Vanity & Venality

Back in 2015 we penned a piece about ‘Vision and Values’ in light of the VW emissions scandal. It’s worth a quick refresher:

The message then, as it is now, 6 years on, is ‘if you really believe in a cause, make it your purpose’. A purpose, at the top level of the business can drive engagement, give clarity of direction and off this help the business make good decisions.  The same is true of brands; if your brand does believe in something, put it front and centre… let the brand positioning flow from it and feed back into it.

But if it’s just words, just a management tick-box exercise; if it’s just something you are doing to make shareholders value you more, save yourself the time and bother and pursue profit. Vanity and venality have made many business attractive and many people rich. But in truth, you can still be profitable in a responsible way, you can still do this in a way that is good for people and planet, but frankly it saves everyone the BS.

Just ask BrewDog; a company lauded for its manifesto – or charter – (“We bleed craft beer”, “We are uncompromising”, “We blow shit up”) but now, a company that will forever carry about that oddly mendacious whiff of weasely word-smithing, big on style, low, very low, on real substance. And the real salt in the wounds is the claim that “Without us, we are nothing” which according to the seemingly substantive and certainly substantial allegations rings hollow at best, malicious and deeply worrying at worst.

Companies and brands have the power to change the world for the better. They can – they have in the past and they do today – impact people positively, either through the generation of wealth, meeting of needs or even just feeling good about yourself. But the persistent desire to believe the hype in the business world about silver bullets just doesn’t help.

At The Crow Flies we work with clients to put strategic foundations in place – including purpose and values – that brands believe in and can unleash potential. But, these things only make a difference if you mean them.

Vision, blah, values, blah

I drive a VW, it’s my third. So does my wife, she’s on her second Beetle. And my brother (well an Audi, same thing) and his wife. So does my dad and my mum. We all drive vehicles by a car manufacturer whose stated vision is:

“…to offer attractive, safe and environmentally sound vehicles which can compete in an increasingly tough market and set world standards in their respective class.” (My italics)

 And their values? Well, they roll something like this:

Business must serve the good of the people.
Business that serves the good of the people requires competition.
Business that serves the good of the people is based on merit.
Business that serves the good of the people takes place globally.
Business that serves the good of the people must be sustainable.
Business that serves the good of the people demands responsibility.

Like some Gregorian chant, I imagine all the VW employees love intoning these each morning before work.  A lovely vision; lovely values; lovingly crafted too, no doubt.

Yet now hollow and meaningless.

A decade ago, Vision and Values were all the rage. I went through it; all my friends working in different places did. Everyone has to have a Vision, darling! They’re so today! Everyone has to have values. They are so hip, so vital. Because we’re not about chasing money at all, oh no! Ghastly thought! We’re really about being just and honest and authentic and loveable.

Companies paid lots of money to articulate them and then – and this was the fun bit – roll them out across the business to slack-jawed employees who couldn’t believe they were being given the day off, usually to play a form of vision and values board game.

Joking to one side, the thinking is logical.  Get aligned on your vision, get aligned on your values and you make better decisions.  But it became consultancy hokey too quickly. If you’re business is really values led, you don’t need a vision and values project.  You don’t need roll out. You know them. You feel them. You live them. Sure, sometimes it pays to get them written down, and the real values led companies find this relatively straightforward. ‘We will cherish the earth’, is one particularly memorable value of a client of mine. But most companies? Well, just take your pick from:

  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Excelling
  • Winning
  • Responsibility
  • Global Citizen
  • Passion
  • Trust
  • Quality

…and you’ll be there. Plus, you can rest easy in the knowledge that your values are the same as everyone else, which will help when you switch companies, or at least in the interview.

Values and visionThis is the hard truth: the chances are yours isn’t a values led business any more. Further, it will struggle to be, whatever is passed down on tablets of stone. The Founder died five generations ago; the rest of the family sold out three generations ago. You’ve been owned by venture capitalists; you’ve been merged with and split away from.   If company values can endure that, then you have Voldemort as your CEO and have been caching in on Horcruxes. Don’t mistake common human decency, drive and the innate desire of people to give their best, be proud and do a great job with some cookie-crumble top down values ‘fit’. It won’t wash. You know it and so do your employees. Volkswagen know it – despite, I’m sure the best of intentions. I bet Tesco know it now. If values don’t already guide you, tread carefully. If you can’t look into what you already have and work from there, don’t make them up and sheep dip. Save yourself the time, the money and the disengaging pain of seeing vanilla statements posted up around the walls of your beige painted office. Stop the hypocrisy, stop the motivational images of breaching whales and chase the money.

But if you care, truly care, about how you do business, how you delight your customers, how you compete and if you see the financial return as the reward for a job well done, then shout about your values loud and proud. Write them in your language and hold yourself – and everyone you work for – to account by them. Not that you’ll need to.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. The Crow Flies helps companies find their strategic direction, including vision and values, but only when they mean it… Get in touch:; +44 (0) 1283 246260; @crowflieshigh

 © The Crow Flies, 2015

Can you risk being purposeless?

Clearing through old personal files chocking up the office, I found an article from December 1998, when I was featured in Marketing magazine as ‘Brand Manager of the Week’. Woo! Woo! It was of those experiences that felt pleasing for the ego, until you realised that it’s just part of the magazine’s content filling strategy. Can’t sell the space for advertising? Put in some filler. That was me. Fortunately, that isn’t the point. On re-reading the piece, I reflected on some of my answers from just over 15 years ago. Answers, which, I’m fairly confident in saying I’d give again today (well some of them, at least).

One question in particular was ‘Which brand do you most admire?’ My answer was a brand that is little known in the UK – Patagonia.   Patagonia is a high-end outdoor brand, sometimes mockingly called Patagucci. When asked the question, I remember not having to think of the answer. I had some Patagonia clothing items that were already years old and looking good. This was/is good kit but more than that. Don't buy This Jacket_fotorWhat appealed to me was that Patagonia had purpose.

Founded by Yvon Chouinard in 1973, Patagonia started as rock climbing business: making hardware: caribinas and pitons – the spikes that you hammer into the rock to secure your rope and maybe save your life if you peel.   Chouinard realised that in enjoying the outdoors he was damaging it. Later, he realised that the cotton in his clothes contained chemicals, like formaldehyde, which were injurious to the health of all concerned, manufacturers and wearers. The conundrum was how to have a business yet give back and be responsible. I’m not sure whether Patagonia have a purpose statement. They declare their purpose in everything they do. In their Ironclad Guarantee where they look to repair your clothes rather than you buying new; in their Common Threads Recycling Programme where you can bring in clothes to the store and they go back to be turned into new Patagonia clothes, a cradle-to-grave clothing philosophy. Chouinard also set up ‘1% for the Planet’ in 2002 – member companies give 1% of their turnover (turnover, note) to environmental causes. He followed this by setting up the whimsically named but seriously intended World Trout Initiative in 2005 – to save endangered fish species (he’s a mad keen fly fisher).   These are just a few of the proof points that mark Patagonia out as a purposed company.

I would argue it’s the most important think your brand or your company should have. It’s not some fashionable and fancy fly-by-night initiative. It’s essential. It makes decision making easier; it makes alignment easier; it promotes transparency; it reduces the reliance on chocolate teapot initiatives like employee opinion surveys. What’s central to purposed companies is values – values that translate into a commercial orientation.

Ken Grossman_fotorKen Grossman was a normal young adult, searching for what he wanted to do with his life who became frustrated at the homogeneity and blandness of commercially brewed American beer in the 1970s and 80s. Building a brewery from scrap components, initially in a garage, then a small industrial unit, he held the flame of brewing quality beer sacrosanct. His would be all malt beers (large scale brewers replaced malt with cheaper ‘adjuncts’ like rice or corn syrup); use only whole cone hops (not oils or pellets) – and lots of them and time, to mature the beer to full condition. He started Sierra Nevada Brewing Company with these product values and they remain true today: even though 30 years on, his company is one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S.A

And Howard Schultz’s account of the Starbucks turnaround is a fascinating story too. Starbucks has its own fair share of dissenters, yet aligning behind a purpose was at the heart of the turnaround. “To become an enduring, great company with one of the most recognised and respected brands in the world, known for inspiring and nurturing the human spirit”. You can argue that this is a bit of corporate speak: but the plans below it aren’t: be the undisputed authority on coffee; ignite the emotional attachment with our customers; be a leader in ethical sourcing and environmental impact.   The purpose is the map that asks: is this activity right? Are we behaving in the right way? Should we do this or that?

If you’re not a company founder with direct control over the business, getting to a purpose you can all agree on, will all act on, won’t be easy. Yet the rewards are worth fighting for: alignment; faster decision making; attractiveness as an employer; employee inspiration. Whatever your business or organisation, whatever its size, in this age of transparency, getting a clear purpose isn’t a nice to do, it’s critical.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands, including company and brand purposing. To learn more, wing over an e mail to or call on +44 (0) 7885 408367.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (, on Facebook ( Twitter, caw us at @crowflieshigh. Or just send a well-purposed carrier pigeon.   © The Crow Flies, 2014

What big brands can learn from small beers

IMG_1488Craft beer is big news at the moment.  It would be difficult to miss the number of small breweries popping up all over these isles of ours. From furthest Fife to deepest Devon, micro breweries, craft breweries, artisan breweries are opening up their doors.   And not just here, over in the U.S. there are now more breweries than before Prohibition (the illegalisation of alcohol in 1919). And right across Europe, from traditional beer nations like the Netherlands and Denmark to wine tippling nations like Italy and France, it’s happening too.

Despite this, the U.K and U.S. beer markets remain in overall decline, and the others are in such low single digit growth as to be just as well described as ‘stagnant’ as much as anything.  But that of course, isn’t the point.  The growth in craft beers is the manifestation of powerful behavioural changes going on amongst consumers.  And look deeper into those numbers and a different picture appears.  Take the U.S..  Industry commentators have been fairly dismissive of the overall impact of craft beer for almost two decades: but now craft beer is almost 8% of the total market. Whilst the total market is declining by almost 2%, craft beer is growing at 18%, with craft beer exports from the U.S. up close to 90% (witness Fuller, Smith & Turner, brewers of London Pride,  taking on the brand rights for Sierra Nevada in the UK in the last 4 weeks). These are no longer market twitches at the edges which can be ignored.

So what can big brands learn from craft beer?

The balance of form and function.  Whenever I see ‘New Recipe!” (or rather, “Great Taste, New Recipe!”) on a brand, I shiver.  What this typically means is ‘we’ve found a way to reduce our cost of goods sold and need to ‘sell’ it to you, just in case you notice’.   The successful craft beers retain their balance – to use the parlance of David Taylor, author of ‘Where’s the Sausage?’* – they balance their sausage and their sizzle. Take Brew Dog, the self-styled agent provocateur of craft brewing: they do engage in some frankly, questionable PR stunts but at the end of the day, their products are robust and exciting.  In big companies it’s easy to become disconnected from the product and before long that savvy ‘cost optimisation’ programme is actually undermining your brand equity.

 Trend and counter trend.  What I love about the craft beers is that so often their contrariness leads to success.  Beer getting lighter?  Increase bitterness.  Alcohol levels falling? Extreme brews. Everyone using cost effective hop oils? Use the whole cone.  It’s just a lovely demonstration of trend hunting from the wrong end.  If everyone is zigging, we will zag.  Big companies often use the excuse that ‘there isn’t a commercial opportunity big enough there’.  Well say that to Molson Coors, who persevered with their craft beer Blue Moon for almost a decade before *Boom!*, you’ve suddenly got the leading brand in the segment.  Ask yourself: is this decline a result of consumer behaviour or is it more about our lack of attention to what the opportunity could be?

No more Vanilla Values. There’s a great book just out which I’d recommend to anyone in business. It’s a beer book, but the lesson is not about beer. The lesson is about where really, truly, running a company from your values can take you.  It’s called ‘Beyond the Pale’ and is the story of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company by their co-founder, Ken Grossman.  Ken started his company out of dissatisfaction with U.S. beer at the time: but his response was to build a company where there were clear red lines.  We won’t brew with adjuncts (forms of sugar other than malted barley or wheat which are cheaper to brew with). We won’t pasteurise our beer.  We won’t leverage ourselves for growth if it compromises our brand.  Surely these are just product guidelines? Actually, they summarise an attitude, they define behaviours and a business philosophy that is inspiringly powerful.

Know Your Friendemies. Of course, in big business there are very issues with perceived collusion and cartel behaviour yet what is singularly marked about craft beer is how collaboration is creating value.  Real, edgy, collaboration. Collaboration on new products between breweries. Collaboration on new products with beer writers .  Note: there’s no ‘Consumer Co Creation’.   To say craft brewers are research-light is an over statement, rather they trust in their values and put out a vision of what the future could be that drinkers are attracted towards – or not.  And this isn’t to say they don’t do research – it’s rather that everything is research.

Rhythm and pace: in all my dealings with the craft brewers, I haven’t heard the terms ‘Innovation Pipeline’, ‘Stage and Gate’ or ‘Volumetric Test’ once.  Yet, these companies are prolific innovators.  New ingredients, new processes, fusing traditional and modern, repurposing the past – it’s all there.  A whole industry has sprung up around innovation which fundamentally is un-innovative. It’s about eliminating risk, increasing strike rates, extending rather than creating.  And yes, there are a lot of failures, but in the main, they learn and move on – quickly.

IMG_1490Follow the Leader vs. Lead Your Followers. The bravery of many craft brewers is remarkable – the bravery to stand for something and project it out to the world to take or leave. One example:  Mikkeller: founded by two Danish homebrewers, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup Keller, they don’t even own a brewery. Rather they adopt a magpie or ‘gypsy’ approach and brew where invited or through the network of friendly brewers worldwide. Yet, their brand stands for breaking the rules, in their words, for “challenging beer friends with intense new tastes”.  Oh, but they’re a one off, I hear you say.  You can’t replicate that in a big business.  Why not? Mikkeler turnover over $4m a year and a regularly rated as having some of their best beers on the planet**

At the end of the day you still have to sell – of course, of course.  And with scale so it gets easier to deliver a consistent quality product, sure.  There are a handful of craft brewers who have made it truly big:  take the now publically listed, Boston Beer Company.  The largest US craft brewers (at a total portfolio level) yet, still brewing tasty, challenging, interesting beers from good quality ingredients. Will it last? Who knows?  But it’s possible.  And take Brew Dog: moving crowdfunding to a new level in order to fuel their growth through their Equity For Punks scheme.

It is possible to be a big business and have real values: and craft beer is teaching us how.

IMG_1067David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands.  David is also a beer writer at and advises small and start up drinks companies on business strategy. Contact to find out more or call the Crow Phone on +44 (0) 7885 408367

*David Taylor, ‘Never mind the sizzle…Where’s the Sausage’, Capstone Press, 2007
**Beer Geek Brunch Weasel anyone?  See

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© The Crow Flies, 2014