Studio Ostendo operates in multiple creative fields including photography, design, and education.
Your brand core drives everything your brand does, from how you design your letterhead and website to how you treat customers and employees. In this guide, we’ll show you how to dig deep into your brand core in order to reveal it to the world so you can build a brand for growth. All the best branding agencies do this in some form or other, usually called a discovery phase, design research, phase, or similar.
First, let’s talk about finding your brand core and the four elements of it: Purpose, Vision, Mission, and Values.
Too often when people talk about a “brand,” they’re referring to a single mark (or logo) imprinted on something to identify the person or business that made it. Historically this began as a trademark for European Kings’ armies or the work of blacksmiths, then gained popularity in America by labeling livestock with a brand (which I have personally done on my grandfather’s homestead).
But a brand is more than a physical imprint. A brand leaves an emotional mark—an emotional experience that is strengthened or weakened through every interaction with a business. Therefore, your brand really lives in the minds of people.
A brand is what people think, feel, and say about your business. Note that branding is not marketing, which is what you say about your business.
Delivering positive and consistent messages that enhance the emotional experience of your customers is how you build a strong brand. The more you’re able to reiterate and deliver that kind of experience, the more people rely on you and trust you. Trust is the ultimate reason customers return to their favorite brands time and time again. Humans crave the familiar, whether it’s the comfort of a favorite restaurant, the smell of walking into a Starbucks, or the feel of a new pair of Nikes.
In today’s markets, curating this emotional experience is key to every brand’s survival. It’s what compels people to choose you over your competitors. Of course, we have to answer how you curate such a brand connection.
As you might know, you can’t force trust on anyone. People’s feelings are based on their perceptions and judgments of your brand’s most basic attributes, such as:
We call this your Brand Core, comprised of your purpose, mission, vision, and values.
Your tone of writing, tone of voice, personality, messaging, and so on.
This is your entire visual identity. Everything from the basics of your logo, colors, and typography, to things like your packaging, interior designs, and employee uniforms.
While you’ll never be able to control exactly how people perceive you, you can represent yourself authentically and consistently in each area of your brand. The better you do this, the more likely people are to understand and connect with you which in turn makes your brand easier to trust.
“Mass advertising can help build brands, but authenticity is what makes them last. If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.” —Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks.
Unfortunately, this is why so many businesses struggle. Many organizations are filled with people who know what they are doing but aren’t clear on who they are as a company. That makes it challenging for every employee to communicate what the brand is, what sets it apart, and how they connect with their customers.
To best avoid this, align your beliefs and actions to create a consistent brand experience, and develop a Brand Strategy.
A brand strategy is a plan of action that helps businesses present themselves to the world authentically and consistently. Our process consists of three main components:
The core of your brand is your mission, vision, values, and purpose. These things answer why you exist, how you do what you do (the approach), and what it is that you do.
The way you talk about your brand is your brand messaging. It’s also what you talk about, how you talk about it, and why you do it. Plus, your brand messaging is influenced by your tone of writing, voice, and messaging pillars.
The look of your brand is your brand’s visual identity. Things like colors, logos, typographic systems, and so forth.
A strong brand strategy can provide many advantages that align with your business goals, such as cultivating an emotional connection with customers, increasing the likelihood those people talk positively about your brand, and ultimately building trust and growing your brand supporters.
Fortunately, if you already have a business, you already have a brand. Unfortunately, that can mean both positive and negative perceptions to overcome. Identifying and documenting brand elements intentionally can help ensure everyone who is part of your team and network know who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. This helps you communicate clearly and authentically along every touchpoint of your brand, building trust and loyalty.
Of course, many businesses don’t have a proper brand strategy if they have one at all. There may be certain elements documented, but not a comprehensive brand strategy on paper. If you’re in this boat, don’t be too hard on yourself. We’re here to help you get on track—whether its your first time crafting a brand strategy or your first time doing one the “right” way.
In this article and series of exercises, we’ll guide you through the first and most important part of every brand strategy: uncovering and naming your brand core. This process allows you to clearly articulate who you are, what you do, and why that matters to the world. Think of it as a blueprint to a healthy, thriving brand, and a lens through which to view the world.
Digging into your Brand Core isn’t always an easy task, but it is a necessary one. It requires a plan, patience, and focus, and is oftentimes easier with a guide. If you’re ready to dive in, let’s get started.
Every brand that’s worth knowing is rooted in a set of beliefs and principles that drive it forward and influence everything they do. These principles and beliefs are your Brand Core. Knowing what these core principles are and why they matter becomes your rock in great times and tough times and is an anchoring force in the success of your brand.
Why do you exist as a company?
What principles guide your behavior? How do you do what you do?
What are you here to do? How do you create that future?
What future do you want to help create? What does the future look like?
The elements of your Brand Core come in an intentional order, working from the center of “why?” outwards through “how?”, “what?”, and “so what/now what?”. This makes articulating your Brand Core sequential and logical.
Combined, you can see why we call it a “Brand Core” and how it gives you the foundation you need.
When facing a fork in the road or a challenging business decision your Brand Core functions as your North Star, guiding you in the right direction. Operating with your Purpose, Values, Mission, and Vision front and center cultivate trust, keeping you accountable to the people you work with as well as for. They know what kind of decisions you’re likely to make based on your Brand Core.
Communicating your beliefs and wearing your heart on your sleeve authentically helps you connect with and attract like-minded people who share your ideals. In a competitive market, these deep, long-lasting relationships are crucial to your long-term success.
When employees know that the bus they’re on is headed in a direction they align with, they’re more collaborative, committed, and engaged. Such a culture creates a healthier work environment that in turn helps you attract and retain the talented people you want. The cycle begins to complete itself.
Ultimately, your Brand Core is a powerful tool to align every aspect of your business, from your product and service offerings to the content you create and the relationships you cultivate. Remember, the stronger your Brand Core, the better equipped you are to build a strong, trustworthy brand.
Every brand strategy should be in alignment with the business strategy—those two are on inseparable trajectories. Generally speaking, this article was written for people already operating a business, not starting a new one. If, however, you are starting a new business and looking to develop a brand strategy, it’s a great time to do so. In fact, it may save you time, effort, and heartache to set your brand strategy early, but is also useful to learn from an existing business strategy that answers, through experience, a few foundational questions:
For more useful questions, check out the Strategy Choice Cascade model outlined in the Harvard Business Review.
Having helped dozens of brands dig down to their Brand Core, we’ve developed a step-by-step guide to digging down to yours. By the end, you’ll have a fully formed Brand Core put into language that everyone can understand.
Note: Some companies may already have a version of these elements documented in which case the work of creating or updating your thinking is about recreating, refining, and sharpening your brand intentions. And it’s worth it.
Follow the designated hierarchy and order. While we use terms like Purpose, Vision, Mission, and Values, we follow the skeleton of Start with Why, by Simon Sinek. We’ve not only proved these models with multiple business brands but also guided some of the most successful designers through the process as well. We dig down deep to figure out what drives you, understand how that informs how you do what you do, and form what it is that you do. Then, what all of that means to the world outside your business, ie. what that means to your customers.
The bottom line is: be faithful to the process and trust its course. You’ll be better because of it.
There may be a place for multi-page mission statements, but not in how you communicate them. Try to distill each message into a sentence or two using simple, succinct language that is repeatable and memorable.
Depending on your organization, scheduling time for this type of work can be a challenge—but it's crucial for stakeholders to feel invested in the process. Think of this kind of work as an investment that will give you greater returns on all your business efforts in the future. What would an extra 10% do for your growth in six months? What about an exponential boost over the next five years? That’s the power a great brand strategy has.
More time invested means for better work, which makes it easier to get buy-in when it comes time to share your Brand Core with the rest of your organization. The amount of time you need depends on a number of variables, such as how large and how mature the business is, how many stakeholders are required, etc. It may take several days to several months to work through these elements.
Most importantly, remember: This is deep work. Undertake it when your whole team can devote time, or hire someone who can help you make time for it.
Start with our free workbook, seriously. It includes forms, templates, and guidance for each element.
This is the team that will discuss, identify, and articulates each element of your Brand Core. If you need help figuring out who should be involved, check out this article on How to Create Your Brand Team.
It can be difficult to host group sessions where everyone has the same weight of voice and opinion. The best way to overcome strong personalities that might dominate a conversation is to have each person write down their thoughts before anyone shares theirs with the group. This approach allows everyone to devote individual, focused time to the task at hand.
Once stakeholders have completed their own Brand Core Workbook, then open the session to the conversation. You can ask specific members what they wrote down, why they did so, and how that fits into what others are saying. This ensures that the loudest person isn’t the one who rogers their way, but group members are each able to share their thoughts.
If you haven’t already, gather everyone together to review group submissions. These peer-review sessions create space for a healthy discussion and allow you to see themes that underpin each Brand Core element.
With everyones answers written down and discussed, it’s time to take the overlapping themes and create a single, unified statement. Take your time on this step because everyone should agree on the messaging, phrasing, and careful word choice. Throughout the process, continue digging and asking questions like my curious 4-year-old niece asking: Why? Why? Why? That helps you get to the core.
With a completed Brand Core, it’s time to present it to everyone. It’s especially meaningful if leadership does this during a company-wide Town Hall meeting. That way you can provide context and background, answer questions, and ensure that everyone both understands the Brand Core and feels empowered by it.
With a fully articulated Brand Core, your can start aligning your business and brand at every touchpoint. A few great ways to get started include the following.
You Brand Core should be located somewhere that’s easily accessible to each stakeholder. Include it in your documented brand strategy as part of your brand messaging and visual identity. If you have a campus or office space, installing your Brand Core on the walls is a great way to keep it front and center.
While its smart to share your Brand Core internally first, you’ll also need to translate it into outward-facing communications. Some places to start are on your website, in your content marketing, and even a press release if your company is large enough to warrant one.
On the tails of a press release tip, sharing your Brand Core publicly is a way to claim your messaging and sets the tone for your organization’s accountability. Steve Jobs did a wonderful job for years telling the public the Brand Core of Apple, and that helped fortify the quality and caliber of products they produced. It may be intimidating, but announcing your Brand Core publicly is a necessary gesture of goodwill for both your employees and supporters of your brand.
There may be existing programs and initiatives that prove your Brand Core, but it’s important to walk the walk where you can. Whether its promoting a volunteer opportunity, offering a new student scholarship, or initiating a refined employee training program, there are countless ways to align your brand beliefs and actions.
Remember that your brand is built up of people’s perception of you in their minds, which you can’t always change. By following your Brand Core, however, you can be confident that you’re leading with your best and most gravitational qualities giving you the best chance for success.
And if you get stuck or need someone there to guide you through the process, hit us up. We’d love to help you tell your brand story in any capacity.