Martin Roach

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You’re always communicating values

Brands need to understand that values change meaning depending on how they are perceived

We’ve had over 800 plays on our brand values quiz. Within the game, you are presented with a logo of one of the top ten brands in the world and three brand values statements. All of the values are real but only one of the statements belongs to the brand you see. When I present the quiz to people they usually ask if the values shown are what the brands say they are or what we think they should be. With regard to the game it’s the former. I find the notion of deciding and even decoding what the values should or could be a very interesting one.

We know [because of the average score of three out of ten] that most people do not know the values of the world’s largest brands, so how do we assign values to a brand when we are not sure?

To find out I asked the students on the MA Branding course at Goldsmiths to play the quiz whilst I observed. I asked the students to self regulate themselves as a group and to only select a brand value as being correct for a brand when they had come to a consensus as a group.

This small experiment suggests three things:

01 Relevance and brand values
When the students didn’t know what the values were for a particular brand they looked for relevance and meaning within the set of three presented values and then assigned the most relevant one to the brand. Relevance was usually sought in sectors so it seemed normal for the students to expect IT companies to be innovative but less so if they were in the financial sector.

02 Experience affects our perceptions of the values
The students used their experience of branding and of corporate habits to predict what a brand might do – as they had to self regulate and provide a unanimous answer the debate centred around what it was likely for a brand to do based on their knowledge of the brand’s actions. This is quite interesting as our experience of brands is fragmented and made up of a disjointed and inconsistent narrative (something brands simply cannot control) but as consumers we do piece together this narrative into a story that seems to make sense to us.

03 Our personal values affect our understanding
The most fascinating aspect for me though is how we allow our personal values to affect our perception of another entities values. It was clear that the students were able to lean towards certain value sets if an individual within the group was able to articulate an interpretation that affected them as a whole.

Experience and personal values equate to opinion and emotion. As consumers we are very opinionated, we buy certain brands based on a wide range of criteria. It seems that part of this criteria is linked to values. Even if we do not know exactly what a brand’s values are we quickly build up an opinion of what they should be based on experience and personal value sets we hold within our lives. During the session comments such as ‘there is no way brand X could have this value’ were common, highlighting that personal opinions are formed about a brand’s potential values even if we are uncertain about their actual values.

Brands have put a lot into communicating their values, but as our quiz demonstrates there is much to do in getting the message across. However, it seems that there is an added complication with getting a message through. Our past experiences of a brand affects our interpretation of its values and therefore affects the messages brands transmit. At epitype we advocate that the first line of values is internal understanding and engagement. By doing this a brand will be able to determine how their messages are perceived with a view to replicating this process across a wider stakeholder group. The trick is to clearly define what that stakeholder group is so that you can be as inclusive and open as possible.

Ultimately though, brands need to understand that values change meaning depending on how they are perceived and that even if they are not communicating their values – values are still being received.


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