Profit is Not a Value

Dollar sign in a heartWorking at a branding agency, you frequently find yourself in preliminary meetings where people describe their organization to you. “What makes you different?” is the question at the heart of branding and marketing. And whether the organization in question is a nonprofit, a Fortune 500 company or a local startup, the people at the head of it always have very specific ideas about what makes their particular outfit different from any other.

(Whether these ideas are original is another matter—”Integrity” is such a popular word in these conversations that it’s immediately rejected as soon as it’s spoken. Phrases like “we put service first,” or “we have a commitment to excellence” are so similarly generic as to be rendered meaningless by their ubiquity. What organization wouldn’t say those things?)

But that’s ok; we as designers, branding agencies, etc. wouldn’t have jobs if everybody already knew all about the unique strengths and weaknesses of their own brand and how to ideally leverage those qualities. We’re here because clients need an outside, more objective point of view; an expert.

Phrases like “we put service first,” or “we have a commitment to excellence” are so similarly generic as to be rendered meaningless by their ubiquity. What organization wouldn’t say those things?

One of the things I love about where I work and the process we employ is that these conversations are not by far the end of our discovery—nor should they be for any agency that takes branding seriously. David Day | Associates’ brand process (at the risk of sounding like too much of a company man) can often take weeks or even months of intensive research, interviews, surveys, workshops, roundtables and market exploration. All of this takes place at every level; stakeholder, consumer, competitor, market peers and those completely outside the brand’s hemisphere.

This practice certainly isn’t unique to dda (though most branding agencies have honed and personalized their approach to it, ours included), but the goal and result of this is the distillation of brand values: a collection of words or phrases painstakingly extracted from this process which form the central brand identity. These values are a mantra of sorts, a kind of brand code, refining and solidly defining why the organization exists, how it does everything it does and will go about operating in the future. Some companies (and the agencies that brand them) have other names for the brand values, but the meaning is the same, and virtually every company on the planet—especially the larger and more successful ones—have and embrace them.

If done well and researched carefully, the words and phrases that emerge from the branding process form a cohesive identity. These values will be personal, meaningful and unique.

For example, below are the ten core values of Zappos:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

That’s great, isn’t it? That list sounds like Zappos. It feels like their brand feels. You get a sense of what that organization is all about and even what their workplace culture might be like just from that tiny list. And that’s the whole point; this is the beating heart of the brand.

It’s not uncommon for executives to commission posters, mugs and mousepads with the brand values on them. In the offices of a company that’s been through this process, ideally, everybody from the CEO on down makes their business decisions based on their alignment with these values, HR rewards employees for exhibiting these values in their everyday work, and the success of the company and its employees is measured solely against them.

Deep breath.

But…that’s not often the case, is it?

Where Brands Fall Apart

Here’s where I’m going with this: that company I just described doesn’t really seem to exist in reality most of the time, does it? Which begs the question:

If this sort of holistic dedication to brand values is so common in theory, why is it so rare in practice?

Just as any executive or business owner will say their company values integrity (and quality and service, of course), so virtually every company claims that they reward and value their employees exhibiting their brand values.

But is that really accurate?

If this sort of holistic dedication to brand values is so common in theory, why is it so rare in practice?

I’ve heard of a lot of CEOs being fired for failing to turn a profit, just as I’m sure you have. There are countless examples of the exit door swinging open rapidly for executives who dropped shareholder prices or who initiated plans, programs and products that weren’t sufficiently fiscally successful. If you want to lose your job, there’s no surer way than to lose your company some money.

So where are all of the CEOs, executives and managers who lost their jobs for failing to adequately exhibit and execute the brand’s core values?

To take the example above, if you work at Zappos, hopefully somebody will take notice if you’re not pursuing growth and learning (#5), or if you are not helping to build a positive team and family spirit (#7). But whether or not that happens in reality (and I can’t speak to that particular company’s culture either way), I feel confident they’ll notice and respond quickly if you’re costing the company money.

Sure, the point of business is to make money, but if these brand values are really supposed to inform everything that a company does, shouldn’t the question at least be asked occasionally: does profit ever conflict with our values? What if the employee or manager who’s losing the money is doing so in the name of upholding the brand values?

There are many instances where this exact thing does happen; we just don’t tend to think of it in this light. For example: a business that says it puts people first will lay off workers in a location that isn’t sufficiently profitable even when there were other options available; a company that claims to value family above all else will either pay its employees too little to afford child care or demand too many hours to make raising children viable; a company that says it values innovation will try to guard its own research from other innovators for fear of losing dollars; and a business that supposedly takes pride in its country, state and local community will move offshore to avoid taxes. Hell, I’ve even heard people in healthcare argue against treating patients in desperate need if they can’t pay.

Sure, the point of business is to make money, but if these brand values are really supposed to inform everything that a company does, shouldn’t the question at least be asked occasionally: does profit ever conflict with our values?

All of this is invariably done for one central, core, defining purpose: profit. It’s the first option in the flowchart of modern capitalism: Can you make money? > YesMake money. End of chart.

So this leaves us in the position of accepting one of two uncomfortable realities:

  1. Companies lie about their values;
  2. Companies tell the truth about their values, but profit is also one, and it trumps the rest.

In either of the similar realities above, we’re forced to ask what purpose and legitimacy these brand values actually hold. It’s almost insultingly easy to find a product or service advertising something like, “We put quality and integrity at the heart of all we do.” And we buy it (figuratively and literally). But if that exact same product or service said “We put profit at the heart of all we do,” we’d flip it the bird and walk away—even though we all know deep down that if every company were being honest, almost every piece of corporate business communication would say this.

This is a problem. How do we change this behavior?

As always, it’s up to you, consumer. Vote with your dollars. It’s time to reward companies that truly live out their brand values and put those before their own profit margins.

It’s up to you, employees, to raise your voice and blow the proverbial whistle when you see companies contradicting their own values.

And it’s up to you, bosses, managers, presidents and CEOs, to put the health of your brand ahead of the health of your shareholders’ wallets. Money’s nice, but it’s nothing more than a means to an end. And if you’re sacrificing good people on the way to that end, then it isn’t worth it.

The best way to improve your product, service, or whatever it is that your organization offers is to invest in the people creating it. And that is often completely counterintuitive to investing in profit.

Profit is not a value.

It’s up to all of us to stop acting like it is.