• Why corporate values don’t matter (on their own)

    Why corporate values don't matter (on their own)

    Almost every organization whether for-profit, non-profit, or charity has worked through a mission and vision statement and selected a few choice corporate values. With pride and joy they hang them on the wall for all to admire and then, more often than not, they promptly forget about them. 

    It’s a sad truth because defining what an organization believes in and where it’s going can be the most important thing it does (besides doing the thing it has set out to do).

    Knowing what you believe in and why is important

    We know that staff do better when they feel a part of their organization, which is strengthened with a clear understanding of why the organization exists and what it is trying to change.

    Efficiency goes up. Quality goes up. There are fewer meetings and even fewer arguments. With that comes a sense of pride and ownership that is contagious.

    And we know that when leaders have a clear understanding of why they do what they do – not just “what” and “how” – they make better decisions faster and more consistently. When leaders know and act on what makes their organization special it forms an emotional connection with who they work with and for.

    A few key words won’t cut it

    Returning to corporate values: These are supposed to be the things that you care most about. The underlying beliefs that get you out of bed in morning.

    But are they really?

    The most common corporate values are usually some combination of

    • Integrity
    • Respect
    • Teamwork
    • Quality
    • and the biggest value of all….Innovation.

    If you have a product or service that is somewhat dangerous, ‘Safety’ usually joins the list as well.

    But what does this list of qualities really mean? If we didn’t have this list would it meant that we don’t want to work together, or achieve good things, or be honest, or try to do better?

    No, all of that pretty much go without saying. In fact, what we find more and more is that this process of defining corporate values is pretty much useless on its own.

    To give you an even more obvious example of the lack of impact that corporate values in isolation can make, let’s look at two very different organizations.

    Two very different organizations

    Let’s compare Vancity, a Credit Union in Vancouver that prides itself on an authentic approach to localized financial, social and environmental well being, and Transcanada, a major energy company developing and operating some of the largest fossil fuel pipelines in North America.

    You might be surprised to learn that both organizations share the same corporate values of Integrity, Innovation and Responsibility [1].

    How is that possible when their brands and culture are almost polar opposites in every way?

    It shows that Values are only the start, not the end of defining what makes your organization meaningful. Vancity itself has a brand that goes beyond a statement of values. When they say “Make good money” we get it.

    So where do you go from there?

    Beyond mission, vision and values

    At Cause+Affect, our brand process has been designed to provide our clients with a “Cultural Compass” – a set of tools for aligning and inspiring staff and helping leadership make decisions.

    Mission, Vision and Values form a valuable part of that compass, but the key is moving beyond those tools to find the essence of the organization that belongs to it and it alone.

    One of the key “products” of this process is the manifesto.

    The Manifesto – the words behind the values

    The term alone scares some of our clients as it brings to mind something dangerously political.

    But as we use it, the manifesto is an opportunity to share not only the “what” but the “how” and –most importantly – the “why” you do what you do, with the people that matter most to you.

    It’s also an opportunity to develop your brand’s tone of voice and personality.

    Not to oversell its importance, but the manifesto pretty much sums up your entire brand in a snapshot.

    The many types of manifestos

    We have seen many different types of manifestos over the years. The important thing to note is that there is no one way to do them.

    A manifesto can be 10 lines or 100. It can be a poem, an essay, a bunch of words. It could even be a collection of photographs, or song lyrics. The important thing is that it matters to you.

    Some of the manifestos we’ve written, including our own

    Back in 2006, we developed a brand for the Globe Foundation of Canada called EPIC focused on a more sustainable approach to consumer products. We worked closely with their internal team to produce a manifesto titled, “A new narrative for a new world”.

    EPIC Manifesto

    Just last year, we worked with the staff at Modo to produce a manifesto as part of a brand evolution process. Over the last five years we have helped them evolve from their former advocacy space to adopt a comfortable role in a values-led consumer landscape. The opportunity to go back to their roots and share more about what they care about most was more than welcome by all.


    And lastly, we find our own manifesto hot off the presses, something that has taken us 12 years to get around to writing. We hope it says to you what it says to us. And we’d love to hear your thoughts.


    [1] Transcanada has further values of Collaboration and Responsibility. Which means Vancity clearly doesn’t value those things. Source: Vancity’s Values and Transcanada’s Values.

  • What Branding can Learn from Architecture

    14_Opening Night 1Branding isn’t really a traditional vocation that you go to school for. Sure, there are some programs out there but most people in branding find their way there from other disciplines. 

    I would argue that the majority of those people come from either a communications or graphic design background. For the writers, branding is a storytelling exercise where the focus tends to be on the message above all else. For graphic designers, brand is usually a collection of aesthetic decisions including logos, colours, images and fonts. If a process is too heavily dominated by one or the other you can usually tell, and in many cases achieving holistic brand experiences is a challenge.

    Jane and I arrived in the brand world from a background in architecture. This journey was unexpected but seems like a natural progression as we look back. For us, architecture was a playground for human interaction. And we were happiest when that playground was layered with some greater message, meaning and purpose. This led us to the design of branded spaces including restaurants, museums and gallery exhibitions, retail interiors, even airplanes.

    From there it was fairly straightforward to grow the brand experience from spatial to graphic design and writing, etc as most of these assets were already present within the spatial solution. See, we approach the design of a brand as a system of human interactions and experiences with many layers and scales, just like an architectural space. This is also why we often use the term ‘culture’ instead of brand when we describe our approach.

    Culture, for us, is a shared way of doing something with passion, and brand is really just the facilitation and communication of that unique culture. You should be able to build it, feel it, touch it, smell it, live with it. Every touchpoint should affect your feelings and perceptions, and influence your relationship with the brand as a whole.

    These days, we don’t design nearly as many spaces as we used to. What we do now is choreograph culture. We work with companies and organizations to manifest the things that make them special and develop experiences that show those traits off to the people that matter most to them.

    So we still think as designers of space. But they’re cultural spaces. And they exist primarily in the mind.

    -Steven Cox-

  • Lead with Culture

    Turning businesses into culture and brands into relationships.

    Great organizations put culture first.

    A defined and understood culture gives leaders a compass to make strategic decisions that motivate their team and connect with their audiences. Without a culture-led strategy, organizations aren’t able to communicate how what they do is different and why it matters.

    Traditional strategic planning begins with declaring the mission and vision of the organization. However, without an emotional stance, a meaningful point of view or passion and purpose, it is impossible to paint the picture of the future and enrol others in the journey towards it.

    Enrolment is what’s missing from every dysfunctional organization. Enrolment means that people aren’t working for you just for a paycheque; they’re working for you because they share your dream for the future and they want to go there with the shared culture you’ve defined together.

    Business strategies are more effective when you lead with culture because they consider not only the cause, or principles behind their plan but also the affect, how they are going to connect emotionally with others to achieve their goals.

    Inspiration makes us act.

  • Viewpoint #20 – Careful, your culture is showing


    Last week I weighed in on the comments section of a video produced by Frank for LG2 as well as another video by Cossette produced a couple of weeks earlier. I won’t get too far into it, except to say that both videos are well executed and at times funny, but more importantly, quite mysogynistic, offensive and supportive of a certain kind of agency culture that I abhor.

    My strong reaction and the associated reactions of many to my reaction has given me pause and now garners some additional words.

    I mentioned the word culture earlier and I feel that this is the crux of the issue. As an owner of a company or organization, the questions you need to constantly ask yourself are: What kind of culture do we have? What kind of culture do we want to cultivate? What kind of culture do we want to communicate?

    Hopefully, you are able to cultivate the kind of culture that is contagious to those who want to work for you and those who want to work with you. Hopefully it is the kind of culture that empowers, educates, and inspires. Hopefully it is as open, welcoming, honest and respectful as it is creative, challenging and rigourous. 

    This is certainly the end goal of the branding process that we go through with our clients. To help them generate a culture that is aligned internally and respected externally.

    To give another example of culture building, I will reference a letter that was written to employees of AirBnB by its CEO Brian Chesky. It is titled, “Don’t f#ck up the culture” and it says:

    “We build culture by upholding our core values in everything we do. Culture is a thousand things, a thousand times. It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.”

    So I ask again, what kind of core values support the culture that these videos were trying to cultivate and communicate? Humour, yes, but also competition, chauvinism, rudeness and vulgarity? And if so, is this what they want people to think of when they think of their company? When someone is applying for a job or when someone is looking for a creative partner?

    It’s easy to write both videos off as simply being funny, but after the smirk or giggle, there is a nagging negative aftertaste that is hard to shake. Let this remind you that your message can often tell people more about you than you originally intended.

    Make no mistake, these videos came from very successful agencies who work with the  largest brands in the world. Why then might this misstep have occurred? I think it’s that they work really hard to come up with unique ways to make people connect with brands where we, as brand specialists, spend our time helping make brands into something people want to connect with.

    There is a difference, and it all starts with culture.

    – Steven Cox


    LG2 –

    Cossette –

    AirBnB –

  • What’s in a Name? 
Cause+Affect’s Top Ten Naming Tips

    company naming by causeandaffect

    Naming a client’s organization or product is one of the most significant services we provide and we’ve been entrusted with this responsibility with many memorable clients including EPIC, Fuse, jorg&olif, Modo and Odd Society Spirits.

    In the past few weeks we’ve found ourselves doing more naming than ever. This work has helped us cement a fairly rigid process from something that was once a bit more organic. Meanwhile, we’ve been reading countless articles about the best practices for picking a good name. Some were good. Others were terrible.

    And so, as to not be left off your holiday reading list, here are Cause+Affect’s Top 10 Naming Tips.

    1. Don’t tell us what you do.

    The purpose of a name is NOT to tell people what you do. Your name will never appear in a vacuum – there will always be other supporting information around it to fill in your story, whether in print, on the web or just in conversation.

    The purpose of your name is to begin a larger story and anchor the relationship that it forms with your audience.

    2. Be emotional to be memorable.

    Names that are descriptive of a service or benefit tend to register with the analytical left side of your brain. Meanwhile, names that lead with feeling activate the right side of your brain, which connects to a deeper, more emotional response that tends to be much more memorable. Compare ABC Window Cleaners to ‘Clear Skies’ Windows.

    3. Name yourself, not your sector.

    Stay away from names that describe your sector. You want to isolate what sets you apart, not what makes you the same. Tying your name to the larger industry gets you membership in a crowded club, not an individual brand. Again, it’s about standing out.

    4. Don’t be scared off by the negative.

    One of the most common tendencies in a naming process is to point out all the potential negative connotations associated with a word. But if you rule out every name that could be twisted into a negative, you are left with the bland and banal. The first thing to recognize is that your brand story will give the name a new meaning when used in your context.

    Consider this – when you think of Virgin, do you think inexperienced? Do you think of malaria when you order from Amazon? Does the brand Caterpillar make you think of squishy garden pests?

    5. Tell a story.

    Your name should be the first step in a larger story. This story doesn’t have to be the core story of your brand, but it needs to be an integral and unique aspect of who you are. Having a story connected to your name imbues meaning in everything you do. It gives you an opening for an elevator pitch and its allows your audience to advocate on your behalf.

    A good name and brand will make its audience proud to tell your story. All you have to do is give them the tools to do it.

    6. Be wary of simply making it up.

    Choose carefully when inventing words. Make sure people will pronounce it consistently. Keep it simple: people can remember short weird ones (Modo), but long ones end up lost or garbled in translation.

    And whenever possible, try to put some meaning behind your made up name, even if it’s a few steps reserved: Skype is a mashup of “sky” and “peer-to-peer.”

    7. Don’t sweat the URL.

    Don’t decide on a name solely based on URL availability. The days of a perfect, one-word URL are over for most of us. And that’s fine – when’s the last time you typed in a complete URL to access a site? We’re much more likely to follow a link or just google something to find a site now.

    8. Your name can’t do everything.

    Names are important, but don’t ask your name to do more than it can or should. It can’t possibly represent all your unique brand attributes or tell your entire story. It’s just one word. But a good brand will surround its name with other touchpoints to create a complete brand experience.

    9. Ensure you can own it.

    Don’t fall in love with a name until you have done your homework. Check URL availability and trademarks online. Get to know all the other groups out there that share your name or parts of it. Research any possible regional and cultural sensitivities regarding your name: the last thing you need is to find out your name means something terrible in another language.

    And lastly, protect your name through hiring an intellectual property attorney and go through the correct ownership procedures.

    10. Stop dropping your vowels.

    This is just lazy. And annoying. We’re looking at you, app developers.


  • Branding for Small Business – Everybody’s Talking About it, Nobody’s Doing It

    Branding for Small businessBranding. It’s like exercise and eating right. Everyone knows the value in it, but few people are actually doing it.

    A recent BC Business Article ‘Why Small Business Needs Branding’ points to research done by American Express Small Business Monitor that found that while 90 per cent of Canadian small business owners see a “unique brand that differentiates them from the competition” as more essential than ever, only 14 per cent of them have consulted a professional branding firm.

    That’s like saying, “I really need to eat better” while going for seconds at the sundae bar. Actually, it’s more like “I should really go to the gym” and then firing up Netflix.

    It got us thinking: why do so few small businesses brand when they know its value?

    Who’s got the money for that?

    As small business owners ourselves, we understand the reluctance to invest in yourself. However, the important thing to realize is that it is just that – an investment. The money you invest into branding will bring you significant returns. It will bring you attention, grow your audience and, most importantly, increase your bottom line.

    In a competitive world, investing in a unique, professionally developed brand is the best way to have your voice heard above the fray.

    Strike while your competitors sleep

    As the article shows, few businesses are actually pursuing branding, despite the recognized advantage. So what better way to gain a competitive advantage than to invest in yourself while your rivals ignore this crucial part of business?

    Branding is misunderstood

    Another reason that small businesses may hold off on branding is they don’t really understand it. We can’t blame them – branding is often viewed as a dirty word attached to some of the worst examples of rampant, uncaring capitalism. More often, people only think of a brand in the aesthetic sense – a pretty logo, a flashy website.

    For Cause+Affect, branding has an aesthetic element of course, but it’s the representation of much deeper thinking and strategy. The branding process should help businesses make decisions about who they are, what they do and how they approach the world. In the end, it shouldn’t just look good. It should influence behaviour. It should stand as a beacon of a business’ personality and reputation.

    Once a small business has gone through a branding process, everyone involved in the organization inside and out should have a clear vision about what it stands for and how it’s different from the competition. A brand strengthens a business model and sets you not only apart from its competitors, but above them.

    Can you afford to engage in a branding process? The question should be: can you afford to not?

  • Viewpoint #17: The Issues of Our Times

    Before you can engage people in a discussion or debate, you need to inform them of the issues. 

    However, our clients in the social and environmental world often struggle to relay the intricate issues at play in a way that sticks with the people they want to reach. 

    The people within these groups are often ensnared in the complicated policy, research and science vital to their issues. They are also fueled by their powerful convictions and underlying values. These are incredibly well informed and passionate people, but when considering all the issues to address, can have trouble communicating beyond their inner circle.

    The result is that the audience they need to reach receives difficult, complex, sometimes contradictory messages, which are often diluted by the media to match the story of the day. These messages tend to be more focused on what the environmental or social group believes, rather than what benefit they can offer the audience.

    At the same time, these organizations’ well-funded, powerful opponents are also working to spin their messages with much bigger budgets and influence. It’s enough to make most people tune out entirely.

    Not to be melodramatic, but these are the problems of our time.

    We are suffering, Canada. Suffering from the inability to have an honest and informed discussion about the issues that are most important. If we can achieve anything with our work in the social/enviro sector, it’s not to rally the troops or harden the lines; it’s actually the opposite.

    We want to soften the divides and help our clients inform the middle, allowing the people that are trapped between the extremes to hear both sides of the story. Only then can we have a proper discussion about them.

  • Viewpoint #16: Criticism and Progress

    We believe that loving something and being proud of it – a city, for example – doesn’t mean that you can’t criticize it. It means that you should.

    When you’re deeply involved in something, it’s easy to see its flaws. It also means that you are in the best situation to do something about it.

    Progress cannot occur without criticism. And the best criticism comes from an invested person’s realization that something needs to change. That investment brings insight, which propels criticism, which starts a dialogue, which ignites actions, which brings change. It’s a cyclical loop that needs to be repeated if we are to continue to move forward.

    Those that resist and ignore change are always the first to fight back against criticism because they know it is an agent of progress. You can often judge the value of your criticism by the degree of resistance it receives from these people.

    All that being said, criticism without action and criticism without dialogue – screaming your complaints into the wind and then walking away – are ugly things that get us nowhere. It’s selfish to think that only your opinions count. It’s foolish to think that you know better than everyone else. And it’s wrong to think that you solution is the only one that works.

    Criticism is the first step, but it must be followed up with action if we are to make a positive change in our environment..

  • Viewpoint #15: Your Own Work

    We are constantly learning from our mistakes. One of the biggest ones has been thinking that our clients are the means to realize our own designs.

    Instead, we focus on our clients’ dreams within their projects and our own dreams within our own projects. It may sound simple, but it has been years in the making and quite revolutionary within our company.

    If you want to realize your own dreams, do it yourself. Don’t hijack your clients’ projects; they belong to them.

    In the end, self-initiated projects are more rewarding to you and to your community.

    Remember: as a designer, you owe it to yourself to escape the service industry every once in a while and create something that comes completely from you….but hopefully not completely for you.

  • Viewpoint #14: Buy Local

    Since our inception in 2004, we have just completed our 50th project. 49 of those projects are located in Vancouver. The one project that is not is an exhibition called Vancouverism, currently travelling the world.

    What’s my point? There are those who choose to live here to work and then there are those who choose to change here to live.