Good values and better practice

At edie's recent Sustainability Communications Conference, the Creative Concern team and Common Cause Foundation ran a (semi-experimental) workshop that aimed to navigate through the world of brands, values and causes with the help of sixty seasoned communicators and sustainability professionals.

Good values and better practice

The stimulus behind the workshop was a live campaign in Greater Manchester called ‘Shared Values’ that is exploring the overwhelming tendency of people to cite selfless values as being most important to them, and the role of large organisations and businesses in connecting those values together with a shared sense of community purpose.

The workshop also followed hard on the heels of two very different, but very high profile treatments of values-based messaging by mainstream brands: Pepsi and Heineken. We wanted to co-create a dialogue about progressive values, sustainability communications and what

Getting values wrong, or right?

At what point in Pepsi’s ‘Jump In’ ad does it become clear that their foray into the territory of ‘brands with purpose’ has gone awry? Is it the contact sheet frustration of the Muslim photojournalist? The impromptu street gig with a mobile, hipster cellist? The wig-shedding by Ms Jenner as she transforms from a foil-wrapped pin-up to denim-clad activist?

Upon its release there was a social media storm, a mortifying pastiche on Saturday Night Live  and, of course the ad was pulled. Wounds were licked and commentators pointed out that for some brands, it needn’t always be such a disaster to work with social issues, values and causes.

In fact one perfect counterpoint has to be 1971’s advert where a perfectly multicultural troupe sang that they’d ‘like to buy the world a Coke’. More recently, Heineken’s ‘Open Your World’ film on tolerance also hit the mark with much greater success and authenticity.

From what have been called ‘empathy brands’ like Innocent to Dove, Benetton and even Nat West, big brands across all kinds of sectors have been leaping into the values and causes ball pool; are they really trying to make the world a better place? Are they trying to velcro some positivity to their brand? Or have they just cottoned onto the idea that being good ‘sells’?

We wanted to explore these questions in our workshop, and ask participants to work towards a code or approach, that might be more robust, responsible and replicable.

Co-creation of a code

Tom Crompton of Common Cause kicked the session off by outlining the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic values; between compassionate or selfless values and those which are inner-focused and more selfish. How certain value sets reinforce each other and how references to wealth and social standing can erode our willingness to act on social or environmental calls to action.

Then we asked our participants to work in groups to explore if there could possibly be a code of conduct or more responsible approach to including progressive values in corporate communications and advertising; also some groups looked at how internal or customer communications channels might be used to ‘bridge the gap’ between strong values of selflessness felt by most people but which many do not believe are shared by others. What follows is the emergent code for values-based communications that they produced.

One: Be truth tellers

This came up in many forms in our crowdsourced code. Values-based communications should be truthful, transparent and genuine. Crucially, the values or causes we may want to support could be negatively impacted if our claims are not reliable and imbued with integrity.

Two: Embrace authenticity

Be authentic – ground your communications in evidence and the values your business is living, not just aspiring to. Be genuine and take incremental steps towards a big message. To be credible you need heritage linked to values. It’s also critical get colleagues and directors on board before ‘going public’ with your values.

Three: Act first, talk second

Avoid espousing values or opinions that aren’t backed up by your practice or by real world actions. Be transparent and realise that if you communicate values-based messages, people will want to interrogate your track record and make sure it matches up to those values. Walk the walk before talking the talk.

Four: Leave legacy

Ensure that what you create is self-sustaining and you aren’t leaving partners in your wake, unsupported. Make your values-based communications part of a longer-running programme. Avoid bandwagons as you build a mission.

Five: Spout less and listen more

Be willing to take the risk of testing and tailoring – challenge your assumptions. Consult and listen to experts when handling sensitive subjects. Map out your stakeholders, connect with them, and consider supporting their messaging over your own. Align with those who share your view of the world.

This five point code could be, at its most humble, a useful reference point for brands to use; a reality check to be deployed if a piece of values-based communications is in the pipeline or under consideration. 

Rules of engagement

Several of our working groups went beyond a code of conduct and also wanted to tackle the question of staff and customer engagement across a values-based messaging platform.

They came up with some common sense pointers, such as keeping messaging simple, realistic, direct and orientated around progressive ‘green’ values rather than selfish ‘purple’ ones. They also stressed that to elicit action, the call to action had to sit very naturally within an individual’s view of the world and their place in it.

Rewards – and ‘nudge’ tactics – were discussed but caution expressed over whether financial rewards in particular would activate the wrong (purple) sets of values and suppress the selfless values that would actually sustain longer-term behaviour change.

Appointing people as champions of values, or highlighting what others do and what you could do too, was seen as an opportunity, as was the idea of bringing positive values and messaging frames into every day communications in the workplace.

Understanding in greater depth what a value represented, how it connects to your colleagues or customers and real world examples of that value being activated, e.g. through volunteering, would be a useful approach. Also it was felt that organisations could talk more openly about values across all their communications channels.

Finally, transparency was a key feature here, too. It should be standard practice to ensure that any values espoused to colleagues for example are shared by the organisation and are shown to be acted upon. Walk the talk, again.

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