Dove, Bud and the Quest for Real Brand Values

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Budweiser debuted one of this year’s most-discussed Super Bowl ads. Called “Brewed the Hard Way,” it’s still running. I saw it twice on CBS yesterday.

In this spot, Bud declares, in screen-filling block text, that it’s “proudly a macro beer.”

“It’s not brewed to be fussed over,” the text announces, as a bearded, bespectacled hipster inhales deeply from a tulip glass filled with a stout-like brew. “It’s brewed for a crisp smooth finish.”

“It’s brewed for drinking, not dissecting,” it continues. We see more hipsters, this time sampling a beer flight.

“Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale,” it proclaims. “We’ll be brewing us some golden suds.”

Why the broadside against craft brews and those who drink them? Well, for one of the first times in its lengthy history, Bud is on the defensive. Its sales are dropping, while craft brewers have grown steadily for years.

Funny thing, though: Bud’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, has recently acquired several craft brewers. (As the adage goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.”) In fact, just days before the Super Bowl, A-B purchased Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company, which has brewed a… wait for it… pumpkin peach ale.

So, A-B leadership, which is it? Are we to believe Bud’s latest ad, or your acquisition history? What do you really believe in?

Dove’s View of Women, or Axe’s?

Last week, one of the top-trending hashtags on Twitter was for Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful initiative. In this campaign, Dove responds to negative body-image tweets with messages of affirmation. It’s tough to argue with the idea of promoting positive self-image, and it’s a continuation of the values that Dove had previously established.


Unilever owns both the Dove and Axe brands. Over the years, Axe’s take on female body image has been, shall we say, somewhat less enlightened. While Dove tells us that beauty comes from within, Axe has shown us plenty of bikini-clad size-twos.

Ultimately, Unilever execs sign the checks for both brands. Again, execs: What do you really value?

Note that I’m asking leadership what it values, not the brands. I do so for this reason:

Brands Don’t Have Values

I don’t mean to ruin anyone’s day, but that’s the fact. Brands can’t select their values, because brands can’t make decisions. Brands are concepts. They don’t possess conscious minds.  So brands can’t select their own brand values.

People have values. The people who guide brands can imbue them with values, and those brands, at their best, can reflect or exemplify those values.  That’s what we mean when we talk about brand values.

Some companies take a cynical approach to brand values. They see a trend in the market and decide to capitalize on it. Their “values” are like an ill-fitting suit. They’re not rooted in truth.

Winning Through Authentic Brand Values

Increasingly, consumers seek authenticity from the brands they use. They want to know that brands share their values, or at least aspire to something greater than just making piles of cash.

This is one area in which challenger brands have an advantage over their larger competitors. And it’s an advantage that’s often under-utilized.

As a challenger brand, you have the opportunity to truly live your brand values. The following are some tips for defining them:

  • Return to the roots. Ask yourself and your team, “Why did we get into this business in the first place?” What was the problem you wanted to solve? How did you want to make the world a better place? When I’m consulting, I like to talk to the founder(s) about the genesis of the company. The day-to-day grind can often obscure your original values, and it’s always good to go back to the roots.
  • Get personal. Ask, “What are the values that we, as humans, honestly believe in?” What are the values you pass on to your children? What are the causes you support? If you started a new company in a different industry, what values would you take with you? I’ll interview employees and lead group exercises to draw these values out. You’ll do a much better job of serving your consumers if there’s a direct link to your core beliefs.
  • Remember the “rule of three.” If you end up with a list of 18 values, you’re neither making choices nor offering guidance. Keep working until you get to the three brand values that matter most to you and your people.
  • Don’t confuse values with points of difference. If your values are true but your offering is same-old-same-old, you won’t increase your chances of winning. But a meaningfully different experience that’s underpinned by real values? That’s hard to resist – and to duplicate.
  • You can’t market-research your way into brand values. Don’t start with the values you “think” you should have – you’ll inevitably fail to be something you’re not. Always look inside, not outside, for your true brand values.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2015 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.