The vital role of a core ideology in first class customer service

In 1994 Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published the first edition of their seminal work, “Built to last”. Its main premise is that great companies are differentiated from merely good companies by the fact that they are guided by a core ideology—core values and a sense of purpose which goes beyond just making money.

Collins and Porras based their work on 6 years of research, studying companies like Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Procter & Gamble, Sony, Disney, Marriott, and Wal-Mart. Of their original list of 18 companies 10 still appear in the annual list of top 100 brands published by Interbrand. And while the fortunes of the eight other brands are less happy (the demise of Motorola was announced recently) the findings still ring true.


3 of the brands that now occupy the top 5 places in Interbrand’s top 100 brand list are unlikely to have been on the radar of the two American writers. These are technology companies – Apple, Google and Microsoft (the other two are IBM and Coca-Cola) whose stars have risen with the arrival of the internet. But these too are brands that aim to last. They have a core purpose recognised by customers and employees alike.

In a speech to Apple staff Steve Jobs described how “marketing is not about touting features and speeds and megabytes or comparing yourself to the other guys, it’s about identifying your own story, your own core, and being very, very clear about what you are all about and what you stand for.”

It was Jobs who infiltrated every aspect of Apple with a respect for design rather than engineering. Google’s aim to ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ provides a blueprint for their 40,000 employees in 70 locations across the world. Microsoft’s core purpose is “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” A sweeping statement but one that clearly states the scale of their ambition.

Shared purpose + shared values = consistent experience

Now (as our American friends might say) here’s the thing. When a brand has a clear sense of what it stands for and what its values are so do all its employees. There exists a common understanding across the organisation of the behaviours that are expected, of the experience that customers should have when they encounter the brand. The purpose and values will shape the kind of products that are developed, the way the company markets itself, the type of people it recruits and, crucially, the service it delivers. All the company’s strategies will be consistently aligned with the purpose and values.

Memorable, authentic, inspiring, beneficial

Nowadays any self-respecting company will have defined its purpose and values (or will have had it defined by an external consultancy). In the main, though, this results in a ‘smoke and mirrors’ statement, something to be squeezed into the website or the annual report. Too seldom does the core purpose become the credo by which the company shapes everything it does; so the impact on customer experience is minimal.

For me there are four key principles that a statement of purpose and values should adhere to:

Memorable – this means being simple and differentiated. Here are the core purpose statements of four of the UK’s leading High street banks – ‘To be the Best Bank for Customers’; ‘helping people fulfil their hopes and dreams and realise their ambitions’; ‘to help people achieve their ambitions – in the right way’; ‘We’re committed to becoming the UK’s most helpful bank‘. It would be difficult for customers to tell these banks apart. It will be difficult for employees to interpret these statements in a way they can apply in their day-to-day dealings with customers.

Authentic – Brands that have a story to tell about their origins can go back to their roots to discover core purpose and values. Dyson’s 5,127 prototypes of his bagless hoover are evidence of his commitment to ‘invention and improvement’. NFU Mutual’s roots as a mutual serving the farming industry shapes their persona. First Direct started life to deliver a branchless banking experience second to none. Brands that have a strong sense of where they come from find this kind of thing easier.

The difficulty comes where new brands try to invent a persona. Three titans of the UK insurance industry, each with its own history (Commercial Union, General Accident, Norwich Union) ended up as the single entity called Aviva. Which of these three once-competing brands should Aviva reflect? And could its story ever be as authentic as those of its three component brands?

Inspiring – too many company statements are anodyne and fail to capture the imagination of employees, let alone customers. David Packard, founder of Hewlett-Packard offered these thoughts to a training group in 1960: “Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop stimulating change and progress.”

Which of these two statements inspires you more? The Adidas Group strives to be the global leader in the sporting goods industry with brands built on a passion for sports and a sporting lifestyle.

Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. (If you have a body, you are an athlete).

Business-enhancing – a core ideology must reflect a benefit to the audience you are seeking to engage. Disney wants to “make customers happy”. Dyson acknowledges its customers’ feelings: “Like everyone we get frustrated by products that don’t work properly. As design engineers we do something about it. We’re all about invention and improvement.” Tesco choose “to be the champion for customers, helping them to enjoy a better quality of life and an easier way of living”. These are all customer focused statements of intent but a core purpose can equally well focus on your employees. John Lewis Partnership’s ultimate purpose is “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.”

Let me leave with you with a thought from a modern giant of advertising Maurice Saatchi: “If you stand for something you will have people for you and people against you. But if you stand for nothing you will have nobody for you and nobody against you.”

Next week I’ll focus on the importance of having leaders who walk the talk of customer experience. At the end of the series I’ll bring these thoughts together into a single volume. If you’d like a copy of this paper just reply to this email saying “Yes please”.

As always if you have any thoughts or observations I’d be only too pleased to hear from you.

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