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Essay: Ethics and Branding

I was reminded the other day of how, in our post-Enron world, ethics has become more than a philosophical study. I read of how my graduate school, the Thunderbird School of Global Management, was making news because of an oath of business integrity that each graduate now had to pledge.

It made me wonder what would happen if every employee in a company had to make a similar pledge and what that might mean for a company’s brand.

Think of ethics as the values you live out, and your brand as representing the promise that you make. If you don’t adhere to those internal values — your ethics — you may negate the promise to your customers. And here’s the real challenge: It’s not just the leadership of the organization that must live out a standard code of ethics. It’s up to each person in the organization.

Your brand is more than just a logo or tagline. It involves everything you do. Every touch point with customers affects their perspective of you, and thus your brand. Hence, all the advertising in the world won’t help your brand if a customer has a bad experience with an employee who does not live out the values you espouse.

Let me illustrate with a recent personal example. I was about to board a flight home and arrived at the airline’s gate after they had started boarding. Since I had “elite” status on one of this airline’s partners, I got in line immediately but was told I had couldn’t board yet. The gate attendant said I’d missed the elite boarding and had to wait until my row was called. I thought this odd, but accepted it as a quirk of this airline. But when she told the same message to a few other elite flyers including a 100K mile member, things got ugly. The 100K member questioned the attendant’s judgment and knowledge of company policy and asked to see a supervisor but to no avail. By the time the shouting match ended, it didn’t matter: Everyone else was already on the plane.

What happened here? Here are some possible ways to look at it:

  • The attendant missed the spirit of the rules and followed the letter of the law (if that, in fact, was the airline’s actual policy). Unlike some companies where values override policy details (such as the legendary example of the Nordstrom salesperson who accepted a return of a set of tires), the attendant followed the rules at all costs.
  • She applied ethics of her own (perhaps she held more egalitarian and democratic values that uphold a first-come, first-served approach).
  • She practiced her own form of situational ethics, whereby she had to get the plane out on time — her highest value — and she figured that the people with the most mileage were least likely to switch brands.
  • She was just having a bad day. She let her emotions override her values.

The real answer may be a combination of these but no matter: The result was bad customer service. Underlying that service though was a set of values, but most likely not the corporation’s. Whether the attendant knew the company’s values and ignored them or operated in ignorance, I don’t know. I do know her actions damaged the brand.

Would a company oath that committed each employee to a shared code of ethics have helped? It might. Everyone would need to take it seriously and implement it consistently. But there’s another potential benefit of such an oath.

We live in an age where the slightest blunder is just a Tweet away or the next hit on YouTube. Having a common standard of values helps everyone know what’s expected of them and why it matters. But it also helps build your brand so that should something bad happen, you’ve built up enough positive value with your employees and customers that they know that one bad experience is not the norm. When they know what you stand for, they’ll more likely give you the benefit of the doubt when they hear or experience something bad like my incident boarding the plane.

Ethics matter because they are at the heart of your values. Values matter because they are at the heart of your brand. Connect these, perhaps with something like an oath or other means of ensuring everyone knows and owns your values, and you not only increase the likelihood of a successful brand, but you can become a force for good in society.

Steve Brock

Steve Brock is the CEO of Brand:Wallop and former president/CEO of HighPoint Solutions. Brand:Wallop is a strategy and integrated marketing consultancy specializing in social marketing (fundraising for nonprofits and corporate social responsibility for corporations), branding, and the Internet. Steve graduated with distinction from The Thunderbird School of Global Management with an MBA in the areas of Pacific Rim studies, marketing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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