Purpose, Values, Brand, and Culture: Gobbledygook or Great Insights?

By Dave Ulrich | June 5, 2018

Purpose, values, brand, and culture. These concepts are essential to shaping the future, but they're often cluttered with "gobbledygook"--erudite discussion with little actionable impact. Following four principals can help firms move forward and not end up with the gibberish and lofty, cluttered intellectual concepts that yield few results. 

My father was a mid-level government manager. I recall that when he would return from well-intended off-sites designed to shape the future, he would often be cynical about the erudite discussion that had little real impact. Gobbledygook, he would suggest. So when I got into the field of delivering these off-sites, he continually reminded (challenged, ahem) me to keep things simple, focused, and actionable.

So in today’s world, I run into many firms that are seeking change but lack clarity on how. One firm wants to refresh its culture by updating its value statement and making sure that employees act consistently with the new values. Another firm has spent millions in advertising to revive its brand in the market, but they are not seeing the results they anticipated. Another firm has recognized market changes, and they want to revamp their mission, vision, and strategic agenda to anticipate and respond to these changes. Finally, another firm wants to change (or transform or disrupt) their “culture” but is not sure what that really means or how to proceed.

What do leaders in these firms have in common? With good intent, they share a commitment to reposition themselves for the future, an awareness that internal organizational “stuff” (purpose, values, culture) matters, and a sensitivity to the fact that promises to the market (brand) are easier to make than fulfill.

What do these firms require to realize these noble aspirations and not end up with gibberish and lofty, cluttered intellectual concepts that yield few results?

First, be clear about concepts.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, recently said, “Last week in my email to you I synthesized our strategic direction as a productivity and platform company. Having a clear focus is the start of the journey, not the end. The more difficult steps are creating the organization and culture to bring our ambitions to life. [sic]” As companies embark in change efforts, they should be clear about four overlapping concepts—purpose, values, brand, and culture.

  • Purpose represents an aspiration for what can be; it can include a vision of an idealized state of what we want to become (often in a tag line—world’s best ________), a mission statement for why we exist, and strategies and goals of where and when we invest to get there. The purpose envisions a future, sets an agenda, and offers direction.
  • Values represent core beliefs, what we stand for, and how we go about doing our work. Values, using a tree metaphor, are the roots. They are often articulated by the founder, stated in a value statement, and stable over time. They are also often generic and consistent across companies, including noble values such as integrity, empowerment, excellence, accountability, service, passion, and so forth. 
  • Brand represents what a company is known for in the marketplace, shifting from a specific product (Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream) to a firm brand (Unilever’s commitment to sustainability). Brand represents promises made to customers about a specific product and also how the firm will interact with customers in all exchanges. 
  • Culture is the identity of the firm in the mind of its key customers made real to employees. This definition moves the internal values focus to the value of values because it connects culture to the marketplace. This cultural definition translates the external firm brand with customer promises into internal organization actions for employees. 

As shown in Figure 1, these four concepts come together, starting with purpose and leading to values inside and brand outside. The right culture then bridges internal values and external firm brand.


Second, connect key concepts to each other.

With these four concepts defined, they can then be connected to ensure that a firm turns purpose into the right action that yields results. Without connecting these concepts as indicated in the figure, they and change efforts concerning them lack impact.

  • Purpose without values lacks heart and passion.
  • Values without purpose are aimless.
  • Purpose without brand identity results in empty promises.
  • Brand identity without culture delivers false hopes.
  • Values without culture have no sustainable impact.
  • Culture without brand identity is indistinct.

So as leaders try to create their future, they can be deliberate about building purpose statements that articulate what can be, conscious of values that give meaning to employees, aspirational about creating a firm brand with key customers, and disciplined to build the right culture that connects customer promises to employee actions.

Any change in one of the four concepts requires change in the other three. For example, a change in the purpose statement may trigger revisiting legacy values and future brand, which might lead to a new culture.

Third, focus on actions that make a real difference.

Don’t invest in a brand that communicates to the marketplace without equal investment in how it translates to the employee actions in the workplace. Ad agencies would be wise to couple their brand-building activities with investments in how to make these real to employees who fulfill customer promises. For example, we have seen some ad agencies (that propose a firm’s brand) work with leadership development experts to make sure that the leadership brand reflects the developing firm brand. When a customer is promised a service, the employee who renders the service needs to fulfill it per the agreement.

Fourth, focus on impact more than ideas.

At the bottom of Figure 1 are actions and impact that are a result of a company’s culture. We want to not just talk about culture: we want to make it the right culture. With the values being the roots of the tree, the right culture constitutes the branches that grow into the future and sustain the underlying values. In creating a new, right, and sustainable culture, leaders shape four agendas:

  • Intellectual agenda: What is the message we want to share about what we are known for both outside to customers and inside to employees? 
  • Behavioral agenda: How does the desired culture shape daily personal employee behavior?
  • Process agenda: What processes (e.g., staffing, training, resource allocation, etc.) need to be aligned to the desired culture?
  • Leadership agenda: How can leaders personally model the desired culture?

As these four agendas are discussed and acted on, ideas from off-sites shift to ideas with impact that span the whole organization

My hope is that someone’s dad or mom who sits through my (or another’s) workshop on purpose, values, brand, or culture does not go home with gobbledygook and cynicism but with some great insights that turn into actions that lead to personal well-being and organization success. This is possible when we are clear about the concepts, how they relate to each other, and how they translate into impactful action. I also hope my dad would be proud of my learning from his experiences.


Alongside my colleagues at The RBL Group, we help leaders align their company's brand identity with leadership brand, employer brand, and a high performing culture. To learn about our Leadership & Talent Development programs and events worldwide, click here.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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