What are Core Values?

What are core values?

We sometimes liken the work we do to that of an archaeologist. It is funny because my sister is an actual archaeologist. She goes on deep-sea expeditions, surfacing what’s left of centuries-old shipwrecks. She patiently sifts through dirt, yards below the ground, to uncover very old artifacts. I prefer to stay dry. And air-conditioned. Above ground.

Still, our work involves patiently dusting off and sifting through all the nooks and crannies of an organization. Getting to know the people, the history, the vision for what could be. A softer sort of archaeology, maybe. Except the thing we are searching for is intangible: values. Core values are the foundation — guideposts that drive a brand’s decisions, draw people to work there, and drive people to become loyal customers and clients. And, values are what the rest of the brand is built on, voice and visuals.

But core values can feel like a shapeless phrase that means a lot of things. What are they really? And how do you find them?

But first —
It is helpful to start with what core values are not. There are two categories of nots: permission-to-play and aspirational values. Permission-to-play values are a baseline of behavior that any company must necessarily possess to remain in business. Common examples of permission-to-play values are integrity and honesty. Yes, you should be honest and have integrity. But do either of these make you distinct? Is there a more specific quality that more uniquely captures your culture?

Aspirational values move in the opposite direction. These are things you would like to be but are not currently. Aspirations and goals have a place, but not here. For values to feel true both to your team and to your customers, they must be true right now.

So what are values?

Resonant with your team and your base
Historically, values and values-adjacent language pieces (vision statements, mission statements, and so on) were created by leadership for internal use. Think HR materials, a poster in the breakroom, shareholder reports. Though more and more brands are moving toward putting their values out front, it can be tricky to do without having the same feel as a report card or marketing ploy. What if values could help lead your team, but also resonate, not just appeal to, your base?

Lexington Sporting Club came to us with a laser focus on community. This bore out in their actions, seeking input from neighbors at every step of the way as we created their brand. The resulting values included community, yes, but also things that both their team and their community felt strongly about.

Simple and memorable
Complicated or long values statements are hard to remember. Your values should fit in your pocket — that is, you should be able to recall them and use them anywhere. Simple, short values aid in memorability. Sure, a few sentences adding color to what each value means specifically could pair nicely, but the value itself should be a bite-sized representation of the sentiment.

God’s Pantry Food Bank, headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, is comprised of warehouses, pantries, volunteers, and communities from Central Kentucky to the West Virginia border. It takes a lot of people wearing lots of different hats to make their important work happen. They came to us with a set of values that they felt good about but used infrequently. Through our work — hours of interviews, focus groups with all departments, a trip to meet the Prestonsburg team — we came to recommend an evolved, pared-down set of values: Advocate, Support, Collaborate, Act. Each value is paired with a description. The four value words now can be used alone or in the full context. And, the language provides a starting point for more language: headlines, social copy, and marketing materials.

Values are meant to be used. They are the foundation for everything else, a touchstone for every decision. Once you’ve settled on the concept lanes for each, it’s important to also think about how you should frame them. It helps to lead with a verb. The subtle shift from descriptive to active is powerful. It inserts a sense of forward movement, a focus on the future.

Kentucky Opera works to increase accessibility in a historically exclusive art form, in both the stories they tell and the audiences they reach. Their values — invite exploration, forge connection, and inspire change — read similarly to mantras. The mantras, guideposts for what they do, are also a checkpoint, something to return to and ask: does this content invite people to explore? Does it inspire change?

Anne Dean Dotson
Anne Dean Dotson

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