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Values or Virtues?

by Amber Yoder

In branding, we’re constantly urging our clients to lead with their values. Values can provide a north star for a brand or a nonprofit when trying to figure out how to act, re-act, and communicate even as priorities shift and news cycles churn.

But simply talking about values won’t automatically win over audiences. If your brand messaging just says “We care. We’re here for you during these tough times,” without offering audiences anything of substance, it has no purpose. Talk of values without action is virtue signaling — and savvy audiences don’t respond well to it.

Augie Ray has a great write up about the dangers of virtue signaling in brand communications. In it, he describes receiving an email from his mortgage processor – the type of email we’re all too familiar with these days:

What one might expect of “an important message” from a mortgage processor during this global health crisis is information about what will happen if customers are unable to pay their mortgage. This email didn’t address this topic, and the glaring omission of content to help or comfort customers only makes the brand-centric virtue-signaling that much more evident and damaging.

Virtue signaling is why McDonald’s received so much backlash for separating their arches in solidarity with social distancing. Consumers saw it as an empty gesture — criticizing the company for their employee wages, and unpaid leave policies.

Contrast that with how many brands in the fashion industry are responding to the crisis — with leaders like Prada and Louis Vuitton quickly shifting their manufacturing resources to create face masks. Other brands like Columbia Sportswear are slashing CEO salaries to continue paying their staff. These brands are putting their values into action, in a public and visible way. And that has earned them some serious brand love from consumers.

But you don’t need to give away profits or completely shift your work model just to put your values into action and avoid virtue signaling. Take some time to think about your corporate values. How can you share those in a meaningful way? If you value knowledge, find new ways to share data and information your audiences will find helpful. If you value service, find an unexpected way to surprise or delight them.

The point is to avoid wasting your audiences’ time with virtue signaling that does little to further the conversation. Don’t add more clutter in their inbox or newsfeed. Give them information they can use. Or a welcome distraction. Or an outlet for creative conversations. Or a new tool that can help them adapt to our weird new way of life.

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