Why having
distinctive brand
values is so crucial?

An interview with Professor John Board, Dean, Henley Business School

Because customers use brand values to decide whether they should engage with a particular organisation.

Key points
  • Brand values are a driver not a descriptor and should be aspirational.
  • Differentiation depends on delivering against your brand values by using them as a framework for all your decisions and actions.
  • Live your brand values not just believe in them.
  • Sharing the same brand values is vital when merging separate organisations.
  • ‘Showing continual progress’ is a good way of measuring Return On Investment.

There’s a new but fundamental reason why brand values are essential, according to Professor John Board, Dean of Henley Business School. “The new generation expects to see them and will use them to evaluate whether they should engage with that particular organisation,” he explains. “It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between one service provider and another; every business school in the world for example will talk about how renowned they are. But the differentiator today isn’t just defining and communicating a clear set values to underpin that assertion but whether it can be demonstrated that you actually deliver against them.

“What is all too often forgotten is that values, as well as vision, have to be translated into something aspirational, otherwise they can appear generic, or worse, smug. They’re not just about people behaving in the right way.”


Professor John Board,
Dean, Henley Business School

It was in 2008 that Reading Business School (part of the university) and Henley Management College came together as Henley Business School, part of the University of Reading. Two years later, Professor Board inherited what he describes as a difficult merger, between what was a traditional university department of management with its focus on research, and a management college focused on executive education, strategic thinking, and leadership, whose founding tenet was improving the quality of British management.

Today, Henley Business School is ranked first in the UK by the Financial Times when it comes to career progression of its alumni, and has produced more Doctors of Business Administration than any other institution in Europe.

According to Professor Board, the values from the “One Henley” project he initiated when he joined won’t change, but in terms of sentiment, the wording might. He explains: “Let’s me give you an example using a luxury brand, and I apologise for what might appear to be a forced analogy.

A values statement for Versace wouldn’t say something along the lines of ‘we make great shirts’. Their values should mean they don’t have to make claims about their product; they ‘tell’ the customer what they can expect from it, and the attributes become subliminal rather than overt. The product will change, but the definition of the values will be adjusted rather than altered.”

Having triple international accreditations means that the regular audits provide Henley Business School with a measure of how far embedded their vision and values are internally and externally. “It’s a check to make sure that everyone gets it,” says Professor Board. “And if that’s the case, then actually it might be the time to hone it further. It isn’t mission accomplished, unless complacency is one of your values. Indeed, broadening the debate, you could say a mission statement by definition is unattainable.”

The point he’s making is that the brand values have to be a driver not a descriptor. Indeed, he goes further. “It’s not just a question of believing the values but living them. Is a particular value proposition something we should be considering? Our vision and values should provide a template for what we should be looking at.

And if we decide it is something we could pursue, we then have to ask ourselves, can we deliver it responsibly, in other words in keeping with our vision and values.”

Are there things that an organisation shouldn’t be contemplating (the business equivalent of what in political circles are red lines)? “It won’t know unless there are values which it lives by,” Professor Board asserts. “Otherwise finance becomes the only driver. For us that would be the equivalent of saying, for example, we’re going to attract more MBA students simply by driving down the age profile to meet demand from those in their early twenties who have just gained their degree.

He quickly adds, “but we know that younger candidates are looking at the qualification as a means of progressing their career rather than because they want to do what they do better and develop into outstanding business leaders. Yet it’s the latter which better fits the Henley vision and values, and our degree programme has to fit our ethos.”

So our values mean that new faculty members (as well as students) arrive with a clear view of the organisation they are joining. And these same values frame the questions they would have been asked at their interview. A standard question would be what will you bring to us, and the typical answer might be I’ve had twenty-eight academic papers published,” explains Professor Board. “But what we are looking for is how their answers address or relate to our values.”

A question at the staff annual review asks what the faculty member has done over the year to demonstrate what Henley want to recognised for. “Otherwise the values can be lost in a miasma of specific issues,” says Professor Board.

He suggests that when an organisation presents its vision statement, it can be the junior members of staff, and back-office teams who “get it.” Less likely to embrace them are those long-established senior staff who are comfortable with their way of working.”

In an age when some attempt at defining a return on investment has become a pre-requisite, Professor Board thinks that with brand values, ‘showing continual progress’ has to be the measure.

And how do we actually measure that? “I think you can be too quantitative,” he asserts. “Of course you can come up with any number of KPIs, but it’s something you can gauge rather than strictly measure. You will sense if the organisation is making the right kind of progress, whether it all feels better than it did before. We have 76,000 alumni around the world. It would be interesting to ask them if our vision and values still seem right to them.”

Researched and written by Decision Magazine as part of a special report commissioned by Greenfisher, called ‘Business As Unusual - Secure the Future of your Brand’.

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