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.