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What's Your Core Value?

Val·​ue: something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable -- Merriam-Webster

Jarie Bolander
Jarie Bolander

When Sutro first started out, we went down the standard pool industry road -- kitschy bright colors with a hawaiian shirt pool party vibe. There is nothing wrong with this approach considering the biggest brands in the pool and spa industry use them. For Sutro, something felt off like we were trying too hard to be something we’re not.

Don’t get us wrong. We love a good pool party but the standard playbook of bright colors, smiling faces of kids splashing in the pool, hamburgers on the grill, and a Bud Lite in your hand did not fully capture what we were looking for.

We were building a sophisticated water testing robot (kinda like a Roomba but for your pool) and it felt strangely awkward and out of place to splash a rainbow across it and have some cute cartoon character fish pitch this high tech, premium, water testing robot.

Essentially, we found that our values were not aligned with the message we were putting out there. If you don’t think your values match, neither will your prospects.

That revelation started us on a journey from the traditional pool party to what we later called Posh Party, which aligned to our values a lot more.

So what’s all this about values and more specifically, a core value. Well, like a lot of things, it’s about the story you tell yourself and the story you want others to hear. In order to get your story straight, you need to settle on core value. Let’s look at what a value is:

Val·​ue: something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable -- Merriam-Webster

The way we are defining a core value is that it takes a person from the negative aspect of the value to the positive aspect. This value shift is what makes a story, a story since stories are all about change (you’ll hear us say that a lot).

For example, if your core value is Performance, you’ll want people to feel that they are lacking in Performance first (the negative) and that your brand will give them better performance (the positive) with the ultimate feeling of being honored by others.

Don’t Disappoint the Reader (or Prospect)

The concept of a story value shift comes from Story Grid. Specifically, it relates to the Content Genre of the story you’re reading (or writing).

For a story, it’s vital to pick a single external and internal Content Genre so that your story does not confuse the reader. The reason for this is that readers expect certain conventions and obligatory scenes within a story. If they don’t read those conventions and obligatory scenes, they get confused or lose interest quickly. The same can be said for brands -- customers expect certain requirements depending on the type of product or service you’re trying to sell them. It’s vital that those requirements be met and consistent across your brand or sales will suffer.

Introducing Core Values for Brands

The genius of Story Grid is the ability to evaluate a story to see if it works. What we mean by works is that it satisfies the reader or rather fulfills the reader’s expectation. The same satisfaction is what prospects, customers, and advocates are after as well. It may not seem obvious yet but the brands that consistently deliver their story, aligned to their values, backed up by great products, will always satisfy. As soon as they stray from the path, trouble happens. Nokia is a great example of this.

Nokia dominated the cellphone market in the 1990’s as cell phones started to grow in popularity. In 2003, the Nokia 1100 became the best selling smartphone of all time and in 2007, the year Apple introduced the iPhone, half of all smartphones were Nokia while Apple barely had 5% of the market. Nokia’s core value of performance was clear as well as one of status (for customers) since Nokia was the phone to have. So what happened when barely 6 years later, it would see it’s value decline by 90% and eventually be bought by Microsoft in 2013.

Core Values Matter

The best analysis of what went wrong was done by Insead and it highlights the importance of a brand's core value and why core values should not be strayed from. The key takeaway from the report as to Nokia’s demise was summarized as follows:

“Nokia’s culture of status has led to an atmosphere of shared fear which influenced how employees were interacting with each other. The human factor was added to economic and structural factors and together they have generated a state of “temporal myopia” that hindered Nokia’s ability to innovate. Employees stated that top managers and directors were no longer abiding by Nokia’s core values of Respect, Challenge, Achievement and Renewal. This [Insead] study points out the paramount importance of shared emotions among employees and their powerful impact on the company’s competitiveness.”

Notice that their “culture of status” was a big driving force away from their core values of Respect, Challenge, Achievement and Renewal. While a brand wants its customers to have Status, having a culture of status derailed Nokia's clear Performance Brand Core Value.

Brand Core Values

Nokia strayed from its internal core values as well as its Brand Core Value. That led to its demise. That’s why it’s important to not only understand what your BCV is but also be consistent with its application across all of your communications. That’s why we came up with ten BCVs to help with the process. The BCVs are rooted in Story Grid Genres because not only has Story Grid done a fantastic job of understanding how to tell if a story works, they have also quantified the process in a way that we’re going to borrow heavily from.

A brief look at the ten BCV’s is provided below. These were chosen based on research we did using Machine Learning on the top brands according to Forbes.

We’ll dig into each one separately and also focus more on the most common ones first Each BCV has a name and then the value spectrum that it goes between from negative (left) to positive (right).

There are nine total states that range from -4 (most negative value) to +4 (most positive value) for each BCV that correspond to each micro-stage in the story funnel. This is done to quantify the effort to go from stage to stage. It’s also done so that the message at each stage can be focused on what value to overcome (negative) or value to demonstrate (positive).

Below is a brief summary of the ten core values with their most negative and most positive values.

  1. Performance -- Self-Shame to Honored
  2. Status -- Insignificance to Prestige
  3. Merriment -- Despair to Wonder
  4. Humanity -- Damnation to Transcendence
  5. Equality -- Tyranny to Liberty
  6. Worldview -- Idiocy to Wisdom
  7. Morality -- Selfishness to Self-Sacrifice
  8. Love -- Enmity to Intimacy
  9. Belonging -- Impotence to Well-being
  10. Cowboy -- Slavery to Freedom

Each one of these BCVs is meant to give you a way to craft your communications across all channels. The range of values given is how you want your prospects, customer, or advocates to feel, or rather you want them to go from negative without your product to positive with it as they progress through the story funnel.

Of course, that can’t always happen so each BCV has a spectrum of values that a prospect, customer, or advocate can be on. We’re going to start with the most common BCVs and then go over the rest of the list.

The Most Common Brand Core Values

It will come as no surprise to anyone that most brands (actually well-known brands) have common values. This is especially true for the top brands in the world (see the Forbes list of the top 100 most valuable brands). As you’ll see in a second, BCVs of performance, status, merriment, and humanity (or rather that they care about it) all tend to be what brands strive to convince their prospects, customers, and advocates they can deliver on.

One thing to note before we dive into these. BCVs are external centric or rather how the brand moves people from the negative of the value to the positive of the value. This is important since a lot of brands tend to focus on what they do as opposed to how they bring people along the value spectrum.

By focusing on how your brand moves people along the value spectrum, you’ll see how your messaging needs to be crafted to remain consistent across the story funnel as well as how it might need to shift its focus or persuasion technique.

Below is a brief summary of each and a more detailed discussion will follow in separate posts for each one (which we’ll link too when done).

Performance

A Performance brand makes you better or rather allows you to perform at a higher level because you used the product or service. This performance boost can be real or perceived, especially if it’s also a strong Status brand.

The spectrum of values goes from Self-Shame, Shame, Mediocre, Incompetent, Unskilled,Flawed, Competent, Productive, and Honored.

If we look at the extremes of the values, Self-Shame to Honored, we’ll see that at Self-Shame, the lowest point, a person is either cheating to perform better and knows it. While at the most positive, Honored, a person is looked up too and honored for their performance.

To use a sports analogy, Tanya Harding is the most negative (Self-Shame) while Michael Jordan would be the most positive (Honored).

Examples: Intel, Cisco, FedEx, Ford, Chevy, and Adobe

Status

A Status brand gives you higher social status. When you wear or use the product or service you tell the world “look at me.” There are always cheaper alternatives to what a status brand can accomplish (e.g. Rolex for telling time). Usually, there is some aspect of Performance with a Status brand but it’s usually not logical but rather emotional.

The spectrum of values goes from Insignificance, Disrespect , Failure, Defeat, Average Win, Success, Respect, and Prestige.

Notice that status has the aspects of win and success (mostly short term) while Performance is about mastery (or long term). The difference between Status and Performance gets blurry as you go more positive. The net is you can have status without performance.

As an example, Blockbuster (Insignificance) would be a company that lacks status while Rolex (Prestige) would be the most positive status.

Examples: Nike, Hermes, Loreal, Louis Vitton, and Rolex

Merriment

A Merriment brand makes you feel good. It’s soul purpose is to give you that little dopamine hit that makes you smile. The feeling is usually temporary, which makes these brands addictive to a certain extent.

The spectrum of values goes from Despair, Misery, Agony, Sadness, Contentment Cheer, Happiness, Joy, and Wonder.

It’s hard to give a good example of the negative of Merriment without getting too dark. Of course, there are varying degrees of Despair, depending on the context. Usually for a Merriment brand, Despair has to do with your hopes being dashed by the same old same old or status quo.

For a kid, that might mean instead of going to McDonalds (Joy/Wonder) that mom makes a greasy burger on Wonder Bread at home (Despair). We know, that might not seem like a whole lot of Despair, but the nature of a Merriment brand is the quick hit of dopamine or the surprise of braking out of the status quo to feel some joy or wonder.

Examples: Corona, Disney, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, and Netflix

Humanity

A Humanity brand deals with the health and wellness of the world and the people and things within it. Humanity brands are for the common good and want to leave the world a better place, usually by making the lives of people better.

The spectrum of values range from Damnation, Death, Sickness, Danger, Exist, Safety Health , Life, and Transcendence.

Organizations like The Red Cross do a great job of showing the complete spectrum of Humanity. Brands that do Humanity well are ones that stand the test of time for their efforts to protect people and the planet.

Examples: The Red Cross, Doctors without Borders,  and Kaiser Permanente

The Rest of Them

Equality

An Equality brand wants to turn Tyranny (most negative) to Liberty (most positive). These brands usually work in the nonprofit sector trying to right the wrongs of the world.

The spectrum of values goes from Tyranny, Injustice, Unfairness, Endangerment, Safe, Security, Fairness, Justice, and Liberty.

While lots of for profit brands might have equality as well as humanity themes in their messaging, it’s usually not their primary or secondary core value. The reason being that equality can be in direct conflict with making a profit since there will always be those that cannot afford a product or service.

Equality brands also take a stand on issues that might divide communities. Black Lives Matter is a perfect example of this.

Examples: Black Lives Matter and  ACLU

Worldview

A Worldview brand wants to impart knowledge and/or change your mind. Usually, this knowledge is used to better perform a task or switch attitudes about a topic. A Worldview brand can be paired with Performance or Morality, depending on the end game (e.g. one of profit or changing society).

The spectrum of values goes from Idiocy, Ignorance, Disillusionment, Naivete Uneducated, Facts, Dissonance, Knowledge, and Wisdom.

A Worldview core value is usually a secondary value since imparting knowledge is only one part of a brands goal. The second part is to use the knowledge to do something. In the case of for profit brands, it’s to win business (or keep it). For nonprofits, it can be to change society but also raise funds to change said society. Institutions of higher learning align the best to Worldview.

Examples: Harvard, Stanford, Khan Academy, and Story Grid

Morality

A Morality brand wants to convince people that they are the path to a moral life or society. Since morality can be subjective (or at least appear so), brands that champion morality usually have a competing ideology to battle against.

The spectrum of values ranges from Selfishness, Egoism, Greed, Opposition, Apathetic, Support, Charity, Humility, and Self-Sacrifice.

Examples: Catholic Church

Love

Brands with a core value of Love are all about fostering romantic relationships. This is different from platonic love or love of one's country in that the ultimate goal is an intimate relationship between people.

The spectrum of values ranges from Enmity, Indifference, Hate, Repulsion, Ignorance Attraction, Desire, Commitment, and Intimacy. These core values follow exactly what a love story (both fictional and nonfictional) would go through.

Brands that have a Love core value usually have it as a secondary one since Love itself does not drive a business. Rather, they usually make it easier to find love or meet people.

Examples: eHarmoney, Coffee Meets Bagel, and matchmakers

Belonging

A belonging brand wants people to be with a certain tribe or group. Being in the “in crowd” usually means there is an “out crowd”. Belonging is usually paired with Status or Morality but it does not need to be.

The spectrum of values ranges from Impotence, Unwellness, Irresponsibility, Disregard Status Quo, Duty, Vulnerability, Advantage, and Well-being.

Examples: Facebook, Starbucks, Instagram, TikTok

Cowboy

A cowboy brand goes against the status quo and strives to build an independent life that completes them. It bucks convention and does not care what other people think. It has aspects of belonging but only as part of a group that does not want to be told what to do. These brands are usually part of the Merchants of Death (MOD) squad -- Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. These brands also pair with Merriment if they focus more on the joy of the brand as opposed to freedom to do what you want.

The spectrum of values ranges from Slavery, Subjugation, Restraint, Naive, Innocuous, Aware, Candor, Autonomy, and Freedom.

Examples: Marlboro, Smith & Wesson, and Juul.

How Come Only Ten?

It might seem a little bit limiting to only have ten core values to choose from. Some might even say that we missed whole categories of brands or that brands can have multiple core values -- just look at [Brand Name Here]. Certainly that can be the case but that’s not the point.

What we’re trying to do is narrow the messaging and focus to the core of what your brand stands for. Sure, you, your company, and your products can stand for many, many things. The issue arises when you try to become all things, to all people. That’s a recipe for an unfocused, word salad disaster of a communications strategy.

The whole point of limiting the choices to ten with a strong preference for only a primary is to get you to make a choice for what you stand for and focus on that. Once you do that really, really well, then you can stray a tiny bit to talk about your sustainability plans, your social corporate responsibility, or how you support orphans in Africa.

Five Steps to Pick Your Brand Core Value

It’s important to pick your BC as soon as possible in your development process or your messaging will be disjointed. A lot of times, you’ll end up picking multiple core values since your brand probably stands for several different things (like sustainability or equality, etc).

While that might seem like a good idea, it’s not. You should focus on the top one or two BCVs that you want to lead all of your communications with. These, like your Big Idea (which we’ll talk about soon), are the tip of your communications spear and should be the main values your brand stands for in relation to helping customers solve their pain. The other values, while important, should not cloud the message.

The process below will help you find your BCV’s. You and your team should do this independently and then come together to see where the overlaps are. Again, it will be tempting to “be all things to all people” -- resist that temptation if at all possible. It will muddle your story and make it impossible to focus on what your BCV really is.

Step #1: Write Down up to 10 words that describe your brand

Use as many simple to understand words as possible. Resist the temptation to use buzzwords if at all possible. Focus on words that are value words. It’s perfectly fine to use some of the words from the BCV’s above but don’t limit yourself to those.

You can also use descriptive words if that will help. Words like innovative or caring or agile. Be free with this and if you write more than ten words great but strive for at least ten. Think of these as keywords or hashtags for a social post if that helps.

Sutro Example: water testing, simple, safe, seamless, automation, robot, measurement, monitoring, treatment recommendations, premium, ecosystem, pride, perfect, posh, and beautiful design

Step #2: What other brands or companies do you aspire to or compete against?

List the brands or companies that you either aspire to be or compete against. While we don’t recommend copying a brand or company, there is a lot of valuable insights that can be gained by those companies that you measure yourself against.

We also have done several Brand Story Guides (BSGs) for some of the top brands. We’re going to do more as time goes on so if you have one you’d like us to do, let us know.

These examples, we hope, will help you through the process of picking your own and eventually crafting your own Brand Story Guide (which we’ll get to later on).

Sutro Example: Tesla, Nest, Roomba, Molekule, and Dyson

Step #3: When you think of your product or service, how does it make people feel?

Feelings or emotions are an important part of a BCV. We want these feelings to move our prospects to take action. It’s also vital that you and your team share the same feelings about your product or service. If there is a disconnect between the team, then both the messaging and the actual creation of the product.

Be as free and as honest with this as you can. Don’t hold back even if it seems trivial like you don’t like the logo because it feels too cold or whatever. Try and also write down your gut reaction and don’t filter your emotions. Your initial reaction or gut feel is probably what a lot of others feel and it can make the difference between someone clicking your ad or email or not.

Sutro Example: Proud of my pool, peace of mind that my pool is safe, cutting edge, innovative, and that I can brag to my buddies about my perfect pool water.

Step #4: Pick a couple of core values that align the best. See which of the values might overlap with your question #1 above

Take a look at the core value list, your list of words, and the feelings your brand gives you and pick two or three core values that match up. You can pick more if you feel that it’s appropriate.

Most likely, you won’t have a perfect fit to any one core value. That’s expected since brands are many things. What we’re trying to do is get at the core of your brand.

Sutro Example: Performance, Status, Merriment, and Humanity.

Step #5: Pick a primary and secondary core value

At this point, you should have a pretty good idea as to what your core values should be. There might be several and that’s okay. For this step, you need to pick a primary and a secondary core value. It’s important that you pick only two (ideally one) at this stage because we will use them to focus your message as we move along the story funnel.

This will be hard to do and it should be. It’s important to focus on these two core values and not muddle your messaging with too many conflicting values. This does not mean that you brand cannot stand for more than these two but the core of your brand has to communicate these values exceptionally well or your message will get lost in the noise.

The primary core value should be what you Lede with on all your communications while the secondary core value enhances the primary. Ideally, you would not need the secondary core value but as we have seen with researching these core values, there are strong ties between them that will help your message resonate with people.

Sutro Example: While Sutro has grand aspirations to fix the world's water, right now, we are more about making pool owners perform better so they have more status among their family and friends.

Primary Core Value: Performance

Secondary Core Value: Status

Why a Core Value Focuses the Message

As we mentioned above, a core value focuses the message of your brand. This focus is vital to getting above the noise. Focus will allow you and your team to write clear, concise, and compelling messages about your brand so that it’s consistent across all of your communications channels.

This consistency of message is essential to building a great brand. Think of some of the most iconic brands that you know. Do the same exercise as above on them. Chances are that you’ll see a focus on one or two core values that define them. This focus “on brand” as marketing likes to say, is one of the reasons you remember them and they are at the top of their game.

Aligning the Core Value to Your Story

It may seem a bit extreme to harp on this core value idea so much but as we craft your brand’s story, you’ll start to understand why it’s important to align your story to your core value. It not only makes it easier to write copy, create ads, and communicate with customers but it also saves time and money on wild goose chases that are off brand. These wild goose chases, like New Coke, are interesting experiments that usually end up failing precisely because they did not align to the Brand’s Core Value.

What’s the Big Idea?

Next up, we’ll dive into how to figure out your brand’s Big Idea so that as you start building your content, it will not only align to your core value(s) but the Big Idea will be consistent throughout all of your messaging. Think of it as the tip of your communications sword that needs to be finely honed to a sharp edge in order to pierce through all the noise in the world.

Are you ready to sharpen your sword by figuring out your Big Idea?

Hooking ProspectsBrand Core ValueStory FunnelProspectsPathosEmotions

Jarie Bolander

Jarie is an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature with over 25 years of startup experience. He has also written 6 books about business and entrepreneurship.