“Fake it ‘til ya make it.” You’ve heard it before—the old advice doled out to nervous entrepreneurs, early career leaders, or executives with ‘imposter’s syndrome.’ It’s the professional equivalent of a childhood pat on the head: “Keep at it, honey. You can do it.”
The idea seems simple: if you act for long enough like you’re creative, confident, and leading a strong team to some purposeful goal, it will magically happen. Trouble is, you have to lie. You have to pretend to be something you’re not. You’re trying to fake your way to success.
Real leaders don’t fake it. They lead from values.
Just as great leaders live and lead from strong values, so too do healthy organizations. Strong brands are built first and foremost on authenticity—the enduring, careful, diligent adherence to their stated values.
Values are the foundation for decision-making, organizational culture, and public communications. Whereas brands can be built around product features or to cater to specific profiles of customers, values form a stronger base, because they remain applicable beyond product lifecycles and as customers’ tastes and preferences shift and evolve.
Consider for example Amazon.com. What started as a virtual bookstore has evolved to become one of the world’s biggest ‘stores,’ a venue for private boutiques for countless third party merchants, and a significant business services firm. It’s a significant evolution, across multiple extensions of the brand and new product cycles. But it all holds together because of Amazon’s commitment to convenience—one-click shopping, and fast-as-possible delivery.
So how do you choose your brand values?
When we present or deliver workshops on values-driven branding, we often ask participants what principles guide their organizational decision-making. Three themes come up over and over again: honesty, integrity and respect are values that most people hold incredibly dear. And we agree. But they’re honestly not that interesting.
Why? Simple: Because it’s impossible to imagine an enduring organization that values dishonesty, that operates out of integrity, or that values disrespect. In other words, these are important values, but they’re table stakes—they’re the values you have to hold to get into the high stakes game of business—or for that matter any kind of organizational leadership.
Through hundreds of brand strategy engagements, we’ve learned that a few general values consistently appeal across countries, demographics and time: People crave a sense of belonging, opportunities for personal expression, and connection to a greater sense of purpose.
What we’re most interested in are the values leaders choose when they could have chosen the opposite. Here’s a case in point: We worked with a prominent, boutique hotel, whose founding owners were undoubtedly eccentric. The more we learned about their hotel staff and their approach to operations, the quirkier we came to believe them to be. They were a madcap extended family, all competing to make wackiness part of their guests’ experiences. And magically, this quirkiness, this comfort with being a little different than standard expectations is compelling. No predictable, concrete box hotel experience here!
As we developed their hotel’s brand, we focused on giving their guests permission to be a little different—to embrace their inner adventurer, to take things a little less seriously, and most of all, to have fun. It came as no surprise that the hotel was soon outperforming its competitors—strong, globally renowned chains that couldn’t match the light-hearted, life-loving experience of the quirky little property down the road.
There’s a close relationship between a well-defined brand and a strong organizational culture. A brand is ‘the expectation of an experience.’ Customers are loyal because they enjoy their experience with a brand. And that brand experience is grounded in the organization’s culture, and its ability to live up to the values the brand espouses.
The broader point is this: the values you actually hold (not the ones you ‘fake’) are the ones for which you’ll earn a reputation. And brands are built on reputations—on the expectation of an experience.
You can work to discern the values that show up in your organization today, or you can work to define values you aspire to hold, and shift your organizational culture to reflect them. If you’re a new organization, you can define the values early and build a culture from scratch. Don’t take that opportunity for granted, and don’t wait too long to get started. You will have a brand; your challenge is to establish the brand you want.
One final note: values-driven leadership implies the humility to hear feedback, so your brand stays open and responsive to customers’ needs. You’ll only hear that feedback if customers trust that you’ll listen. And nothing drives trust like authenticity. Make it by not faking it.
Mike Rowlands is Junxion’s President & CEO. He’s been working with social impact clients around the world to develop values-driven brands for 20 years.