I write a lot about corporate values; here’s an example wherein I dissected the idea of ‘core values.’ Those are often just massive buzzword lists to executives as they try to make as much money as possible. At an all hands meeting, though, someone can bellow about “serving with integrity.” It’s all kind of a massive joke.
The term corporate values is an oxymoron in some respects. Corporations don’t operate according to moral norms, and moral norms are tied to the idea of ‘values.’ I think companies do have cultures, although the term ‘culture’ means something different to everyone working there. These are topics you could write entire books about.
For this look at corporate values, we’re going to discuss the role of ‘enemies’ in how you define your corporation. It’s kind of interesting.
Corporate values and tribal marketing
Here’s an article from The New Yorker about the gun business, post-Orlando shootings. This section is about a speaker at the NRA Convention:
For several years, Schmidt had a sideline in packaging his sales techniques. He calls the approach “tribal marketing.” It’s based on generating revenue by emphasizing the boundaries of a community. “We all have the need to belong,” he wrote in a presentation entitled “How to Turn One of Mankind’s Deepest Needs Into Cold, Hard cash.” In a section called “How Do You Create Belief & Belonging?,” he explained, “You can’t have a yin without a yang. Must have an enemy.”
Must have an enemy. Cough cough. Trump’s America.
Anyway, this led me to a second thought.
Corporate values and defining enemies
My last gig was a B2B travel consortium company. There aren’t many of those. (Maybe 3?) The one I worked for has ‘market share,’ for sure, although you can argue it doesn’t even need to exist. It’s kind of an events-and-marketing middle man between travel suppliers (hotels, cruises, etc.) and travel providers (agents). Anyway, it does well for itself. All good.
So these other two consortium companies in the travel space don’t do as well. OK. All good still.
I went to so many meetings where we had to define those other companies as the enemy. “We’re doing 92 percent of the market in terms of PR impressions!” “They don’t even have a social plan!” “We’re gonna crush them!”
They were barely competing with us, honestly. I wasn’t an executive or anything, but it certainly didn’t seem we were in a fight to the death with them.
I started thinking around then … maybe the real ‘corporate values’ were around defining enemies.
Corporate values and in-group, out-group
‘Tribal marketing’ in and of itself is buzzword hell, but the idea makes sense. Our whole lives are organized around in-group and out-group. It pretty much defines everything. So defining your corporate values around “us” and “them” does make a lot of sense.
But here’s the problem: you spend a lot of time at work. (In reality, it shouldn’t be more than 55 hours/week. But we all deify the workaholic.) If you’re spending time at work and the value strucutr that’s being pounded into you is all about us/them and enemies, what happens when you go home?
Is your next-door neighbor now the enemy? The house across the street? The guy at the gym? The dude at the bar?
This is a bit of a leap, yes. But if your corporate values are all about having enemies, what does that do for society as a whole?
Doing corporate values better
The first thing is moving it away from buzzwords. Buzzwords are pervasive in corporate values, because of one dirty little secret. What’s that? No executives — ultimate decision-makers — actually care about corporate values. They care about making money. Who’s got time to ‘serve with integrity’ if that interferes with your breathless analysis of revenue growth? Right.
You move it away from buzzwords, and you move it towards “Here are our goals, and this is how we’ll execute them.” In other words, align strategy and execution. That’s how business really gets done. Corporate values are just a part of that. When it’s all buzzwords, it means nothing. It’s something you throw on a wall.
Third step: stop making everything about us vs. them. The CMO of your competitor isn’t coming to rape your wife and pillage your village. He’s just looking for market share in a clueless way. He’s not about to burn your house down. It’s just business. It’s not about enemies. Society’s moving a little too far that way as it is.