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United We Brand - Bringing Brand Values Inside

One of the biggest marketing puzzles, surprisingly, is articulating your brand essence inside your own company. In this excerpt from his new book, United We Brand: How to Create a Cohesive Brand That's Seen, Heard, and Remembered, advertising expert Mike Moser has some tips. First, define your unshakeable 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.

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.'
—Mike Moser

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." 5 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. 6 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.

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.

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Mike Moser, Cofounder of Goldberg Moser O'Neill advertising agency, has worked in the industry for over twenty-five years serving a variety of corporations, start-ups, and non-profit organizations.

Are Any of These Your Brand Values?
Positive outlook
Underpromise, overdeliver
The Golden Rule
Sense of urgency
Advanced technology
Customer focus
(Pick your own)


5. Bob Levenson, Bill Bernbach's Book (New York: Villard Books, 1987), 144.

6. Aaker, Building Strong Brands, 138. As an aside, in 1988 when my partner and I were judging "The Show," the annual Minneapolis advertising show, we awarded the Harley-Davidson tattoo ad a gold medal. The visual was a close-up of a Harley tattoo on a beefy man's arm, and the headline read, "When was the last time you felt this strongly about anything?" I love truth in advertising.