- The right time to first define your brand values is as soon as you can after validating the idea;
- Find 3 or 4 words that sum up what you stand for;
- Your values are the foundation of everything else that you do;
- Be true to yourself;
- Be prepared to iterate if needed.
Stand for something
A great company is one that stands for something. Customers know what to expect from it. They know this because they receive a consistent experience when using the products. This experience is driven by the behaviours of the product and the people behind it. This consistency comes from having a core set of brand values. Your values will always drive your behaviours. Everyone has values. It's how we make judgements about the right thing to do. Values represent what you consider important in life. They are what make you different from everyone else. Robert Bean, an excellent branding consultant that I've had the pleasure of working with explains
great brands have great products, they stand for something that they extend as a ‘promise’, and they’re consistent about their values in everything they do
You can choose whether or not to be explicit about what your values are. Being explicit means that you've clearly described your values and consciously base your thinking and decisions on them. The alternative is to let implicit values drive your behaviours without taking time to understand what they are. You've got a better chance of consistency if you take time to be explicit about your values. What you're looking for is a simple set of words, ideally no more than 3 or 4 to describe your brand's core values. There will be many words that you want to use. The key is to boil it down to the 3 or 4 that matter most.
Brand versus culture versus product
You might wonder, are we talking about the internal company values here? Or the brand values? Or is this about the values of the product? These are fair questions because they can often be different, especially in a large organisation with different brands, products and locations. In an early stage startup with one product and only a handful of team members I would argue that there's very little difference between the company culture and the brand values. Brand values in a startup are never far away from the values of the founding team. To be clear, this article is about how you can define your brand values. Your company values cannot be contradictory to your brand values but they may well have a slightly different emphasis.
Values drive behaviours
Behaviours start with the CEO. The CEO has a huge influence on the culture of the business, especially so in the early stages of a startup. This then extends to the rest of the team and the team culture is the sum of the behaviours the group, which in turn are driven by the values of the group. The values become the foundation of communications internally and to the outside world. The values inform your product strategy, they drive your service standards. They're at the core of everything that you do. It's worth being quite explicit of what they are.
- Values lead to behaviours
- Behaviours drive culture
- Culture influence communications, service and product
Beware; if you describe brand values that are contrary to how the CEO behaves, you risk your company being a fraud and hypocrite. This whole exercise won't work. In a startup the founder's values are fundamental to the brand values so you'll need to be honest about what you truly care about. Be true to yourself.
Getting started - set the scene
Before you start to define your values, it's worth doing some preparation. Do the following 3 things first and then you'll be in a good place to start thinking of relevant words.
Step 1 - Moodboard
Sometimes pictures say things you know to be true but you can't quite yet explain. Creating a moodboard of anything you find that you feel fits with your brand is a great place to start. This could be logos of other companies, it could be photos of places, people or things. Simply grab some random magazines and flip through until you find something that feels right. Clip the pictures and post them on a wall. Do the same for images you find online; print them off and stick them up. You could also clip quotes, slogans or sayings if they seem relevant. When you've got a mood board, start finding the adjectives that describe the pictures, people and scenes. Write them down and keep ones that might feel right for your brand. Here's an example from when Edge Retreats put together a mood board when they were putting together their brand values. (Edge Retreats is a luxury villa supplier offering a curated collection of the world's finest holiday rental properties).
Step 2 - Choose an archetype
Archetypes are types of character that we recognise intuitively. They are persistent throughout history and in all our stories. Examples of archetypes include; hero, caregiver, magician, lover, explorer, sage, everyman, creator, rebel, jester, ruler. You may instantly recognise archetypes in brands that you know. Land Rover? Explorer. Daz washing powder? Everyman. Baileys Irish Cream? Lover. We expect certain patterns of behaviours from archetypes. A ruler is different from a jester and a hero is different from a magician. This excellent brand archetypes exercise by Forty.co will help you think through which archetype your brand represents. You may find that you need more than one. Imagine characters in real life or in popular fiction that represent your archetype. (e.g. Explorer; Sir Edmund Hillary or Indiana Jones. Rebel; Che Guevara or Jack Sparrow). Try and describe these people and start collecting the adjectives that you use. Keep any that feel right. When Edge Retreats did this exercise they identified with two: Explorer and Ruler.
Step 3 - Review you customer interviews
In the Valid Idea stage of The Path Forward you'll have done a good number of customer interviews. Find your interview notes and strip out all the adjectives that you can find. List them out or make a word cloud (e.g. with Wordle). This will help you see quickly the language your target customers use. Some of these words might be clues to help you find the words that matter for your brand.
Now that you've done your preparation, set up a brainstorm session with your co-founders /team (or your advisors if you a solo founder). Have everyone review the moodboard, the archetypes and the wordcloud. Ask everyone to start writing on post-its as many words as they can that feel right. Use words that could work in this sentence, "If my brand was a person, it would be a XXX person", the XXX being an adjective. Once you've got a decent number of words (at least 20), start putting them on a wall and then cluster them where there is some commonality. Have a discussion about why you chose the words you suggested. Search for other words that could be even closer to the true meaning that you're trying to elicit using a thesaurus. Discard words that don't fit and aim to get to a shortlist of words that are starting to really describe with some precision what your brand is all about. Be original. It's too easy to use at words like "honest, value, helpful, authentic". Too obvious, sorry, you've got to try harder. Original words really describe some essence of your brand that is different, words like... "thoughtful, fearless, mischievous, diligent or humble".
Choose only 3 or 4 words
The difficult part of the exercise is to get down to a 3 or 4 words. No more than 4. Any more and you won't remember them. Any more and they're not actually that useful. It's the process of reduction that gives meaning. If you described your best friend you could probably do it with 4 adjectives. You can also do so with a brand. Edge Retreats chose "Exceptional. Unequalled. Seamless" (Other words that were on their shortlist that were discarded were; Refined, Attentive, Courageous)
How to use your values
Your brand values provide a reference point, a true north for decisions you make and how you act with your customers. Refer to them constantly when you make decisions on your product, your service, your emails, your social media updates, your job ads, your ppc ads, your office space, your hiring, your colour palette, your logo... For example, Edge Retreats used the values work to develop a new strap line: ‘Exceptional villa experiences’, a distinct move away from their original strap line ‘Exclusive luxury villas’. It's really about being consistent in how you are perceived by your customers. Be prepared to revisit your values from time to time as you learn more about your customers and how they see you. Your brand values are not something you'd tell the world about. You wouldn't put them on your website. They are there to remind you what drives your behaviours. Your behaviours are what the outside world will see. You will be judged not on what you think but on what you do. If you and your team agree on your brand values you've got a better chance of your customers receiving a consistent experience. And it's consistency that builds a brand.