It happens all the time. You sit in a meeting room, listening to a briefing.

The client talks about target groups, goals and objectives. You scribble along, jotting down thoughts, rough ideas. And then, there it is: the brand. Finally the fun begins. The client coughs. ‘Our brand promise is: helping people to make more of their lives,’ she states proudly. ‘And our values are customer friendliness, passion and online.’

‘Right,’ you nod. And you think: what are we going to do with THAT?

Well, just switch on the TV and see what happens. Is there anything that really stands out? Sometimes. But many commercials basically tell you the same. At Rabobank, it’s all about the client. At ING, it’s all about the client. At ABN AMRO, it’s all about the client. And hey, look: at SNS, it’s all about the client. Indeed, the bank that is known for its complicated products and unfortunate financial adventures in real estate claims to be ‘heel normaal’. Research showed people actually liked their banks to be plain and simple. ‘Well, then let’s be that!’ someone in a boardroom must have shouted.

At ING, it’s all about the client. At ABN AMRO, it’s all about the client. And hey, look: at SNS, it’s all about the client.

You can’t be all the same.

You can’t decide to be something because research shows people like it.

And most of all: you can’t show off with something that should come naturally.

For a pension insurance company, I once made a list of forbidden images. They weren’t necessarily wrong, but had become too general. Think of palm trees, hammocks, dreamy beaches and vital seniors, wandering around in sunny fields, beaming smiles on their faces. After that, a list of forbidden words followed, with words like ‘onbezorgd’ (carefree) and ‘genieten’ (almost as untranslatable as the famous Dutch word ‘gezellig’). It worked out great. You just had to dig a little deeper to find something that made sense.

Therefore, I would like to propose the List of Forbidden Brand Values. Values that just don’t make any difference. Or should be the case for any organisation selling things or services to people. In alphabetical order:

Customer friendliness
Unless you decide to position yourself as the always-swearing, people-insulting corporation, I would say this would go for any organisation selling anything to entities other than zombies.

Expertise
Well, I sure hope you have some.

Innovative
Who doesn’t want to move forward?

Integrity
The fact that your branch just found out that integrity matters, doesn’t mean your customers don’t expect you to be since, eh, forever.

Online
It’s great you discovered this new thing called the Internet, but it’s not a value. Just like ‘wheels’ can’t be a value for a bicycle manufacturer.

It’s great you discovered this new thing called the Internet, but it’s not a value

Respect
Go to ‘integrity’.

Service mindedness
For Amsterdam shops and restaurants, this is a unique selling point. In other cases, it should be the most normal thing in the world.

Any additions? Please leave them in the comments.

If one of these words comes up in a briefing or a brand document, a mental alarm (with a sound effect of your choice) should go off. And when that happens, we shouldn’t take notes and nod, but start asking questions. Help clients to dig a little deeper, look for values that actually say something. Or skip the whole value thing and go back to the drawing board. Find out who they are, what matters to them. And figure out their real story. Because that makes our job so much more valuable.