Do Business Values Matter? But How Would We Know?

And the next question is: but how do we know what values companies really have? To what extent can companies, like individuals, declare themselves to be socially conscious, creating a mismatch between image and reality? I know, it seems cynical, but I’m not the first to suggest that values spin is part of the problem.

Lewis Green asks the values question in a thoughtful post titled “Do Values Matter” in yesterday’s MarketingProfs Daily Fix. He tracks some interesting research, and concludes:

Are business values important to most Americans or are they just words on a piece of paper that make us feel better about ourselves? Many of you know where I stand based on my book and my other writings. But where do you stand?

The research is intriguing:

The 2004 “Cone Corporate Citizenship Study” revealed that 80% of Americans trust companies that work for good causes, a 21% increase since 1997. Social outreach is only one factor in a values-based business but I believe it is the most apparent one to those outside the company.

“Our report is the nation’s longest study of American attitudes toward corporate support of social issues,” says Carol Cone, CEO of Cone, a Boston-based strategic marketing firm. “This study, in a series of research spanning over a decade, shows that in today’s climate, more than ever before, companies must get involved with social issues in order to protect and enhance their reputations.”

So far, so good, but something in Lewis’ introduction caught my eye. I think there may be another angle on this. He says, before introducing the research:

…businesses such as Starbucks, IBM, HP and Merck built their ethical and moral foundation on stated values through which they filter business decisions. I’ve begun to wonder if anyone cares.

What catches my eye there is some doubt about large-company examples. Starbucks, for example. I’ve admired Starbucks several times in this blog, but I also liked Steve King’s post, Doing Too Well by Doing Good, on Small Business Labs, which looks at one small piece of Starbucks lore from a very different angle. That’s just one example. IBM? Merck? Maybe. I wonder if they still achieve premium pricing in developing countries, like they used to.

So then again, about values in business, maybe it isn’t that nobody cares, but rather that nobody really believes, particularly not when we’re talking about larger companies that presumably understand and manage the power of spin.

Maybe that’s why I still like the smaller business, in which values are (I think) more visible, more about treatment of employees, and customers, and what they sell, to whom, and how. Or maybe it’s just late at night, and it was a long day.


  • Doug says:

    Mostly a bunch of crap; especially, I think, when organizations advertise their "values".

    But there are exceptions, and have you noticed that those organizations who truly live their "values" seemingly never attempt to use them as a marketing ploy? It does get wearisome hearing lefties prattle on about the evil and corrupt and greedy corporations (easy for them to do since that's a nameless, faceless entity) but ask about specific corporations. Apple? No, no. Macs and iPods are cool and we want them. Starbucks? No, we like to go there. Subaru? No, all our friends drive them.

    The values, or lack thereof, of any organization (even corporations)is a reflection of the values of the individuals in that organization. I was thinking of that while driving to work this morning (even on Saturday, which of course qualifies me as a greedy capitalist… at least from those who do not recall from their reading of Peter The Great–as in Drucker–that there is no such thing as a profit motive). A good friend of mine took over a business that was going out of business several years ago and has brought them from $150,000 to $7 million and growing. He has had zero employee turnover in the past few years. Every time I visit his place I go away thinking that not one of his thirty or forty employees could leave tomorrow and find a better gig for themselves elsewhere. He created all of that. He has the skill set and the discipline to get things done. But I truly believe that his success is in no small measure due to the fact that he is a genuinally good, decent, honorable guy. His own, personal values; which because of the way he treats and interacts with people become promulgated throughout the organization. Entrepreneurs like him are the great unsung heroes in America, but of course we need to denigrate folks like him because they make the rest of us look deficient.

    The other example that came to mind this morning: I've become fiercely loyal to one of my vendors and from very early on in my dealings with them saw them as an example of precisely how I want my own business to interact with my customers. Every time I deal with any of their people they simply act like they give a damned. The company always seemed different, and my suspicion from very early on was that somehow that difference must be coming from the guy at the top. I still haven't met him, and have only spoken with him a few times. But every now and then I hear things about him from his employees. Like for example the morning sessions that he holds in the conference room for the young males working for him who grew up in households without fathers. There, he simply talks with them for an hour each morning about what it is to be a man; to be responsible, to be considerate of others. The big things, and even the simple things; like when you take a shopping cart out to your car, return it to where it's supposed to be.

    I have no idea if his company has a "vision statement" or written "values". But they sure as heck have values, they live them, and their values are no small ingredient in their success. They're my go-to guys. My problem-solvers. They act more like partners than suppliers. Any time I can buy from them, I do; even if the cost is higher. Could they ever spend enough in advertising to instill that kind of an attitude in their customers? No way.

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