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Why You Need to Define Your Brand Values

One of my favorite books of all time is “Frindle” by Andrew Clements.

I first read the book in Mrs. Schmitz’s 4th grade class. Now, Mrs. Schmitz was known throughout the school for her knack for getting kids to fall in love with reading, and the bright red lipstick kiss she’d impart on your cheek when it was your birthday (if you wanted one, of course).

It was winter, just before holiday break, and as we crafted a festive wreath with wire hangers and strips of white garbage bags, Mrs. Schmitz cracked the spine of the newly published “Frindle:” the story of the intelligent troublemaker Nicholas Allen, and the formidable Mrs Granger, his language arts teacher he challenges with his unique use of the English langauge. The book is full of humor and nuance, with a surprisingly heartwrenching (in the good way!) epilogue that leaves me misty-eyed as an adult.

In essence, the book is about how we imbue language with meaning. One of my favorite passages – such a favorite it is that I have a line of it tattooed on my inner arm – goes like this:

“He raised his hand, and he didn’t even wait for Mrs. Granger to call on him. “Yeah, but, you know, I still don’t really get the idea of why words all mean different things. Like, who says that d-o-g means the thing that goes ‘woof’ and wags its tail? Who says so?”

And Mrs. Granger took the bait. “Who says dog means dog? You do, Nicholas. You and me and everyone in this class and this school and this town and this state and this country. We all agree. If we lived in France, we would all agree that the right word for that hairy four-legged creature was a different word chien -it sounds like ‘shee-en,’ but it means what d-o-g means to you and me. And in Germany they say hund, and so on, all around the globe. But if all of us in this room decided to call that creature something else, and if everyone else did, too, then that’s what it would be called, and one day it would be written in the dictionary that way. We decide what goes in that book. ” And she pointed at the giant dictionary. And she looked right at Nick. And she smiled again.”

We imbue language with definition and meaning, and it’s through the specificity of language that we can communicate emotional nuance.

And this is exactly what your values need to communicate to your audience – nuance. 

Identifying your core values isn’t just something you do for your brand designer or copywriter, it’s a foundation of both your brand and your business. Your values are the compass for how you do everything in your business – and you need to excavate the language of your values in order to communicate what it is you really mean when you state a value.

Girlbossification of Values

First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room: there’s been a serious girlbossification of business, particularly with words that express a core value. Corporate values pointed toward a “customer is always right” vibe, while the archetypal girlboss differentiated herself by emphasizing self-actualization.

But without getting into the dissertation that is Girlboss culture and the Online Business Industrial Complex, in many ways this was just exploitation in new heels. 

The result? A lot of great words have lost a lot of their magic. Words like vulnerability, empowerment, authenticity, transformation – all of these words are incredibly powerful words that no longer strike the emotional chord the business intends.

Take authenticity for example: this is a word that communicates a realness, an earnestness, a genuine connection. Yet after hearing about the importance of Being Authentic, being sold two-, three-, four-figure courses on How To Be Authentic Online, and continually feeling strung along, the word leaves a sour taste in many mouths. You want to convey how deeply you value clear and honest communication within your business, but using “authenticity” in your marketing or website isn’t going to land the way you want it to. The power the literal definition holds has been somewhat corroded by its overuse.

Which leads nicely into the crux of defining your core values:

Internal vs External Language

Whether or not you recognize it, you’ve developed a lexicon each for inside your business and outside your business – the language you use behind the scenes, and the language you use in your marketing.

There are obvious instances of internal language – your SOPs, your brand design guidelines, etc – where the language you use is clearly meant for just you (and your team if you have one), not the public at large. Then there are the obvious instances of external language – your web copy, your content marketing, etc – where the language serves a clear purpose in communicating who you are, what you do, and why it matters.

And this is where so many businesses falter with their core values: they skip straight to marketing these values before they’ve defined for themselves what they mean when they say ______.

You need to develop the internal language for how you define your values in order to communicate the nuance succinctly in your copy and content.

Say, for instance, you hire a copywriter to do your web copy. You fill out their questionnaire about your brand and business, you give them all you’ve got about how you want it to sound, and you get the first draft and something’s just …off. It’s damn good copy, but it doesn’t read the way you’d hoped and you can’t quite put your finger on why…

You probably haven’t adequately expressed the nuance of your values to them. They’re doing their best with what you’ve got on paper, but because you haven’t let them know what flavors you intend with each value, things are falling short. This is why you need to develop an internal definition of your values – to communicate the nuance of what you mean by a certain value, so that your copy elsewhere can hit the exact emotional notes you’re after.

Business Values vs Personal Values

If you’re a personal brand, there isn’t a difference.

Your brand values ARE your personal values.

If you try to split yourself between the personal and the professional your audience is going to feel that fragmentation and building trust is only going to be that much harder.

And again I say: if you’re a personal brand, you don’t have business values and personal values. You simply have your core values (and that’s it).

Now when you’re working on your core values for a company brand, the same (sort of) applies. While they may not end up being the company’s values, it’s imperative for the founder(s) to do some level of core values work in order to better understand what the company is built on. From there, by excavating what it is the company hopes to achieve – think vision and mission – the values intersection will become apparent, thus indicating the core values of the company.

In either case, you need to develop your own internal definition of what you mean by each value stated.

Values work ain’t easy

It’s terribly misleading too – since it’s something we know so intimately, it can be counterintuitive to think we need to define our values to this level of depth. It’s not like there’s a discovery process to it all (you might think).

But it’s not all about you.

Your values inform the experience of your brand. They are how you prioritize daily tasks, how you approach clients and customers, how you interact with your business and as your brand. Your core values are in essence a compass to be used for your business for how and where you want to grow.

A weekend worksheet isn’t going to cut the mustard when it comes to identifying and communicating your brand’s values. This shit takes time.

If you’re struggling to nail the nuance of what your brand really does and why, check out The Compass. This intimate coaching experience will help you not only define your values, but build out your core message so you can effectively communicate with your audience your do-it-different approach, how it works, and why it matters.

And your work does matter – I know it does. You just need a little help telling others about it.

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