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A New Approach For Brands To Align Intention With Action

Today, Long Dash launches Brand Prism, a new body of research and step-by-step approach to benchmarking and improving how brands articulate, apply, and deliver on their values.

Julie Dixon is Managing Director at National Journal's Network Science Initiative and is a Long Dash alum. She is also a professional musician, songwriter, and actor, with original songs place on MTV, two albums to her credit, and appearances on stages across the DC area.

Earlier this summer, an article written for The Atlantic by Amanda Mull rapidly spread through our office (or, at least, through our virtual office via Slack). It was three months into the pandemic, and just a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd. Brands had been busily posting statements of support, while some audiences were starting to question whether their internal practices and commitments mirrored their more public stances. 

“American brands have rushed to show where they stand,” Mull wrote. “But it’s still uncertain what they intend to offer—what they can offer—beyond greater awareness of their existence and a vague sense of virtue.”

This got us thinking about the complex continuum of how a brand defines what it stands for, what it can truly offer the world, and how it holds itself accountable—and all the myriad ways in which it’s possible for disconnects to occur across this continuum today. For some brands, it’s a challenge to translate stated values into concrete, measurable actions. Other brands may have committed to actions but aren’t publicly reporting on them in ways that show meaningful progress. Still others have stated their core values, but these are fundamentally at odds with past or current behavior.

We wondered: Why is it so hard for brands to get this right?

Enter Brand Prism

There’s plenty of research out there that focuses on why a brand should have values and what consumers expect of brands today. We wanted to instead focus on the specific points along this values continuum that matter most for audiences, and how brands can improve their performance. These are the questions that are at the heart of Brand Prism, a proprietary framework that launches today.

We spent more than four months digging into data from a consumer survey and an Atlantic reader poll, speaking with experts from leading brands, journalists, and DEI experts, and running more than 30 Fortune 500 brands through our rigorous framework to pressure test and refine it. The result is more than just a set of interesting “a-ha” moments for brands—it’s a step-by-step guide to benchmarking and improving how brands articulate, apply, and hold themselves accountable across the brand experience.

This all starts from a simple place, but one that many brands struggle with: articulating values that are specific and distinct. This “vague sense of virtue,” as Amanda Mull referred to it in her article, results in an inability for brands to future out exactly what to commit to.

Brands must go the extra mile to not just define what their words are—they must do the work to develop specifically how these words come to life in their behaviors and day-to-day work.

The Relationship Between Specificity and Application

In our assessment of more than 30 Fortune 500 brands, we found that a striking number of them share very similar values: Innovation, Integrity, Inclusiveness, Respect, Trust. These are undoubtedly great values for a brand to have, but beyond trumpeting these single words, we didn’t see a lot of evidence of the meaning these values have in the specific context of the brand. 

What does it mean to believe in Innovation at a brand like Microsoft, for example, versus Procter & Gamble? And, at the end of the day, how does this belief make its way into how decisions are made, products are developed, and people are incentivized?

“[Values have] to come to life in behaviors,” said a brand expert we interviewed for this research. “So, it has to be activated. It has to affect daily work. It has to be in companies’ processes, it has to be in people’s work plans. It has to be in performance reviews.”

What’s striking is the relationship between the specificity of a brand’s values, and how those values show up across all the components of the brand experience. In our analysis of brands, we also rated the degree to which values show up across four main areas of the brand experience: products and services, internal culture, environments (defined as all the various physical and digital touchpoints with audiences), and stories.

Brands we analyzed fell into one of four archetypes:

  • Diffuse: Brands that have generic values that are fairly consistently applied across the experience
  • Nascent: Brands that have relatively generic values that are mainly visible in just 1-2 areas of the experience
  • Niche: Brands that define their values with specificity but over-invest in 1-2 areas of the brand experience
  • Integrated: Brands that have specific values and consistent performance across the entirety of their experiences.

In general, the average ratings of performance across the brand experience correspond to the specificity with which the brand defines its values. That is to say, average scores among the two archetypes in the bottom of the matrix (Diffuse, Nascent) are significantly lower than those in the top half (Niche, Integrated).

The takeaway is clear: brands must go the extra mile to not just define what their words are—they must do the work to develop specifically how these words come to life in their behaviors and day-to-day work. Only then can they successfully apply them outward across their many touchpoints with consumers.

A great example of this is Target, which was among the brands identified as having strong values by consumers in our survey.

Target grounds its overarching purpose—helping all families discover the joy of everyday life—with a set of values that guide internal operations, and a set external commitments to customers, employees, and the community. Taken together, this hierarchy of what Target stands for is comprehensive and illustrative, backed up by concrete examples.

Among these examples are how Target’s redesigned stores provide better accommodations for breastfeeding mothers (under its commitment to providing the best shopping experience), its 10-year track record on addressing pay equity (under its commitment to a happy, healthy, and valued team), and its efforts to ensure supplier diversity (under its commitment to ethical business practices). Internal and external audiences can see tangible proof of how values are applied at Target every day, in ways both large and small.

These are just a few examples of Brand Prism’s findings. There’s never been a better—or more urgent—time for brands to invest in this work. We’re excited to share more of what we’ve learned and what it means for brands over the coming weeks: on the Long Dash website, here on Altered, in our newsletter, and in virtual meetings over the weeks and months to come.

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