Just recently we were walking down the street in La Paz, Bolivia and saw one of the frequent parades coming our way, so we ducked into a coffee shop to watch. As I stared out of the window at the phalanxes of military marching by, my wife Rosie drew my attention to the back of the menu, and I was, for a second, speechless. Here is what it said (in English and Spanish):
Mission: Provide exceptional service, with high-quality products and the best team of associates.
Vision: We are the leading coffee shop company, offering quality products and service that satisfy and exceed our customers' expectations.
Values: Ethics, Honesty, Teamwork, Customer Focus, Competitive.
The cult of branding has spread around the world and can now be found, verbatim, on the back of menus in coffee shops in emerging countries, using the same framework as Coca-Cola or any other global brand.
There's nothing wrong with having a mission and a vision and values, of course, but what has spread is the idea of branding as a bunch of words. In some ways, this is our fault. Advertising agencies, led by Stephen King, were the first to articulate the ineffable essence of brand. Agencies become champions and then brand guardians, and advertising still operates in a world of utterance.
Advertising believes itself to be about messages, about what a company says through media to create perceptions in the minds of consumers. And so the mission and vision and values of a company became a liturgy, a public prayer. A set of magical words uttered at special meetings or on menus that have nothing to do with the behaviour of the company. They are inherently nondescript. What company in the world wouldn't claim to be exceptional, to have ethics, to be honest, to be customer focused? That last one is tautological -without customers, there is no company.
And yet, even this seemingly obvious 'value' is now considered something to be criticised for.
I know, it sounds like a joke, but that's the world we live in. JetBlue, one of the only remaining airlines in America that wasn't horrible, was criticised by Wall Street for being 'overly brand conscious and too customer focused'. The investment banks forced out the CEO David Barger – who had been part of JetBlue's founding time – because of it last year.
This, I mean literally this, is what is wrong with any company you care to complain about. If you actually believe in your brand and try to provide a decent customer experience, your Wall Street owners will have your head. There is an ever-widening disconnect between the magic words of brand and the behaviours taken to appease banks.
One of VW's three core brand values is 'responsibility', for example. Bill Bernbach, who helped build the VW brand, pointed out that "it's not a principle until it costs you something". To understand if the brand you're working on has principles is simple. A brand is a function of behaviour, of how the company acts in the world. It's a generative rule that informs decisions. Think of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. It is expressed in every major religion. When a person does another person harm in the name of religion, they make a mockery of their beliefs.
I ordered a sandwich at the café. They brought out a different sandwich, which I pointed out. The waitress told me they didn't have the other sandwich, and refused to take it back. When I pointed to the menu and said that wasn't very 'customer focused', she looked at me like I was crazy.
A company should make decisions by referencing their brand values if they are to have any meaning. If they are 'customer focused', they would never use profits to buy back shares, since this money would be better spent on improving services. If they are 'responsible', they would not cheat on emissions tests to secretly poison the sky for profit.
So, either make the brand values 'we will do whatever Wall Street says, we will diminish the experience, cheapen the products, abuse workers in emerging markets, poison the earth, do anything we can get away with, to inflate shareholder value' or insist that the company behaves in a way that reflects the magic words.
Just please stop saying one thing and doing the other. If we have any chance of getting people to believe in advertising again, we must stop making false promises. Instead, do the things you are promising and then, once you've done them, communicate it.