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Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Why brand values belong outside of the marketing department and in HR’s hands

By Jenny Sagstrom | Founder and Chief Executive Officer



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October 26, 2023 | 8 min read

Jenny Sagstrom of creative agency Sköna argues that what your brand stands for is far too important a question to leave up to marketers alone.

A buttercup flower, held by a pair of hands

Brand values need nurturing by the whole company, not just marketing, says Jenny Sagstrom / Lina Trochez via Unsplash

Marketers talk about brand values the way dentists talk about floss: probably more than anybody wants to hear. But that’s because we know when you’re clear on the why behind the business, your marketing is more powerful.

Visual branding should reflect those values, but so should the people behind the scenes who make the brand a reality. For this reason, brand values can’t be the responsibility of the marketing department alone. Doing so risks brand values becoming too fluffy and outward-facing.

At a time when only 27% of knowledge workers report having a healthy relationship with work, and the unhealthy majority describe being less productive, disengaged, disconnected, and doing the bare minimum, meaningful brand values are needed more than ever.

But for this to happen, they need to be woven throughout the day-to-day functioning of the company, recruitment efforts, and even quarterly reviews. In short, brand values need to be taken into HR’s hands.

Brand values start with leadership, but find life in HR

Usually, values begin with a founding team or chief executive, but if they stay in the hands of leadership alone, you’ve got yourself an autocracy. Nor can they be passed down exclusively by the marketing department. For one, CMOs’ median tenure is only 28 months. More importantly, however, if brand values only matter for marketing purposes, they’re no better than a summer campaign slogan – fun while they last, but typically forgotten with the change of the season.

HR, on the other hand, is the best place for ensuring values are upheld in the everyday functioning of an organization. Unlike other departments, HR can create infrastructure that supports and reinforces brand values. This is established when values become core to practices like hiring, firing, and rewarding employees.

For that to happen, there needs to be clarity around what brand values actually look like.

Brand values aren’t concepts; they’re actions

Unfortunately, brand values are often tossed around as one-word concepts like ‘trustworthy’ and ‘inclusive’. These words are lovely, but they’re vague and subject to many different interpretations. To avoid this, values need to be broken down into meaningful actions.

For example, at Sköna we recently added “embracing discomfort” to our values. But embracing discomfort could easily be skewed in the wrong direction if we weren’t clear on what that actually looks like. So we clarified with specific behaviors, like “trying something I’ve never done before,” “having a difficult client conversation,” and “being okay not having all the answers”.

Not only does setting up an actionable framework set employees up for success; it also becomes the rubric against which folks are evaluated in initial interviews, quarterly reviews, and promotional considerations.

On a more macro level, values also come in handy when there isn’t a corporate precedent for how to do something. There is no handbook that covers every possible scenario that may arise in our rapidly changing world, but your values are the guide that help you decide how to act or what to do.

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Brand values as recruitment tools make employees brand ambassadors

When HR owns values and therefore actively seeks them out in employees, you find yourself in a place where everyone is aligned on the larger ‘why we’re here’. This is what modern employees crave. According to recent research, 83% of employees would willingly earn less if it meant they had greater fulfillment.

It’s no surprise, then, that a company like tech giant Cisco has found itself at the top of ‘best places to work’ lists for years. One of its brand values is to “Give something of yourself,” explained as showing care and consideration to the Cisco community and the community at large. This is made actionable on day one when newly hired employees are given a credit to donate to a charitable organization of their choice. HR further builds this into the workplace through five paid volunteer days a year, and job postings that explicitly call out making a difference outside of the workplace. Cisco has also held itself as a brand accountable through tracking and publishing its ESG efforts since 2005.

Fulfillment creates an environment where employees are active brand ambassadors, creating recruitment material of their own – something far more powerful than anything the marketing team is going to create (check out #wearecisco on LinkedIn and see what I mean). This team building, more than any product updates or marketing strategy, is what makes it possible to scale your brand.

While marketing may get new customers in the door, the whole team is responsible for keeping them. So make sure brand values are at the core of your HR department’s work. Your marketing team will thank you.

Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

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Sköna is a B2B creative agency specializing in marketing, branding, and design for innovative tech companies. Founded in Silicon Valley in 2003 and with offices in San Francisco and Stockholm, we build brave brands with a blend of Silicon Valley high-tech expertise and Scandinavian sensibility.

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