Thu May 04 2023 Michael McQueen

In an era increasingly defined by scandal, hypocrisy and betrayals of public trust, customers are increasingly holding corporations to high standards of integrity. Businesses and brands can no longer afford to cut ethical corners, fall short of marketing promises or fail to practise what they preach. In an age of skepticism and transparency, what customers are craving from their companies is congruence.

In order to build the trust and rapport with customers that has been so often compromised, businesses and brands need clear sets of values that they are committed to upholding. Without clear values to guide conduct and culture, it’s easy to lose our way, lose sight of the things that really count and subsequently lose the trust of those who matter most.

Given how easy it is to lose trust in today’s climate, the stakes for businesses are high – and this applies to profit as much as it does to mere approval ratings. 87% of consumers today believe a business must place an equal weight on society’s interests as their own business goals.[1] According to the Harvard Business Review, over forty academic studies have found a positive correlation between operating with strong social values and financial performance. Brands that have a clear sense of meaning and social responsibility have outperformed stock market benchmarks by 120% over the last 15 years.[2]

It's easy for orkers to dismiss company values as a tokenism, but as is being revealed time and time again, integrity is a non-negotiable. So how can leaders forge a culture of congruence in their companies?

The Four-Way Test

Back in the 1930s a Chicago businessman by the name of Herbert J Taylor embarked on an ambitious recovery plan for his ailing aluminium distribution business, Club Aluminum.

In an effort to stave off bankruptcy, Taylor believed a crucial first step was to develop a clear ethical framework for operating. 

Taylor set out to develop an easy-to-memorize and simple-to-understand set of principles that would guide and influence the decisions and actions of everyone in his company. The end result was a four-question test that encapsulated the values of both Taylor personally and the company he had founded.

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Almost immediately, Taylor’s ‘4-way test’ had an impact. The company re-wrote one of its advertising posters which declared that its product was “the best cookware in the world.” Taylor knew that the company could not prove that this was true and therefore the claim violated Question 1 in the test. The advertisement was rewritten to include only the facts.

In another instance, Club Aluminum awarded a contract to a local printer who had competitively tendered for the job. However, soon after the contract was awarded, the printer realized he had underestimated the quote by a relatively small amount. Although it would have been well within Club Aluminum’s legal rights to force the printer to fulfil his side of the contract, Taylor and his leadership went back to questions 2 and 3 of the 4-way test and decided to pay the additional amount in good faith.

Over time, Club Aluminum became known for its high ethical standards and Taylor’s 4-way test began to be adopted by other business leaders and organizations worldwide – most notably, Rotary International.


The Cost of Congruence

The reality is that while congruence is a non-negotiable for a business aiming to win over the hearts of the market, it can comes at a cost.

This was certainly the case for Debbie Blakey who is CEO of Australian Superannuation (Pension) fund HESTA. In speaking with Debbie recently, she shared an experience from a few years ago when she and her board decided to not make any new investments in the fossil fuel industry.

The business press was scathing. This move was seen as corporate activism and irresponsibility with many commentators arguing that the job of a super fund executive must be to maximise member’s investments – nothing more. Pushing back on this Friedman-eqse paradigm, Blakey argued that HESTA could not be true to its stated mission of ‘creating meaningful change for generations to come’ while investing in industries that were robbing the next generation.

In a similar move, Australia’s largest superannuation fund AustralianSuper a couple of years ago announced that they would be ramping up their focus on investing with environmental, social and governance issues front of mind. AustralianSuper’s chair Heather Ridout hit back at criticism of the move claiming “We’re not activists, we’re engagers. We ask them their issues and discuss them together, in the end it’s for the boards of those companies whether they want to take the views of our fund or not. Community expectations are very important, and I don’t see why they are diametrically opposed to shareholders.” [3]

Over and over, the old axiom is proved to be true: a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. That said, while the financial costs of living by your values may be high, the return on investment, in terms of earning the trust, affinity and esteem of the market, is difficult to put a price on. In the words of Alan K. Simpson, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters.”[5]



Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

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[1]  Keohane, K. 2016, ‘The Case For Purpose Driven Brands’, Branding Strategy Insider, 9 September.

[2]  Keohane, K. 2016, ‘The Case For Purpose Driven Brands’, Branding Strategy Insider, 9 September.

[3]  Yeates, C. 2019, 'We're Not Activists': Australiansuper's Heather Ridout Hits Back’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March.

[4]  Collins, J & Porras, J. 1994, Built to Last, HarperCollins, New York, p. 8.

[5]  Zwilling, M. 2012, ‘5 Ways To See If Your Business Integrity Is Showing’, Forbes, 30 March.