3 Essentials to Branding Your Values

What was your gut reaction when you first saw Colin Kaepernick appear in the 2018 Nike® campaign “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”? Were you upset? Upset enough to destroy Nike products and post them on social media? Were you thrilled? Did it give you goosebumps, galvanizing your affinity for the Nike brand?

Let’s do another one. When Gillette® announced its transition from its signature “The best a man can get.” to “The best a man can be.” in a Super Bowl campaign, how did you react? What did you think of the brand? Was it living what it believed, or was it co-opting a cultural tension? Did you admire them for taking a stand? Or did you ask, “What does this have to do with shaving?”

How about when the CEO of Patagonia® filed a lawsuit to sue the president over the protection of the Bears Ears National Monument? Did you cheer them on?

And when CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes — how did you feel then?

These campaigns and actions caused a binary reaction, with few people on the fence. If you are like me, a student of the marketing world, you were probably curious as to why anyone would have such extreme reactions. But I am being facetious — I’ve had strong reactions with brands; like when Porsche® introduced the Panamera (four doors?), or when Tropicana® changed its packaging (is this a generic brand?).

But I digress…

Values-based Marketing

As professional marketers, we are always dancing at the edge, searching for the right balance of commerce and connection. Brands and their people deserve no less. Who a brand is and what they stand for has become a baseline point-of-entry for would-be customers. Brand values need to be aligned with customer values before a brand can be in their consideration. This is called values-based marketing.

For brand owners, a legitimate question would be the connection between values-based marketing and the bottom line. Does it really work? According to Vox, the Colin Kaepernick campaign earned Nike $6 billion.

And, when REI launched its #optoutside campaign, closing its stores on the most important retail sales day of the year, they enjoyed a 14 percent increase in brand awareness, resulting in 3.6x more footprints in-store when they opened back up.

But there is a fine line of sensibilities that can easily be crossed. And many of the largest brands have stumbled when working to align values. For example, a Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner created a brand backlash as people felt that it trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement, and the commercial was pulled down quickly, resulting in this Saturday Night Live spoof:

In a New York Times article, Executive Director of Black Lives Matter Elle Hearns stated, “No one is finding joy from a Pepsi at a protest.”

Why do some campaigns enjoy great success with increased brand affinity and bottom-line profits, while others stumble? How do you replicate and sustain successful growth and connection for each communication? What are the specific requirements and parameters needed for each creative brief that will arm your team of marketers with the input they need to create on-brand communications that resonate with the intended audience? We believe the answer lies in three parts: knowing yourself, knowing your people and knowing the world around you.


“This above all: To thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” – Polonius from the play Hamlet, Shakespeare

What do you believe? A simple question, one might think, but not so easy to answer in words. Yet, what we believe is answered every day if we examine how we behave, the way we speak, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives and the people that we love. They are all choices that we made, consciously or not, that reflect what we believe. And our beliefs are our values.

Values become exponentially important for organizations. After all, they are made up of people who are trying to connect with other people. And when commerce is the objective, businesses cannot risk having a loose understanding of who they are. Meaningful connections are created when values are understood and aligned. This applies to people and to brands.

Consider our example of Nike and Colin Kaepernick. How did Nike conceive of, and decide to move forward on that campaign? Why did they think that was the right thing to do for them?

Nike has an excellent understanding of themselves. That self-awareness permeates throughout its products and culture. They know what they stand for, and it is succinctly captured in their mission statement: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Let’s parse this statement. Nike inspires by encouraging people to take on the “winner mindset,” which is also informed by its consumer-facing slogan “Just Do It.”

According to Bill Bowerman, the founder of Nike, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” This statement effectively broadens its market to everyone. For everyone to reach their full potential, they need the best support, and Nike is committed to innovating technologies that enhance athletic gear for the best performance.

The campaign is compliant with the brand because it revolves around all three of these pillars. The script is carefully crafted to be inclusive of all athletes, at every level, while drawing inspiration from personal stories of trials and triumphs. And every athlete featured showcases Nike innovation through products that they wear and use to win. The entire campaign platform is designed to invoke the “winner mindset.” And, although many people focused on Colin Kaepernick’s appearance, his role is small compared to the many other athletes showcased.

For your consideration, the Nike script:

If people say your dreams are crazy …
If they laugh at what they think you can do … good … stay that way.
Because what non-believers fail to understand
is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult.
It’s a compliment.

Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school or the fastest runner in the world.
Be the fastest ever.
Don’t picture yourself wearing OBJ’s jersey. Picture OBJ wearing yours.
Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker. Do both.
Lose 120 pounds and become an Ironman … after beating a brain tumor.
Don’t believe you have to be like anybody … to be somebody.
If you’re born a refugee, don’t let it stop you from playing soccer…
for the national team … at age 16.
Don’t become the best basketball player on the planet.
Be bigger than basketball.
Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.
When they talk about the greatest team in the history of the sport,
make sure it’s your team.
If you have only one hand, don’t just watch football … play it at the highest level.
And if you’re a girl from Compton, don’t just become a tennis player.
Become the greatest athlete ever.
Yeah, that’s more like it.
So, don’t ask if your dreams are crazy.
Ask if they’re crazy enough.

The mission statement provided a guiding light that helped ground the creative while providing the criteria to evaluate its alignment to the brand. The resulting campaign is filled with stories based on what the brand believes and what their people believe, effectively expressing and aligning brand and customer values. A mission statement this clear is only possible when an organization knows itself well.


“I do my best because I’m counting on you counting on me.” – Maya Angelou

A great fallacy of marketing is the belief that you have to reach everyone. This does not work. Only a politician seeks to connect with everyone, and we all know how we feel about them. There is a lack of trust. Why? Because there is a perception that a politician will bend their beliefs and their values to cater to a vote, a constituent or a donor. One day they believe what you believe, and the next day, maybe not. Without trust, there is no relationship to be had. Why is this important?

Humans are hard-wired to read the nuances of other people in an effort to better understand them. I say hard-wired because it’s an essential skill that was honed when humans were still hunting and gathering. Back then, survival meant being able to trust that the people in your tribe will do their part, so humans needed to develop skills to evaluate other people. From the way they speak to their body language, humans perceive and process hundreds of different queues while communicating, all in an effort to figure out, “Can I trust you?”.

So, in essence, marketing is about finding your people, not all people. You are looking for your tribe. And, you will know you have found the right people because they will believe what you believe. Shared values are the bond that begins to form that must-needed trust in a relationship. Would marketing then be as easy as speaking and acting what you believe? That’s a good start, and it allows your brand to be in consideration. But there is more to it.

Every person in your tribe is on a journey. This journey could be as epic as the lifelong pursuit of a dream, or as mundane as searching for relief from a headache. Each journey has a specific need that is personalized to the individual, and the fulfillment of that need could be the only goal or it could be a stepping stone toward their ultimate goal. For example, a student has a headache and it is preventing them from studying. Providing relief from their headache allows them to study and maybe even ace their exam.

Understanding the journey that your people are on and fulfilling the needs that come from it — that’s the connection between your brand and your people. Although culture changes, human nature and human needs do not. In fact, Abraham Maslow wrote a paper in 1943 that outlined the structure for what is now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This outline eventually became basic curriculum for marketers, and it categorizes needs and how they drive decisions and action.

In many ways, the journey is similar to classic storytelling. Your people, your customers, are the heroes. They are looking to fulfill their journey. The brand is their mentor, their guide, and it’s their role to help the hero. The mentor understands the journey, and they can share knowledge or tools, in essence a gift, to help them. This is a unique gift, something that only the mentor can give, and it is uniquely suited to both the hero and the journey they are on. For example, in Greek mythology, Hermes gave Perseus winged sandals so that he could fly to confront the Gorgon Medusa.

When a brand provides a product (or service), that is their gift to the customer. And it is not only uniquely suited to them and their needs; it is a complete manifestation of everything that the brand values. All their skills, all their experience(s), everything they are, is poured into this product and becomes proof of what they believe. Brands sell what they believe.

The Challenge

So, how do you sell what you believe? Let’s see how Mercedes-Benz® approached this challenge with their campaign “Grow Up,” launched with this anthem video:

The “Grow Up” campaign follows a singular but concerted effort to reinvigorate the Mercedes-Benz brand by redefining what it stands for. In this article by Heather Fletcher, we learn that the head of marketing for Mercedes-Benz, Jens Theimer, established a transformative mission for the brand.

“We don’t want to be a respected brand … We want to be a loved brand.” And that in fact, what they have been delivering, what they have been known for – timeliness, precision, engineering – could hinder them if they did not evolve and transform themselves to meet the needs of a new audience. “…But we interpret luxury today in a total other sense. It’s kind of (a) casual luxury. It’s a luxury which is looking very much, and very focused in, to the future.”

Mercedes-Benz was not looking to establish a marketing campaign, but rather to re-establish its brand as being relevant to the future and all efforts needed to align, including its product line-up. The introduction of a compact car would seem to stand at odds with what Mercedes-Benz stands for, but only if we were to look at it through the old lens. The campaign battle cry “Grow Up” may be directed both at the audience and the brand itself, a journey that they could embark on together.

Through artful storytelling, and by invoking classic “rules,” only to reinvent them for our current times, Mercedes-Benz shares its understanding of the journey of their people. By design, the campaign stories incorporate a cast of characters that are noticeably younger in spirit, international and diverse. It’s an unexpected characterization of its audience but is completely appropriate as the brand intends to make a concerted effort to capture the compact car market. And they did so with apparent great success. Since the launch of the #growup campaign, they have sold two million compact cars, with a significant portion of those customers being new to the brand.

For your consideration, a simple framework for values-based marketing: Your brand needs to act and speak your beliefs and values to attract and find your tribe. It must do so consistently to build trust. And it must act on these values by creating a gift that only your brand can create, solving a specific, unmet need for its customer, thereby helping them fulfill their ultimate journey.


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Brands began as a simple trademark, a way to differentiate one product from another in a crowded marketplace. They were expected to deliver the best quality of that product and service. It was very focused. Over time, the “brand” transformed to become an idea or a promise of what they could give to the customer. John Deere® made tractors; Coca-Cola® made soda pop; Mercedes-Benz made cars. It was a simple promise. Gradually brands evolved from promises to personifications. People now treat brands as if they were a person, and meaningful connections with a brand meant understanding their promise, their purpose and their values.

This evolution of the brand also heightened expectations. Not only are brands expected to provide products and services but also be meaningful contributors to our society. A study from Edelman reports nearly two-thirds of consumers worldwide now buy on beliefs and “54 percent believe it is easier for people to get brands to address social problems than to get government to act.”

So, the question is not about whether to act, but how? What type of engagement is going to align your purpose, positioning, promise and values? How can your brand be its authentic self while working for the greater good?

Let’s examine this campaign from Gillette, launched in the 2019 Super Bowl with this anthemic ad:

The results of the ad were tallied across multiple measures in this Video Ad News article, which reported 794K dislikes on YouTube a mere week after the commercial’s launch. And that number grew the week after launch. But according to Brand Watch, “negative feelings tend to linger with social users, causing them to post negative mentions longer than their positive counterparts.” The number of dislikes has now grown to 1.5 million, as of the writing of this article, as opposed to the 802K who found it to be positive.

And a quick search for “the best a man can be campaign results” yields results that report largely negative consequences for the brand. From this article by Sean Gogarty, who argues that it was a poor execution because it was not aligned to the brand archetype, to this article from Charles Taylor, who argues in one of his points that politically charged language should be avoided by advertisers, to this article from Alfred Edmond Jr., who argues in his first point that Gillette should not have hired a woman director.

But there are some analyses that are positive, like this one from Sophia Harris, who argues that men are not used to being told that they need to improve the same way women have been told in advertising, thus the backlash; and this article from Emily Dreyfuss, who argues that the existence of the ad, in of itself, is a sign of progress.

IMHO, I don’t find it a coincidence that in my brief research for this article, which only went a few pages deep on Google, I saw a dividing line that was apparent even in the bylines of respected editorial products, specifically their gender. Each article offered its analysis, many more offered expert opinions and the controversy of the subject overshadowed the campaign creative. So, I sought to simplify my approach. And it began with the quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that kicks off this section of the article.

A brand needs to express what it believes in the way it speaks and acts to be perceived as authentic and trustworthy. In this case, Gillette made a calculated decision to speak out at a time where a prevalent cultural tension was upon them. Eight seconds into the ad, a boy who is being bullied and chased rips through the screen of a dated execution of their old tagline — it’s a clear metaphor that times have changed, and the brand is ready to evolve.

But remember, humans are hard-wired to find signs of disingenuous intent. Gillette’s staple tagline (‘The best a man can get.’) that brought them success for nearly 30 years leveraged imagery of men and women that arguably were part of the problem they were speaking out against. This is inconsistent behavior, and everyone’s radar was alerted. Gillette was speaking and behaving one way for nearly 30 years, and very suddenly it spoke and behaved another way. Trust in the brand was jeopardized.

So, should Gillette have spoken out? Absolutely. Brands must speak to their values. Was the execution appropriate? There are arguments on both sides, each with their own merits. What is most important now is how Gillette speaks and behaves going forward. Will it remain consistent with this new direction? This is a concerted effort that goes far beyond marketing and must permeate the entirety of the Gillette organization. Will the tagline ‘The best a man can be.’ become a battle cry for Gillette that manifests itself in products, events, philanthropy, organizational culture, structure and governance? This is the true test. In storytelling, audiences love to see a good comeback, and Gillette has a chance to do that now.


Know yourself. Know your people. Know the world around you. Like a Venn diagram, the sweet spot in value-based marketing sits in its triangulated epicenter. Introspective investigation will reveal your brand values; marketplace research will lend insights to the journey and the needs of your people; consistency in voice and action with the values of your brand will help generate trust and goodwill. These are the three essential components of branding your values.

Let us help find your tribe. Contact us today.