Building your brand – Core Vision, Values & Story
Part 1 in our series on building your small business brand.
The best place to start building your brand is right at the beginning, with your vision, your values and your core story. But what are we talking about when we talk about a brand’s core vision, values and story?
Well, these are a brand’s heart and soul, the foundation everything else is built on, the compass that keeps the brand on course and traveling true.
Why it’s essential
A brand’s vision, value and story focuses what a brand is about and stands for. It clearly defines the brand for its founders, employees, suppliers and customers. Without it, a brand will soon fade into the fog and lose its way.
What it covers
This covers your brand’s:
Your vision for your brand
The values your brand represents
Your brand’s purpose
The promise your brand makes to its target customers
The perception you want your brand to have
The emotions you want to associate with your brand
A visual mood board that defines your brand
How you’ll use it
You’ll use your core vision, value and story internally to keep yourself, other founders, partners and employees focused and moving in the same direction. At the same time, you’ll use it externally as the basis for all your PR and marketing communication.
How you’ll create it
To create your origin story, write down how your company came to exist.
Why did you start your company?
How was it conceived?
Who are its principle drivers?
What’s its biography?
Have there been any major events, good and bad, that have unfolded along the way?
What milestones, if any, has it achieved?
What challenges has it faced, particularly in the early days?
As an example, here’s the origin story of one of our clients.
The CEO was working as a sales manager for a global IT company with some $100 million in sales and 65 people he was responsible for. Every day he drove the same route to work. And every day he looked at the trees lining the side of the road and would try to calculate how fast he’d have to drive his car into one of those trees so he could get medical leave from his company but wouldn’t be permanently injured. That was the start of his journey towards become first an executive coach and then a life coach.
It makes for a compelling and dramatic story that we summarized as:
I was ready to crash my car into a tree when I decided to make a change in my career… and my life.
More famous example would be Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting Apple in Job’s mother’s garage. Or Mark Zuckerberg starting Facebook from his dorm room. Or Bill Gates dropping out of MIT to start Microsoft. Or the founder of Zara starting with a stall in a market in Madrid.
The list goes on and on. But the point is the same. There’s power in a compelling story.
And the shorter and more succinct your story, the more it will resonate.
Just don’t get trapped into thinking you don’t have a story. Everyone has a story to tell. Just the fact you decided to start a company is the start of your story. Exploit that.
What is your vision for your brand? This isn’t a business goal.
For example, Bill Gates has come out to say that Microsoft’s vision in the 80s and 90s of placing a desktop in every home was misguided, and I couldn’t agree more. A desktop in every home is a business goal.
On the other hand, a world in which people use a company’s products to innovate and make a dent in the universe, now that’s a vision. In fact, that was Apple’s vision, as embodied by it’s Think Different campaign.
Apple’s vision might feel intimidating, so here’s the vision we crafted for the life coach I told you about earlier:
We have a vision of a world in which everyone is free of the societally-imposed beliefs, masks and barriers that keep them from achieving the meaningful, purpose-driven life they long for. By helping people find, direct and live their passion, we aim to affect positive collective change one individual at a time on the way to greater collective change.
Do you feel like you don’t have a vision? Well, then you either don’t have a brand or you’re not thinking big enough. I’ll try to help you think bigger.
Companies exist to make money. But they do that by solving a problem. If they don’t solve a problem, they have no right to exist. We’re going to talk about what problem your brand solves in a later lecture, but it won’t hurt to start thinking about it now and how this can be turned into a brand vision.
For example, one of our clients is an Amazon reseller who sells smartphone accessories and selfie sticks. You’d think it would be hard to cull a vision from that business niche.
But after talking with him about his business strategy, which revolved around high-quality products (because he hated having to deal with returns) at affordable prices (because he didn’t have the cash flow yet to purchase pricy goods), we defined a vision for his brand as follows:
Our vision to help people get the most out of their smartphones by providing them with products where the only thing they’ll ever need to think about is not to forget them.
There you go, that’s a vision.
As a small business owner or startup founder, your brand’s values will likely be the same as your own, so the easiest way to start this step is to write down your own values.
What do you believe in?
What do you stand for?
What do you stand against?
What matters to you?
What are you indifferent to?
What fills you with joy?
What makes you angry?
If all these apply to your brand as well, then those are your brand’s values. If, on the other hand, your brand isn’t actually an extension of yourself, then answer the same questions for your brand.
Here’s an example from the same life coach as earlier:
We believe in quality of life over quantity of possessions. In inclusiveness, sustainability and the greater good. In being true to your heart and following your passion. In freedom from inherited beliefs – about the world and about yourself. In taking positive action. In living and letting live and treating others as you would like them to treat you. In inviting everybody into your world – and allowing yourself to be invited – in the spirit of seeking to understand before being understood. We believe in personal, internal development as the starting point for positive, external change. Most importantly, we believe that everyone has the courage and strength inside them to listen to their heart and let it guide their actions towards a meaningful, purpose-driven life.
That’s a lot of words. Too many. In general, brands do better when they use fewer words to express themselves. That’s why it can take a lot of time to hone in on your brands core beliefs. In the end, for this client, we stuck to the last sentence:
We believe that everyone has the courage and strength inside them to listen to their heart and let it guide their actions towards a meaningful, purpose-driven life.
On the other end of the spectrum, and to show you that every brand has values it believes in, for the Amazon reseller we defined the brand’s values as:
A seamless and simple user experience from design to functionality at an affordable price that doesn’t sacrifice quality.
Every brand has a reason driving it. A mission. And it’s not making. Making money is a commercial by-product of a brand’s mission to solve a particular problem for people.
That’s because if you’re only reason is to make money, then you don’t really have a brand, you have a commodity that, to use the economic term, fungible. That is, it’s the same no matter who the provider is.
So, unless you have a monopoly on an in-demand product or service, you have no competitive edge. No reason why people should choose you over anyone else.
With this in mind, ask yourself, what’s your brand’s purpose? Why does it exist? What do you want it to achieve? Here’s an example of how we defined the purpose for one of our clients who provides presentation training courses:
Our mission is to help people at any level of business shed their fear of public speaking, to speak confidently and authentically in front of an audience and to use that skill to motivate action.
Your brand’s promise is the central promise it makes to its customers. One of the most iconic examples of that is Apple’s promise. “It just works.”
Your promise is the one thing people expect when using your brand and what they’ll love about your brand. It’s also the one thing they’ll get angry about if it’s not true or if your brand stops living up to its promise.
So, think about a promise you can deliver on that will make people want it. Again, this is very much reflected in the core problem your brand solves for people.
This is how we initially expressed the promise for the same client who provides presentation training courses:
Through our training, our students will learn to speak in public in a way that affects tangible change in their lives as a result of increased confidence, improved work performance and favorable impressions from clients, colleagues and bosses.
But that’s a bit wordy, so in the end we summarized this as:
Speak with power, confidence and ease.
Now that’s a promise.
This one is pretty straight-forward. What emotions do you want your brand to evoke in people? For the public speaking coach, we decided on:
Confidence. Control. Mastery.
For the life coach, we decided on:
Clarity. Commitment. Confidence. Serenity. Authenticity. Joy. Purpose.
Give it a shot.
Write down all the emotions you yourself would associate with your brand, then go through the list and cross out all the ones that seem vague or not quite on point. Use a thesaurus if you need to.
If you already have an existing product or service, ask your customers what emotions they associate with it. On the other hand, if you’re still in the process of building something, ask your colleagues, friends, family.
An extension of this is the perception you want people to have of your brand. Rather than the emotion your brand evokes, this is the adjectives you want them to use in describing your brand to someone who doesn’t know it.
Car brands are great for understanding this, since these days all cars are pretty much the same. For example, Mercedes is viewed as an elegant, conservative luxury car. BMW is known for its handling and engineering, even though they’re about the same as Mercedes. VW is the people’s car. Volvo is the safe car, but now also the luxury car. The list goes on.
For our presentation coach, we came up with the following:
We are the regular guy, the everyman. Like you, we learned our craft through hard work and practice, through success and failure, through making ourselves vulnerable in front of a crowd and shedding our fear. We are you.
Now do it for your own brand.
This final part of step one starts to look at your brand visually, since that’s how so much of it will be communicated.
To create a mood board, do an image search on Google or on a high-quality stock photo service like Getty Images to find images that represent the feeling associated with your brand.
Here you’re seeing the mood board we came up with for our life coach.
The mood board was inspired by everything we knew about the brand we were building.
Combined, you can see how these images create a distinct image in your mind.
In the end, it was the mood board that lead us to select the main image of the campaign, shown below.
We felt this image captured everything we wanted to say: The serenity of the water, the spirit of seeking by heading out into the ocean, the confidence and calm of the surfer balanced by the mild turbulence of the waves.
This was the core of the brand.
Ok, so now we’ve gone through the first step of building your small business or startup brand.
This part may seem esoteric, but go through the workbook. You’ll find that working through the questions and thinking deeply about your brand will focus it in your mind and bring essential clarity.