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 set of company core 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’re what make you different from everyone else. Branding consultant Robert Bean 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 to be explicit about your values. This means 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 three or four – 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 few that matter most.
Company values vs brand values
You might wonder, are we talking about internal company values or brand values? Or 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 a small team, there's very little difference between the company culture and its values. Company values in a startup are never far away from the values of the founding team.
Values drive behaviours
Behaviours start with the CEO. The CEO has a huge influence on a business’s culture, especially so in the early stages of a startup. This extends to the rest of the team, and the culture is the sum of the behaviours of 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 and drive your service standards. They're at the core of everything that you do. It's worth being quite explicit about what they are.
- Values lead to behaviours
- Behaviours drive culture
- Culture influences communications, service and product
Beware: if you describe company values contrary to how the CEO behaves, you risk your company being a fraud and hypocrite. In a startup, the founder's values are fundamental to company 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 three things and you'll be in a good place to start thinking of relevant words.
1. Create a mood board
Sometimes pictures say things you know are true but you can't explain. Creating a mood board of anything that fits with your brand is a great place to start, and help to create company-value examples. This could be logos of other companies, or 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 relevant quotes, slogans or sayings. When you've got a mood board, find the adjectives that describe the pictures, people and scenes. Write them down and keep ones that feel right for your brand. Here's an example of a mood board from luxury villa supplier Edge Retreats.
2.Choose an archetype
Archetypes are characters 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 behaviour from archetypes. A ruler is different from a jester. A hero is different from a magician. This excellent brand archetypes exercise by Forty.co will help you decide which archetype your brand represents. You may find you need more than one. Imagine real-life or fictitious characters that represent your archetype, such as Sir Edmund Hillary or Indiana Jones (explorer), and Che Guevara or Jack Sparrow (rebel). Describe these people and start collecting the adjectives you use. Keep any that feel right. When Edge Retreats did this exercise they identified with two: explorer and ruler.
3. Review your customer interviews
Look back at your customer interviews. Find your interview notes and strip out all the adjectives that you can find, then list them out or make a word cloud. This will help you quickly see 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 team. Have everyone review the mood board, archetypes and word cloud. Ask everyone to start writing on Post-its as many words 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), put them on a wall and cluster them where there is some commonality. Have a discussion about why you chose the words you suggested. Search for other words even closer to the true meaning you're trying to elicit using a thesaurus. Discard words that don't fit and aim for a shortlist of words that start to describe what your brand is all about. Be original. It's too easy to use words like ‘honest, value, helpful, authentic’. Too obvious, 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’.
Only choose three or four words
The difficult task is to get down to three or four – any more and you won't remember them. It's the process of reduction that gives meaning. If you described your best friend you could probably do it with four adjectives. You can do the same with a brand. Edge Retreats chose "Exceptional. Unequalled. Seamless." (other words on their shortlist they discarded were ‘refined’, ‘attentive’, ‘courageous’).
Why are company values important?
Your company values provide a reference point for decisions you make and how you act with your customers. Refer to them constantly when you make decisions on your product, your emails, social-media updates, job ads and PPC ads. They can even shape your office space, hiring, colour palette and 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 about being consistent in how you are perceived by your customers. Be prepared to revisit your values as you learn more about your customers and how they see you. Your company 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 sees. You will be judged not on what you think but on what you do. If you and your team agree on your company values you've got a better chance of your customers receiving a consistent experience. And it's consistency that builds a brand.