What are your non-negotiables?

What are your non-negotiables?

Values. Google calls them the “ten things we know to be true”. Atlassian says they “guide our business, our product development, and our brand”. Big corporates like to talk about them but they never seem to add up.

I call them non-negotiables.

It’s not news that you need to have a set of values to guide your organisation on its way. But what have they got to do with brand?

I’ll come back to that and what you should do next time some agency asks you what kind of car or animal you are in an effort to pigeonhole you and your organisation into some kind of “archetype” or “personality”.

But first I’ve been giving the whole “values” thing some serious thought and here are a few observations that might help you think about them for your organisation.

I’ll start with the holy trinity of honesty, integrity and trust. There is barely a values conversation I have that doesn’t include one or all of these. They are what I think of as meta-values, a bit like a membrane that encircles society and helps it function. We can’t operate or trade without them being in place.

On some level we are pretty honest (white lies, sociopathic criminals and most politicians aside). We try to do what we say and act in a way that means others will want to keep engaging with us and feel good about it. (As an aside, if you want to explore the idea of trust a bit more deeply there is a great article on the Brain Pickings site last week.)

So in general I look at them as somewhat of a given – if you’ve got to say it then…

Next layer down you strike the mish-mash of aspirations, good intentions, things we care a bit about and things designed to make others think we are good guys. These are what often pass as values but in reality are more what I call principles (you may call them something else).

Principles are things you care about or think you do, but that you will trade if circumstances dictate. These are the things that give way under pressure. You know them – those things that when push comes to shove, give way. The “but” values. ‘No I don’t agree with, but. Yes I know they are, but.’

We all have them. They can be important drivers and have a big impact on organisations. They are relevant to the discussion – in their place.

Which brings us to values. I call them non-negotiables (with thanks to Jim Collins for the term). They are the things that when push comes to shove, push back. They are not open for trade – ever. They are what you hope to find in your team and if they aren’t there you work like crazy to make sure they know how important they are. They are enduring and rarely change. They are the basis for how you behave and make decisions.

And inside your values are the things that are your DNA. They answer the question: What is your nature? These are the key things to hire for because if people don’t share these then it’s just not going to work out. They are the basis of the culture – that maddening, capricious, difficult to define thing that is the engine of who you are.

So we’re way beyond posters on the wall now. Really understanding this combination of principles, non-negotiables and DNA that make up your values mix is work – but what isn’t.

It takes time to really peel back the layers and requires a willingness to look at your actions and decisions for what they are not what you want to think they are. Not many manage it.

What does all this have to do with your brand? I’ve written previously about the ways values relate to brand but, in short, brand is the result of the promises you keep. Keeping those promises is the result of your actions and decisions. Your actions and decisions are shaped and driven by your values.

Too many “branding” exercises pay lip service to understanding. Sure, they are a fun way to spend a few hours, but don’t kid yourself. Thinking that you’ll gain some deep insight into who you are by playing “what kind of X would you be” style games is a bit like thinking you’ll solve climate change by planting a few trees. It might feel good but ultimately it doesn’t do much.

So next time an agency asks you what kind of car you are, politely suggest they take a trip to the parking lot. Then get to work and spend some serious time understanding your values mix. Your brand will thank you.

See you next week.

Michel Hogan is an independent brand analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make.




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