube.

There were many critics who found the ad emasculating and accused it of pandering to “woke culture” on Twitter.

It was also criticized on the other side of the spectrum.

Many consumers thought it was hypocritical for Gillette to say they promoted equality, when they still priced their razors for women at a higher premium.

They later released another ad, called “First Shave” that featured a trans man learning how to shave from his father, which was more warmly received.

Although they likely dodged the worst of the potential controversy by not posting it to YouTube or Twitter.

Lush, a UK based natural cosmetics company, has also found themselves having to walk a tightrope with their marketing.

As a brand built on natural and cruelty-free ingredients, they do not even partner with suppliers or distribution companies who have been party to animal testing at any time.

Going hand-in-hand with animal rights is human rights, and Lush also has a long history of defending and supporting various human rights groups.

For instance, since 2007 they’ve sold “Charity Pot,” a body lotion whose profits are donated to various small human rights organizations.

They’ve also had their brushes with controversy-courting campaigns.

In 2012 when they hired a performance artist who for 10 hours acted out what animals endure in testing, like forced-feeding and eye-irritancy tests.

It was live streamed from their Regent Street shop window.

It was met with an overwhelmingly positive response for opening the public’s eyes to the life of abuse many animals endure in the name of cosmetics.

But another campaign from May of 2018 didn’t land as well.

The campaign was known as #SpyCops, and it was meant to bring awareness to the often unethical behavior of the UK’s undercover police force.

The campaign was meant to highlight the often emotionally abusive relationships undercover cops form with activists in order to charge them.

Unfortunately, while on paper the campaign probably made sense, the campaign received quick backlash for painting police with too broad of a brush.

Even after Lush tried to specify they were only criticizing the small units of undercover officers targeting activists, the public wasn’t having it.

The UK’s Chief Police Officers and the Home Secretary were vocal opponents, and many of their loyal tribe thought the campaign went too far.

Lush did temporarily suspend the campaign but eventually resumed it. 

And although there was a short lived #flushlush campaign online, the brand didn’t lose any significant following.

Because again, although the campaign’s intention didn’t break through to its audience, it was at least in line with Lush’s values and anti-establishment personality.

Likewise, the #MeToo movement was also the subject of passionate debate.

So Gillette wasn’t playing it safe, either.

But compared to Pepsi’s ill-fated commercial featuring Kylie Jenner, which borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, 

Gillette and Lush were at least acting on brand values they had credibility to use.

Pepsi’s commercial felt exploitative in a way Gillette’s and Lush’s ads didn’t, so it was quickly scraped, and Pepsi was forced to issue an apology for the misstep.

To a lesser degree, McDonald’s fell into some hot water after an ad called “Carry On.”

In 2014 with their stock dropping, they released the ad as a way to reinforce their image as an American icon, and a mainstay in people’s lives.

The ad featured pictures of McDonald’s signs from all over the country over the past few decades.

Some of those signs were wishing local residents a happy birthday, or acknowledging an anniversary.

And many showed signs expressing condolences and support after national tragedies like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Although it was popular among media critics, many consumers didn’t feel the same way.

They accused McDonald’s of wanting credit for changing their signs, but offering little else to the community, especially considering the health risk of eating too much of their food.

The idea was to humanize the mega corporation’s image, but it wasn’t until McDonald’s started making real, practical changes to their menu that they began to recover.

It’s a lesson that it’s not enough to create a feel-good ad, the values you use in your marketing need to be reflected in everything your brand does.

The challenge with marketing using values is that if every element of your business isn’t in alignment behind those values, consumers today will see through it instantly.

Another McDonald’s ad, from 2017, had to quickly be pulled because they miscalculated the right tone for selling a fish sandwich.

The ad ran in the UK and featured a young boy asking his mother to tell him about his dead father.

As she describes him, he notices that he and his deceased father don’t have much in common, until they end up in McDonald’s and she tells him that his dad loved the Filet-o-Fish, too.

Aside from being accused of being in bad taste, McDonald’s actually received complaints from bereavement charities.

Like Peloton’s commercial, this was one where the intention was more or less well founded in the brand.

McDonald’s has long positioned itself as a family restaurant and a place for happy memories, but the product didn’t match the seriousness of the ad’s subject, and it came off as exploitative.

For purpose-driven marketing to speak to the right customers, it needs a strong brand underneath those values to prove it’s your authentic position.

But even with an amazing brand, sometimes your intentions get lost in translation.

But if you can get it right, value-driven messaging is some of the most powerful marketing you can do.

Budweiser aired a well-received ad during the 2017 Super Bowl, called “Born the Hard Way.”

It featured a dramatization of one of the brand’s founders, Adolphus Busch, immigrating to the United States, and the discrimination he suffered along the way.

Busch very famously underwrote the very first museum to honor German art, and construction started on the campus of Harvard University in 1914.

But with the outbreak of World War I, anti-German sentiment sky-rocketed in the US, and Anheuser-Busch was the victim of mass boycotts.

The museum’s completion had to be put on hold, and they were forced to change the Budweiser label.

Originally printed in German, they translated the label to English, and replaced a small icon of an eagle perched on a German war helmet.

Airing the ad in the weeks following the inauguration of Donald Trump, and shortly after his controversial travel ban, the ad worked because it was founded in something absolutely real and authentic.

Even if the ad wasn’t interested in selling beer.

It was the brand’s history, history that was suddenly relevant and pressing.

This is the best approach to values-driven marketing.

Knowing your brand well enough to know when it’s time to stand up, and when it’s time to bow out.

Being values-led doesn’t mean you need to throw your hat into every fight, and it certainly doesn’t mean being emotionally manipulative.

It means that if you’re going to have values, you have to stand up for them.

But if you’re going to stand up for your values, they also have to be real.

The good news for you, actually, is that you’re probably not a Gillette or Hallmark.

Part of the reason their values-based ads are so often scoffed at, is precisely because they’re huge corporations.

Most consumers are already approaching them with suspicion over their motives.

As a smaller eCommerce brand, as long as your branding is internally consistent, you’ll likely be given the benefit of the doubt.

But above all, you don’t want to infuse your ad campaigns with values just because it’s trending.

The takeaway here is that a strong brand core will only benefit you if it is genuinely the root of everything your brand does.

You can’t just make a feel-good ad and expect to score points.

You need to engage values you have the credibility to use, which means they’re backed up by your actions, and they reflect your reputation with the larger community.

This isn’t to say you’ll always get it right.

Leading with your values is always going to be a risk.

You’ll upset some people, and you won’t always hit the mark.

But it’s also the single greatest way to connect emotionally with the right customers and hold your brand accountable.

If you need some help defining your brand values, you’ll find a step-by-step process in our free book, Checkout, which you can get at

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