The 3 essential elements of a rock-solid brand

Over the years, we’ve found that there are three foundational elements to almost any brand: purpose, values, and style.

Brand purpose

Research cited in Built to Last (by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras) indicates that purpose-driven companies can outperform the general market by a 15 to 1 ratio.

That’s a lot.

There’s a reason your company was founded. There’s a reason why you’re in the industry you’re in. There’s a reason why you’re not working for someone else. You need to dig deep, and find out what those reasons really are.

And you can safely skip all the corporate mumbo-jumbo that may be coming to mind on your first attempt. Your purpose isn’t “providing customer satisfaction” or “increasing shareholder value” or anything along those lines. It’s just not. Those are things you feel like you have to say because of pressure from other people, but they’re not the real reason.

And the desire to make money alone isn’t enough to build a brand purpose either. As Peter Drucker once put it, “Profit isn’t the purpose of a business, but rather a test of its validity.”

So dig in, and get honest with yourself. Why are you really in this business? Why does this matter to you? Why should anyone actually care?

“Why does this matter to you? Why should anyone actually care?”

Once you know that, you’ve got the kernel of a real brand. And if you don’t have a good answer…well, just remember that those who do have an answer may be outperforming your company 15 to 1.

Brand values

Once you know your purpose, the next step is to identify the 3-5 brand values that will guide your company from the inside, and (through the clarity this internal alignment will bring) help people on the outside understand what you’re all about.

Your value keywords will typically be abstract nouns, like “authenticity” or “simplicity” or “self-sufficiency.”

Some quick guidelines for identifying your values:

  • Skip the defaults.
  • Focus. You can’t have 6 or 8 or 12 values. Keep it to five or less. Even five may be too many. (Any more, and you can’t remember them well enough to live by them.)
  • Ignore what people want to hear. This is for you. This has to be real. You can’t fake your values.
  • It may help to contrast them with your “unvalues,” the ideas you’re actually trying to get away from.
  • You may also want to extend your brand values into a “brand manifesto,” which includes specific statements of belief derived from the values.

Once you’ve identified your values, you should be able to measure absolutely everything your company does against those values. If something is contrary to those values, or compromises them in some way, get rid of it. Your values are your guides. Trust that they know the way better than you do, and rigorously align your company behind them.

Brand style

With your values established, you can now begin identifying the observable characteristics of your brand through style keywords.

Brand style keywords are typically adjectives that describe your brand’s personality and character as it would be observed by others. As with brand values, you’ll want to keep your brand style to about 3-5 keywords. Fewer will result in a shallow brand, and more will result in an unfocused brand.

If you’ve ever played the game Apples to Apples, you may recall that it has a big deck of adjectives. We sometimes use this deck with our clients to help identify the keywords that best reflect their brand style. It’s worth giving it a shot if you’re not coming up with great ideas off the top of your head.

As with the brand values, you’ll want to be careful to avoid the “defaults,” the obvious answers everyone wants to put. Remember that you’re trying to figure out what makes your brand really unique, so try to find the keywords that really set you apart.

Putting it all together

With your purpose, values, and style established as an interconnected unit, you’ve got the foundation of your brand established in a solid and stable way.

This process is way more complicated than it sounds, and we’ve developed a lot of specific insights and processes over the years that help us work through these elements with clients, but it’s still something you can make good progress with on your own.

Either way, taking the time to really think deeply about these three foundational elements of your brand (and deliberately deriving the verbal, visual, and other aspects of your brand from them) will make a profound difference in the clarity and focus of your brand as a whole.

“…taking the time to really think deeply about these three foundational elements of your brand will make a profound difference in the clarity and focus of your brand as a whole.”

And by aligning yourself and your staff behind the purpose, values, and style of your company, you’ll find that the way you do business begins to change as well. When the internal operations of your business are genuinely in sync with the customer-facing parts, you’ll find that everything works smoother, and your customers will feel more confident and connected to your brand overall.

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The 3 essential elements of a rock-solid brand
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Why your purpose, values, and style actually matter.
Forty's founder and CEO started out as user experience designer, but these days he spends his time leading our team to greatness. Outside of Forty, he regularly speaks at industry conferences and workshops, and writes frequently about the intersection of design and business. Meet James Archer ›