The great stories of the oral tradition have always contained lessons encouraging people to pursue their higher values. In comparing myths across cultures and times to develop his "Hero’s Journey" model, Joseph Campbell found that higher values were the key ingredient to story success. Today, digital tools are spawning a new peer-to-peer oral tradition in communications. To succeed in this new digitally empowered oral tradition, marketers must heed the lessons of the past and orient their brands to higher human values—or face being ignored. Identifying these values for your brand or cause can be extremely rewarding, and less difficult than it sounds.
For some brands, choosing higher-level values is easy because they are embedded directly into their own creation.
Patagonia, for instance, is a legendary brand among outdoor adventurers and a visionary leader in sustainability. Its values, one of which is Truth, are baked in because a passionate climber founded the company at a time when he was deeply concerned about the damage his sport was causing to pristine rock faces. As a young man in the early 1970s, Yvon Chouinard realized that there was a difference between loving to play in nature and authentically caring for it. Willing to face this hard reality, he invented an aluminum climbing wedge that could be inserted and removed without doing damage to the rock face. The success of this invention was an early step in the development of an ever-growing outdoor adventure line, driven by a single values-based dictum: "Build the best products while creating no unnecessary environmental harm."
Patagonia stresses the word unnecessary because the brand acknowledges the difficult truth that, just like climbing, the manufacture of outdoor gear will always cause some negative impacts. There’s no way to avoid it, and the company wants its customers to face that truth. Thirty years later, one of its best-known initiatives has been the online tool, the Footprint Chronicles. Here Patagonia lays bare "the good and the bad" of its products up and down the supply chain. This is not feel-good environmentalism. About its Wayfarer board shorts, the copy says, "The fabric has no recycled content. We worked hard with our supplier to develop a recycled nylon fabric—and succeeded—but it’s not commercially viable (a pair of shorts would cost $75)." Core customers, who value nature not as a concept but as a place they actually spend their lives, deeply appreciate the Truth value embodied in every highly transparent Patagonia marketing campaign.
Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s VP of Environmental Initiatives and a member of the first U.S. team to summit K2, told me that he doesn’t see brand communication as marketing at all but "sharing our core values with our customers." For brands like Patagonia, whose values were identified at the moment of creation, the work is to simply name those values and then relentlessly communicate them through great stories.
Other brands will find their values effortless to choose because they are a direct expression of their offering. Amnesty International, for instance, has built an iconic brand by offering activists a way to use their pens and keyboards to protect human rights. This is not a marketing ploy meant to drive donations. It actually works. By shining the light of public attention on human rights abuses—activities that thrive in secrecy—Amnesty has saved lives and stopped countless horrors. But the organization is not just providing something invaluable to those it protects; Amnesty also gives its members a chance to pursue the fulfillment of the higher-level Justice value—the need to play a role in bringing moral order to the world. Millions of activists have come to see writing letters in defense of prisoners as a gift to those in need and also as a gift to themselves, a doorway to higher purpose.
For brands whose offerings directly provide access to higher-level values, a powerful storytelling strategy begins by simply recognizing and naming these values then making a strategic commitment to put them, consistently, at the core of every communication.
And then there are brands that want to tell resonant stories but were neither founded on obvious values nor have offerings that directly express them. Ben & Jerry’s is an example of such a brand; it built an ice cream empire out of nothing by being values-led.
Founder Ben Cohen didn’t set out to find a more humane or sustainable or healthy way to make ice cream. He and his friend, Jerry Greenfield, just wanted to make a few bucks, and they liked dessert. Still, Cohen himself was passionate about peace and he wanted to see military spending redirected toward social programs. It started as merely a personal obsession but as his business got on its feet, he sensed that he was sitting on a tremendous platform for raising awareness—eventually there would be millions of pint tops and ice cream pop wrappers on which he could express his values.
At a time when American premium ice cream brands were falling all over themselves to sounds exotic and indulgent—touting made-up European-sounding names like Häagen Dazs, Glace de Paris, and Frusen Glädjé—Cohen and Greenfield broke through the clutter by putting their decidedly un-exotic faces on their packages and talking about what they cared most about.
Ben Cohen knew that a lot of ice-cream eaters wouldn’t agree with reduced Pentagon spending, but he didn’t care: "Companies do controversial marketing all the time to break through the clutter," he explained to me. "So if you can rise above it by taking a stand against nuclear weapons instead of using some sexy young girl, why not?"
Ben & Jerry’s built a breakthrough brand, a brand Cohen insists wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without its values, the passions of its founders—and these passions had nothing to do with ice cream. But audiences saw the values as authentic nonetheless because they were so personal. In fact, Ben recalled the danger in trying to move beyond his personal passions into "values by committee." As the company grew into a giant player, Cohen surveyed his entire team to see what they valued, and the results were all over the map. In fact, the only issue they could agree on was the broad and uncontroversial "children and families." These results didn’t feel actionable to Cohen and, before long, the company reverted to acting on values of the founders.
"If you can form a relationship with your customers based on shared values, that is the strongest possible bond you can form," he explained. "But finding shared values means you have to have some values, they can’t just be milquetoast, namby-pamby middle-of-the-road crap. You need to stand for something, so customers who believe the same thing can glom onto your brand."
Printed on the packages was a call to redirect 1% of the Pentagon budget toward peace initiatives. They sourced their Rainforest Crunch Brazil nuts from indigenous rainforest producers, protecting ecosystems by demonstrating these forests could be financially viable when left intact. And they never stopped talking about what they cared about. Perhaps more importantly, they gave their customers hope that, with every ice cream purchase, they themselves were expressing their higher-level values. Some of these expressions of values were unavailable elsewhere, like the pursuit of peace, which at the time seemed to have been buried with the 1960s. For millions of ice cream eaters, the brand stood for higher purpose while all other ice cream brands stood for vapid luxury.
Brands like Ben & Jerry’s, which aren’t founded in response to a higher calling and aren’t providing something inherently values-based, face the empowerment marketing challenge as a need to choose values that their leadership can commit to and orient their entire team around.
It’s likely that you’ll consider these three types of brands—those born with values, those that embody them, and those that choose them—and immediately see your own story. Knowing where you fit is key, but wherever you are, you have the opportunity to identify core values on which to build your story strategy. Remember, these are the values you will share with your audience to inspire them. The goal will not be to simply show your audiences what you care about but to offer them encouragement to seek their own higher-level potential.
Here’s how to begin:
Review the list of higher-level values shown in "The Values You Want to Live." You’ll want to capture any that fit your aspirational brand. In other words, these values need not be an expression of where you are today but where you want to—and ultimately believe you can—go. Put each value in one of the following categories:
- Values built into our founding story
- Values expressed by our products or services
- Values held by our leadership
- Values we believe will most deeply resonate with our audiences
As the building blocks of your story strategy, and your future brand itself, the choices you make here will have far reaching impacts on your future. But don’t get locked up by the stakes. This is an iterative and evolving process. Like all brands, yours will be built on experimentation. Try out values you think fit. If the end result doesn’t feel like where you want to go, you should start the process again, making needed adjustments.
Narrow your field to three of these values—if possible, only one or two. Like all branding decisions, fewer inputs are usually better in the long run. But you don’t want to narrow at the expense of your authenticity. Values that align across all four categories (founding story, offering, leadership, and audiences) are ideal choices, but not always possible to find. As Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway put it: "If you’re in the business of making landmines, you’ve got a big problem. But if you’re making dessert, you’ve got a lot of choices of values that reflect your values. If you’re making a product that reflects your own values, you’ve got it even easier, of course."
Ridgeway is pointing to an important truth: almost any brand can start becoming growth-values-oriented. Obviously it’s easy for a nonprofit that helps volunteers deliver food to neighbors who cannot leave their homes. They have an offering that cultivates more wholeness in the world as they ask people to step out of themselves and join into community with others. They are reaching out to those who seek more wholeness in their lives. They are bringing people together into wholeness. Easy.
But what about Listerine—a brand that owes its birth and success to inadequacy values? Does this brand have the same opportunity to create marketing around a wholeness value? Consider this: Listerine was founded on a story of a woman, Sad Edna, who couldn’t get close to anyone because she was inadequate. Today, the brand could flip that strategy 180 degrees pointing directly to the positive value that is the mirror image of Sad Edna. Listerine could now be all about closeness between people. It could be about people coming together to do great things. This seed of inspiration from the product might help the brand identify wholeness as a core value. Their marketing might tell stories that focus on the uplift of wholeness, and they might even partner with and support the elder-care nonprofit imagined above. Sad Edna becomes Citizen Edna and a new, digitorally relevant brand might be born. If Listerine has the opportunity to do it, so do you.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Copyright 2012 Jonah Sachs. All rights reserved.