Value communication

Companies that understand their success depends on the well-being of society are using communciations to mix values with business

Despite recurrent reputational crises that seem to indicate a lack of attention to societal values, such as the recent Volkswagen case, there are corporations that have started investing in what we call ‘value communication’.

The communication of values is a different type of communication rooted in ethics and the role of a corporation in society.

Literature in corporate communication, public relations and CSR promotes the idea that corporations are an integral part of society. Indeed, it is society that grants corporations with legitimacy and the license to operate: to secure legitimacy, corporations are expected by society to act responsible.

Most corporations recognize and accept their societal responsibilities to employees, customers and community, and balance these with financial goals. However, some corporations not only respond to stakeholders and societal expectations, they also participate in articulating and shaping societal values.

One way in which this participation takes place is when a corporation communicates its espoused values.

Value communication: what is it?

Corporations have implicit and explicit ways of espousing or sharing their values. Implicitly, values are communicated in behaviours and actions, e.g. responsibility initiatives.

Explicitly, values are address in various communication activities, e.g. CSR communication. Value communication, however, is a form of explicit corporate communication whose contents is the communication of values.

The communication of corporate values is often seen as a tool applied by corporations in order to establish and maintain corporate reputation and legitimacy: by articulating corporate identities based on organisational values, the corporation seeks to positively influence the images formed amongst its multiple stakeholders. However, such instrumental perspective can be contrasted with an ethical perspective.

From an ethical perspective, values are not considered as a means to an end, but as the glue that binds business and society together. The ethical perspective is tied to notions of altruism and voluntarism. It is a ‘claim’ that an organisation wants to make about what it cares about and the standards it employs to measure, evaluate and report on how well it lives up to its ideals.

Why value communication?

In an increasingly globalized world, corporate actions, behaviours and practices are not confined to a defined geographical area or community. Rather, they impact a number of different systems across the globe. Increasingly, corporations are realizing that their well-being often depends on the well-being of society. A functioning, stable, democratic and respectful society is an environment where corporations can grow and prosper. Value communication can be one possible communicative initiative contributing to the development of such societies.

"Increasingly, corporations are realizing that their well-being often depends on the well-being of society."

In order to fully understand the ethical perspective on value communication, an illustration is useful. In this case, two different corporations, Benetton and Illy, can be referenced as examples of an ethical take on values.

Value communication ‘in action’

The launch of clothing company Benetton’s UNhate campaign in 2011 exemplifies the participation of corporations in shaping societal values. The UNhate campaign used images of well-known public figures kissing their opponents (e.g. German chancellor Angela Merkel kissing the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy), featured in magazines, billboards and posters.

In addition, the UNhate Foundation was established in order “to contribute to the creation of a new culture against hate” and supports initiatives that “promote dialogue and acceptance of diversity”. In rooting the campaign in the value of tolerance which is not exclusive or explicit to the corporation, Benetton shifted focus from its corporate values towards societal values – and thus an ethical approach to values communication.


The coffee company Illy’s take on values is slightly different. In 2011, the company launched the Live happILLY campaign on and offline. Similar to the UNhate initiative, Live happILLY addresses a society-oriented value – namely, happiness - rather than promotes a corporate-oriented value. This is reflected on the campaign website where the company invites is customers to share their own happiness: “if you’re living a HAPPilly moment, share it with us”. However, in contrast to UNhate, the campaign is closely aligned with the product as drinking coffee is here tied to joy in everyday living.


These two examples illustrate how corporations communicatively become closely connected to society through the articulation of the values of tolerance and happiness.

These are indeed important human values that are of great relevance, especially today in light of global tensions. Yet the two examples have somewhat mixed interpretations, as one cannot forget that these are business organisations with business purposes. Hence, both examples are also aligned with an instrumental perspective on value communication.

In the case of Benetton, it is possible to argue that the controversial nature of the UNhate campaign is in line with the company’s previous reputation management initiatives where provocation has been central. In addition, Illy’s explicit link between coffee drinking and happiness suggests that happiness and joy are values that the company would like to be associated with amongst customers and other stakeholders.

Thereby, happiness is suggested to be both a corporate and a societal value. As such, the instrumental and ethical perspectives on values are two sides of the same coin.

Value communication: an ideal, utopian strategy?

While we concur with other scholars that it is paramount for corporations to use counselling and coaching in their communication to bring the values of society into the corporation, such reflective corporate behaviour is no longer sufficient.

Through their corporate communication, corporations need to actively shape the societal values that in turn shape them and they need to do so in an ethical manner. Value communication is a new direction for corporate communication in which the organisation is also trying to influence societies and societal values. These two cases illustrate that value communication is possible and can be profitable too when blended with core business goals.

We expect positive implications for organisations employing value communication. It may be that societal involvement is beneficial to the corporations’ image and reputation as it gives a human face to an otherwise economic entity.

It may potentially increase stakeholder identification and help build stronger relations to key stakeholder groups - for example it can lead to a perceived added brand value and a willingness to pay more for the company’s products, while employees may experience a boost in morale. But there are also possible negative implications.

Consumers have become more cynical towards CSR initiatives and we expect possible similar effects when value communication is enacted. Another risk is related to how corporations enact the communicated values in their corporate actions. In other words, corporations may become vulnerable if they do not truly live up to the values they preach, and thus value communication is not recommendable without having in place a supportive corporate behaviour plan.

Image: Thinkstock

Trine Susanne Johansen

Trine Susanne Johansen is an associate professor at Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, Denmark. Before becoming a university lecturer, she worked as a business consultant. Trine's main research areas are strategic communication, organisational identity construction and narrativity. Additional she works in the areas of branding, marketing, CSR and stakeholder relations.

Chiara Valentini

Chiara Valentini is professor of corporate communication at Jyvaskyla University School of Business and Economics. She has also worked for and consulted organisations and public institutions of several countries, including the Italian Representation of the European Commission in Rome and the European Movement International Secretariat in Brussels.