Core Brand ValuesBefore you can project a unique, external brand for your company, you must first understand the company’s internal character. This internal identity-defined by the values that your company considers integral to its existence-is the source from which all other aspects of your brand, ideally, will flow.
Therefore, the first step to creating your brand roadmap will be articulating your company’s core brand values. The goal is to end up with three or four values that uniquely define the essence of your company. To help you with this process, the chapter is divided into three parts. The first part will explain why core values are so important. The second part will give you some examples of core values so that you can determine which values ring true for your particular company. The third section will help you narrow your choices and help you articulate why those values are unique to your company. At the end of this chapter and the rest of the chapters in the book, you will find a worksheet, which will help you get all your thoughts down in writing.
Why Core Values Are ImportantWithout a clear set of core values, the very foundation of your brand is in jeopardy, and so is your ability to communicate your brand believably to anyone inside or outside your company. In addition, if you go too long without stating your core brand values in black and white, it’s too easy to be who you’re not, and that’s no way to create a brand. To give you an example of why we start with core brand values, let’s start with a brand that’s been around for more than two hundred years-the United States of America. Suppose our forefathers had started the United States without declaring, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Chances are, without the simple and clear statement of these core values, the founding of a whole new country might seem a little arbitrary and rather pointless to people. But because these values were stated so forcefully and “self-evidently,” the founders of the United States were able to craft messages like the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which have enabled the United States to keep building on its successes for more than two hundred years.
When the country went through a major crisis “fourscore and seven years” later, what did President Lincoln do? He went back to those core values. After a long-winded speech by Edward Everett, Lincoln stood up to deliver a few “wrap-up” remarks that live to this day. His first sentence states: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Zap. Right to the core of what makes America America. All men and women are created equal, including slaves, plantation owners, Native Americans, Southerners, Northerners, Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, and everyone in between. Never underestimate the power of core values to unite a community, a company, or a country.
Let’s look at what might have happened if the founders of the United States hadn’t established the nation’s core values first. Suppose they had started the country by coming up with a flag first (companies generally start with their logo because they need to have letterheads, brochures, business cards, and signage). They hire this hotshot designer named Betsy Ross and ask her to design a nice flag with stars and stripes. Then they use that flag/logo to go out to the thirteen states and start talking about getting together and fighting the British. No matter how great that design was, and is, it falls short of inspiring commitment, especially a commitment with which people could possibly lose their lives, families, and property-not just market share. But once the founders committed to the core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, suddenly the flag took on a whole new depth of meaning. It wasn’t the design; it was the values the flag represented.
The same holds true for any company that wants to build on its success over the years. All the best companies have a core value system that drives all their decisions. While I was at Chiat/Day (as art director on the Apple Computer account from 1981 through 1984, through the introductions of the Apple II, Apple IIe, Apple III, Lisa, and Macintosh), Steve Jobs came to our office in San Francisco and told us about his vision to put the power of the personal computer into the hands of every person in the United States. His values were crystal clear. Everyone who worked at Apple or on the Apple account knew what the values were. Because of those values, Gary Gusick and I wrote the line “Why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” We couldn’t have come up with that idea without intimately understanding Steve Jobs’s passion, and consequently Apple’s, for giving power to the individual.
Disney’s core values of imagination and wholesomeness have transcended changes in culture, in generations, in CEOs, and in the entertainment market. But as James Collins and Jerry Porras articulate so well in Built to Last, “The key point is that an enduring great company decides for itself what values it holds to be core, largely independent of the current environment, competitive requirements, or management fads.” Amen.
Core Values Speak Louder than Any Message
Coming up with a core set of values is even more critical in today’s marketplace because we live in a marketing culture in which people have trained themselves to ferret out the superficial promises, half-truths, and overstatements. Just the sheer amount of marketing has forced people to become very selective about what they hear and what they believe. They get bombarded with thousands of messages every day, and not just from companies like your own. They get skewed and doctored messages from many of our politicians. They get heavily edited information, and sometimes misinformation, from the media. They open up their mailboxes and e-mails to find every kind of claim in the world trying to get them to act the way that particular marketer wants them to act. Our Darwinian ability to thrive and survive despite the round-the-clock saturation-spraying of marketing fertilizer is a fairly recent ability. Through our innate survival techniques, we’re becoming a powerful strain of street-smart, marketing-immune, superconsumers.
You have an opportunity to penetrate that immune system by making your core values simple, believable, and unassailable. Those values will then translate into messages that are simple, believable, and unassailable in the marketplace. To accomplish this feat, you need to start within the walls of your own company.
Your Brand Is Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link
The first step to having a cohesive brand is to have a cohesive company. Core brand values can help accomplish that goal and help turn everyone in your company into a brand advocate. The person who takes reservations over the phone at Southwest Airlines is just as responsible for the brand as the pilots, maybe more so. The customers rarely interact directly with the pilots.
The same power, however, that allows your people to be an asset to your brand can also make them a liability. The credibility and integrity of your company can be undermined by just one person who doesn’t understand your core values. It can happen when one employee has an inappropriate interaction with a supplier, a customer, or an investor. It can happen when a salesperson bends a few rules to make a sale. Someone in the accounting department can undermine a brand with “funny numbers.”
How would you feel about the Saturn brand if you experienced a Saturn salesperson who was pushy, sexist, or dismissive? How much damage can a terse, cranky receptionist do to the image of a nonprofit organization that specializes in helping people? Volvo spent thirty years becoming synonymous with safety, and then one day an executive at Volvo’s ad agency said it was OK to reinforce the internal structure of a Volvo for the purpose of a television commercial. The ad was supposed to be a product demonstration showing how a Volvo could withstand being driven over by a monster truck. When people found out that the demonstration was rigged, the credibility of the brand was suddenly on shaky ground. People had bought into safety’s being a core value of Volvo. They bought into that value so thoroughly that they were willing to put their own lives and the lives of their children into the hands of Volvo. These same people didn’t want to hear that Volvo didn’t believe in its own demonstration. Consequently, because one supplier failed to understand that safety was a core value not to be tampered with, thirty years of consistent brand messaging almost went out the window. Fortunately it didn’t, because Volvo does make safe cars. The marketing was flawed, not the car. These examples show that even the best companies are vulnerable to brand damage if someone associated with the company makes a decision that’s inconsistent with the company’s core brand values. Because brand decisions can be made by any number of people in your company, your brand values need to be spelled out simply and clearly for everyone. Determining your own core values should help make every link in your branding chain stronger.
Potential Core ValuesIf your company hasn’t already articulated a set of core values, then it’s time to figure out what they are and put them down in writing. If your company has written down a set of core values, but you feel they don’t ring true to your brand, then it’s time to change them or fine-tune them so that they do feel true. If your company does have a core set of values that are true mirrors of your company, then you still need to put them down in writing so that everyone in your company has access to them. Times change, employees change, marketplace conditions change. When you combine all this change with people’s having to make business decisions faster and faster, you can see the necessity of having a fixed set of parameters within your decision-making process. Those are your core values. Change the core values, and you change the company. If you remove the core value of service from Nordstrom’s brand, for example, you basically have just another high-end department store.
A good place to start assessing your core values is to look at the following list and check off which values represent your company. The list is compiled from a number of companies I’ve worked with, combined with core values listed in America’s Greatest Brands. If none of them are quite right, feel free to add some of your own. At the end of this exercise, we’ll be narrowing this list down to three or four core values. Most companies that initially go through this exercise end up with about seven or eight that feel right. That’s OK. You can narrow down the list later. To keep your list to a manageable number, here are a few questions to keep in the back of your head when you’re looking at potential core values:
We’ll go into more detail later, but the preceding questions should give you a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for when deciding which of the following core values best represent your company.
Now we’ll take an in-depth look at the questions below and apply them to your potential core values.
Which Values Are So Inherent in Your Company That If They Disappeared, Your Company Would Cease to Exist as It Is?
Thousands of companies disappear every year. So why has your company survived? Why are investors still investing in your company? Why do your customers still buy your product? Why do people come to work for your company? Why do you still work for your company? These questions can help determine your company’s true core values. You must be doing something right that other companies aren’t doing. Or you represent something in the marketplace that other companies don’t represent. Maybe you’re doing it better, cheaper, faster, with more knowledgeable people, or with more efficient manufacturing. Whatever it is, you need to understand it, turn it into a core brand value, and get it working for you consistently.
A word of caution here. This is not the time to try to compensate for your company’s weakness by inserting a wish list of core values currently not part of your company’s identity. For example, if your success is based on your being a product-focused company, but your people skills are so-so, then admit it-that’s what you are. Make the best product you can, and make sure that everyone in your company understands this passion for product quality.
If your success is based on customer service that is second to none, but your product is indiscernible from other products in the marketplace, be honest about it. You’ll be happier, your employees will be happier, and you won’t be creating a fantasy company in your brand roadmap. Brand roadmaps work best when they distill the true essence of a brand, as it exists, for everyone who comes in contact with the brand.
What Values Does Your Company Consistently Adhere to in the Face of All Obstacles?
The best brands do what they say they’re going to do, and they do it consistently day in and day out, no matter what the circumstances. Coke doesn’t have one case of soda that’s so-so, another that’s great, and yet another that’s a bit flat. A Coke is a Coke is a Coke. It doesn’t matter whether you get one at a soda fountain in Kansas City or by the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This core value, product quality, helps make Coke a great brand. When the people at Coke say they have a quality product, I believe them. There’s no reason not to, even though, over the years, the company has had plenty of logistical, practical, and financial reasons not to adhere to the same standards around the world. But Coke didn’t succumb to the temptation to compromise its core brand value of product quality.
A simple test to determine whether a core value is really a core value is to put it to the money test. Bill Bernbach, of the renowned ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, used to say, “More and more I have come to the conclusion that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.” That’s especially true in this culture. Money is a reliable litmus test of whether a brand value is truly a core brand value. For example, Saturn used these words to describe itself: “Different kind of company. Different kind of car.” To prove the point, it created a car company built around the customer instead of the car. The company designed friendlier dealer showrooms, hired and trained no-pressure salespeople, and installed no-haggle pricing. It didn’t pad its profits by preying on the ignorance of the buyer, or “going into the back room to work out a deal.” The price was the price. Whenever it had a product recall, Saturn would turn it into a community barbecue. Being a “different kind of company” cost the company a lot of money, especially initially, but it also built one of the most respected brands in the United States.
Another way to determine if a value is a core value is to see if it holds up under stressful situations, whether they be increased competition, product recall, stock devaluation, or downsizing. If your values can be downsized, they’re not core values. Thomas Jefferson didn’t say, “Whenever it’s convenient, give me life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Ford doesn’t say, “quality is Job One, Two, or Three, depending on the job.” Equivocation has no role in a core brand value.
Which values in your company don’t have a price tag on them? Which values hold up under all sorts of stressful circumstances? Which values can you state unequivocally? Chances are, those are your core brand values.
Does the Word Passionate Come to Mind When You List a Value?
Passion is a pretty foolproof test of whether a value is a core value. It will help you include your heart in the decision-making process instead of just your head. Passion is what creates an emotional connection that transcends ads, public relations, brochures, or any other crafted messages that a company puts out. To look for true brand passion, you need look no further than the most popular tattoo in the United States: the Harley-Davidson logo. It’s an example of a brand’s being a literal brand on people’s bodies.
Jerome, of Jerome’s Bar-B-Que, included his passion for authentic barbecue in his brand roadmap. His definition of what it was-fall-off-the-bone, finger-lickin’, mouth waterin’, overnight-cooked, hardwood-smoked, open-pit barbecue-was further clarified by what it wasn’t: “It definitely isn’t your boil-it-and-slather-it-with-store-sauce pseudo-BBQ. You can’t just zap it and wrap it like those fast food joints do and call it barbecue. That’s not barbecue, that’s somethin’ else.” Consequently, authenticity was a core brand value in Jerome’s brand roadmap. His employees felt his passion; his customers could taste his passion. Authenticity was a core brand value that permeated the whole company.
Do any of the core values you listed fall into the “passionate” category? If so, then you are fortunate enough to have a core value that’s automatically calling for your energy and focus.
What Core Values Does the Culture Value?
Aligning one or more of your core values with values that the culture embraces is a powerful way to motivate and connect with people. For example, Americans tend to value independence and personal expression. These values are represented by the popular icons that embody the American spirit: the blues, rock and roll, Jack Kerouac, cowboys, the Statue of Liberty, Mohammed Ali, the pioneers, Martin Luther King-the list goes on. Independence and personal expression are an integral part of American cultural values, but in Americans’ day-to-day lives, these values feel as if they’re missing. It could be because most Americans wear the same clothes, watch the same television programs, drive the same cars, listen to the same music, and buy the same mass-produced products. Apple is tapping into those values of independence and personal expression when it says, “Think different.” With Apple, we all have the opportunity to buy a small dose of individuality. When we do, we’re buying one of the core values of America as well as a product.
You can also choose a value that’s intrinsic to American culture but that people somehow feel is missing. When the value is perceived as missing, people start craving that value as much, or more, than they crave a product. Nike is an example of a company’s tapping into a core value that feels absent in U.S. culture. One of the critical pieces of its success has to do with “serious commitment.” For almost thirty years, Nike has inspired us with athletes who have committed their lives to doing one thing and doing it extremely well-athletes like Steve Prefontaine, Joan Benoit, Carl Lewis, Michael Jordan, John McEnroe, Tiger Woods, and Mia Hamm. When we buy a Nike product, we’re buying into the idea of serious commitment, whether we ever actually commit to anything or not. The idea of serious commitment is very appealing in a culture that moves from relationship to relationship, city to city, diet to diet, and job to job. So when a brand comes along that reminds us of what can happen when we actually commit to some ideal and follow through with it, then this rings true right to our physical, emotional, and spiritual core. That’s a powerful motivator.
Do any of your company’s core values mirror the larger core values of our culture? If they do, then leverage this advantage and you’ll find that your brand resonates much deeper in people’s hearts and minds.
Getting to the Core of Your Core ValuesIt’s time to take your initial list of seven or eight core values and narrow that list down to three or four that will become the cornerstones of your brand. The U.S. Navy has three core values: honor, courage, and commitment. Stanley Tools has four: quality, knowledge, innovation, and integrity. Hush Puppies has three: fun, comfort, genuine style.
The narrowing of your core values to three or four works extremely well. The fewer values you concentrate on, the more focused your company and the easier the decisions for everyone involved with your brand.
Let’s put those three or four core values to an even more stringent test.
“How Can I Miss You when You Won’t Go Away?”
This Dan Hicks song title is a great way to think about narrowing down your core brand values. The idea is to imagine the epitaph you would write, or your customer might write, on a tombstone if your company went out of business today.
This so-called tombstone exercise is a common technique that focus-group moderators use to get people to focus on what’s really important with each brand. This exercise is based on the assumption that when buying our favorite brand, we don’t think about how important a brand is in our lives until it’s not there. The more established the brand, the more likely this will happen. If you’re an Oreo cookie person, for example, how would you feel if it wasn’t on the shelf the next time you went to the store? How would you feel if your favorite cereal just disappeared? Ongoing brand relationships can inadvertently become like other relationships in our lives-wife, husband, friend, and long-term employee-that get taken for granted. This exercise can help break through that “taken-for-grantedness” and help you get to the core reasons your brand exists in people’s lives.
To get you started, here are some examples of potential epitaphs:
You can see how a company’s core brand values rise to the surface in this tombstone exercise. When you’ve done the exercise yourself, try it out with your suppliers, customers, and employees. It’s a great way to see which values your company is effectively communicating. When you’re finished, study the tombstones and see if any messages have an emotional charge to them. Do you feel warmth, sadness, nostalgia, or a smile coming on?
Which ones feel true? Which would you use as the core of your speech if you were asked to speak at that brand’s funeral? We’re looking for the soul of your brand. This soul exists in your core values.
Now try the same exercise with your competitors. In many cases, the emotional connections that potential customers have with your competition rise to the surface. Once you’ve done a set for your competitors, see if any of your values differentiate you from your competitors. Do any values set you apart from the category you’re in? For example, if you have a construction company and you always deliver the job on time and on budget, then reliability and honesty are core values. Those values could very well differentiate you from all the other construction companies that will say whatever they need to say to get the job awarded to them.
Dell Computer has always had “accountability” as a core brand value. Dell is 100 percent accountable for every product it makes and every message it delivers, because it sells its computers directly to its customers. The company can’t use excuses like “Why don’t you take it back to the person who sold it to you?” or “Sounds like the retailer loaded in some incompatible software” or “We never promised it could do that.” Dell can’t pass the buck, because there’s no one to pass it to. Accountability is such an ingrained part of Dell’s value system, that even when Dell sold its computers through select retail outlets, it never abdicated its responsibility for its product or lost the relationship with the person who bought the computer. Accountability wasn’t a value that changed when Dell briefly changed its business model.
Are Your Core Values People Oriented or Product Oriented?
Once you’ve collected the various epitaphs from the tombstone exercise, look them over. Do they point to your company’s being people oriented or product oriented?
If you’re a product-oriented company, then the epitaphs will reflect how well designed your company’s products are and how much better your company’s products are than any other products in the marketplace. Words like quality, consistency, reliability, attention to detail, and design expertise will rise to the top of a brand’s core values. Brands like Porsche, BMW, Bosch, Sony, Braun, and Toyota are product-oriented brands and tend to have the essence of their brand defined by their products.
If you’re a people-oriented company, you’ll hear how wonderful it is to work at your company. Employees and suppliers will tell you how compassionate, fair, and team-oriented the management of the company is. You’ll see statements that reflect superior customer relationships. People skills will be emphasized over product attributes. Brands like Nordstrom’s, Southwest Airlines, and the American Red Cross represent these kinds of brands. Being a people-focused company brings a completely different set of core values to the top of the list. Words like friendly, empathetic, and unparalleled service come to represent the company’s core values. This doesn’t mean that Nordstrom’s and Southwest Airlines don’t have quality products; they do. But these companies realize that the strength of their brand, the thing that makes them different in the marketplace, is their service. This service is dependent on the talents of their people, so they’re people-oriented brands. Their brand relationship is based on who they are, not what they make.
Is your company people oriented or product oriented? Pick one, and mark it on the worksheet at the end of this chapter. Knowing whether your core values are people oriented or product oriented will help you arrive at the core values that your company truly values. This knowledge will also help you when we get to the brand personality and brand icon sections of this book. People-oriented brands tend to look, feel, and sound different from product-oriented brands.
All Core Values Are Not Created Equal
As you’re looking at your core values list, narrow down the list to those values that you can defend unequivocally. For example, I would consider a lot of my friends honest, but some are definitely more honest than others. For some of my friends, it’s the defining aspect of who they are. When I want to avoid the truth, I generally avoid them. I would list honesty as a core value for them. For others, honesty might be one of their values, but other values may be their true strength. It doesn’t mean they’re not honest; it just means that there are other qualities that more uniquely define who they are. The same is true with companies. How about your company? For example, if you chose honesty as a core value, then you need to ask yourself the following questions: Are you more or less honest than your competitors? How honest are you when you learn about a possible product defect? Do you exaggerate your messages in your advertising and public relations to make a point? Are there open lines of communication within your company for both ideas and gripes? Do you tell your assistant to say you’re “not in” when you are?
If honesty is a core value, then it has to permeate the whole culture of your company. Core values should live in the world of black and white, not shades of gray. When your core values are black and white, then all the people in your company understand what’s expected of them and you’re that much closer to doing what you say you’re going to do 100 percent of the time. This means you’re that much closer to being a trusted brand.
Now that you know which core values represent your company, let’s add some specific descriptions that make them unique to your company.
It’s Time to Get Personal
To get people to understand and buy into the core values you’ve listed in a brand roadmap, it helps to include with each value a paragraph explaining why that particular core value defines your company. This is especially true if someone has just joined the company and isn’t sure how words like quality, commitment, or fun really position your company in the marketplace. If you leave those words up to individual interpretation, you’ll get as many interpretations as you have individuals.
Here are a couple of examples from actual brand roadmaps:
You get the idea. Write down your core values, and don’t be afraid to express them passionately. Too many core value statements feel dispassionate. When you get stuck, specifics help. Instead of saying, “we’re committed to building a better product,” ask yourself what makes your product better. If you find that you’re using words like best or better, ask yourself why it’s “the best” or “better.” Is your product more reliable? Then a core value could be reliability. Talk about why that’s important to your company. Are your products better designed? Then maybe design is a core value. If it is, make me believe it. If I’m a product designer in your company, motivate me to improve every design I create for your company. If I’m a customer, make me so excited about your design that I talk about it to every person who will listen.
The one word that crops up on many core value lists is leader. That’s not a core value. If you find yourself using the word leader as a core value, try to get more specific. What makes your company a leader? It usually has to do with a specific trait like honesty, compassion, reliability, or decisiveness. Those are core values that people will understand. Telling someone “I want you to be 100 percent reliable, 100 percent of the time” is a lot clearer and actionable than “I want you to be a leader.” Be clear, specific, and passionate when describing your core values.
Your Brand Is Now Solid to the CoreYour brand is now based on something that won’t go away. Even though the markets will change, competitors will change, financing will change, and even the rate of change will change, you have a set of core beliefs that will guide every decision you make relative to products, services, recruitment, partnerships, suppliers, business practices, and marketing opportunities. If you go no further in this book, you’ve succeeded. You’re already ahead of the opportunistic companies that do whatever they can, and say whatever they need to say, to attract an audience and make a buck. You’re light-years ahead of the companies that see their employees as numbers and their customers as open wallets.
Worksheet: Your Core Brand ValuesIf you find that the worksheets in the book don’t get easier and more focused as you go along, then you might have to come back to this chapter and revisit your core values. Sometimes you get a clearer view of your values once you have to evaluate them in relation to your brand message, personality, and icons.
For example, in the initial draft of the brand roadmap for A Home Away From Homelessness, creativity wasn’t listed as a core brand value. But when Jeanie Kortum, the executive director of Home Away, got to the brand personality section, she realized that art, self-expression, and creativity were an integral part of the brand. Creativity is what helps heal the kids, it inspires the teachers, and it’s a powerful way for Home Away to differentiate itself in the fundraising world of other nonprofits. In the final roadmap, creativity became one of the organization’s core brand values.
As you go through these worksheets, keep in mind that it’s OK not to be perfect right off the bat. This is a process, not a test.
A. List eight to ten potential brand values.
B. Use the following questions to make sure that the values you end up with are core values.
C. Check one. My company is primarily
If you consider yourself a product company, then make sure your core values reflect that focus. The same holds true for being a people-oriented brand.
D. Now write down the three or four values that you believe are core brand values for your company. Follow each core value with a description stating why you believe each value applies specifically to your company. Doing this exercise will really help you when we come to the core message, brand personality, and brand icon sections.
Now that you’ve completed this worksheet to determine your core values, we’ll move on to chapter 3 to determine how your company’s brand message can communicate those values.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from United We Brand by Mike Moser. Copyright (c) 2003 by Mike Moser; All Rights Reserved.
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