Values are a line in the sand

brand storytelling

Too often people try and frame “brand values” as if they are somehow different from the other values of the organisation. They aren’t. Your values are your values. Their truth shows up in your actions and decisions more clearly than in any written statement.

This week I came across a great example of a value in action courtesy of Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks.

Over the years I have heaped plenty of criticism at Starbucks’ door for appearing to make plenty of promises they didn’t seem all that interested in keeping. And to be fair to Schultz, he wasn’t actually at the helm of the company during much of that time.

When Starbucks famously stumbled a few years ago, causing many store closures, Schultz joined the liked of Steve Jobs in coming back from the sidelines to reinvigorate the enterprise and set it back on it’s true course.
While that was going on and amid the global financial crisis, Schultz took a call that went something like this:

“I got a call from an institutional public shareholder, whom I’ve known for many years. The conversation went something like, “I’m assuming you’re going to cut back on health care.” And I said, “Why would you assume that?” He said, “Well, because you’ve never had more license. No one is going to hold you accountable.” And I said, almost instinctively, “There’s no way that we’re going to cut that benefit at Starbucks.”

“The fabric of the company – going back to the early days – is linked to that benefit. I would just not turn my back on that. I basically said to the shareholder, and not in an arrogant way, “You have to evaluate whether or not you want to be a shareholder, because I’m not cutting it.” And I think great companies and great leaders have to be willing to stand up for the things they believe in. And these things are really important. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes all the time. But that was sacred ground for me.” (From Inc. magazine – I strongly recommend reading the whole article).

Embedded deeply within Starbucks’ values are respect and dignity for employees. Clearly Schultz sees providing health insurance to the people who work for him as a key demonstration of that value – and one he was unwilling to compromise, even though it was potentially a competitive disadvantage (though a definite advantage when it comes to hiring people who will stick with the company).

Now I have high standards for what should be considered a value, and I have to admit over the years very few so called values statements have passed muster. It’s a line in the sand I’ve written about a few times here and here and I have to say, the above example is the very definition of values. When truly held, they are often competitive disadvantages.

Let’s hold that standard up against the so-called values of some of our largest companies – Qantas, XYZ bank, Telstra – the list is long and undistinguished. For these companies values seem to be not much more than a waste of space, or worse, proof of glaring chasms in credibility and trustworthiness.
Which side of the line do your values sit on?

See you next week.


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