(originally published in Entrepreneur.com)
Jack Trout, an old mentor of mine, used to say that branding is “what other people say about you.” For most companies, though, the message that defines the brand comes from the elevator pitch — a carefully crafted and succinct value proposition. The only problem is that when your company needs to pivot, the ideas your brand was built upon may no longer transmit the right message. So, what can your startup rely upon if not an elevator pitch?
The answer is a carefully chosen core value. In his theory of basic human values, social psychologist Shalom Schwartz identified 10 basic personal values that are recognized across cultures. These values are spread across four dimensions — conservation, self-enhancement, openness to change and self-transcendence — and organized into a circular arrangement like a pie. Each value represents a slice.
Schwartz explains that the closer any two values are, the more similar their motivations. For instance, power and achievement in the self-enhancement dimension are motivated by the desire for social superiority and esteem.
The opposite is also true. Value dimensions on opposite sides of the circle — self-transcendence and self-enhancement, for instance — come from the opposing motivations of devotion to others and social superiority, respectively.
By using this universal model to inform and guide your startup’s central messaging, you can develop a strong brand and appeal to your audience’s most deeply held values, to inspire loyalty.
Make decisions based on value alignment.
If you’re starting a small B2B company, for instance, you’ll need to rely on service and relationships to differentiate your brand. You’ll need to be ready to help a client at any time, even if your agreement only requires service during normal business hours.
That focus on service fits into the self-transcendence dimension — characterized by the values of benevolence and universalism — and it’s a powerful force that will ensure the loyalty of your clientele.
Schwartz’s system can also help you identify and prioritize markets. For example, like most disruptive startups, Airbnb appeals to people who value the dimensions regarding openness to change and self-transcendence.
These are people who either challenge the status quo or think that everyone should have equal access to everything. For that reason, Airbnb thrives in places such as Paris — which has more listings than even New York City — because the French are revolutionaries at heart and are very open to the company’s value proposition.
Determine your audience’s values
As a startup, you’ll want to stick to one value dimension. For example, if you’re working with risk-averse B2B clients, a tagline about challenging the status quo probably won’t resonate. You want to match your messaging to your client base. Here are three tips for getting started:
1. Show your true colors. If you’re an ambitious, wealth-hungry founder, don’t try to play your company off as a philanthropic crusader. Ride-sharing company Uber is under intense scrutiny for ambitious overreach with its contractors and employees. Its attempts to offer up a more gentle, benevolent side are being read as disingenuous. Know yourself and your team: That kind of awareness will keep you from sending mixed messages.
2. Follow through. Actions speak louder than words. Your core value proposition won’t resonate if your company doesn’t back it up with action. Major telecommunications companies espouse benevolent values, but in my opinion, their fight against net neutrality shows they value self-transcendence instead. Had they consulted with Schwartz, they could have saved millions of dollars in lobbyist payments. They were as destined to lose that battle as were the opponents of marriage equality.
3. Embody your core value. Your entire company should align with your core value. If you’re in the self-transcendence dimension, you need to embody inclusiveness and equality — from your administrative assistants to your executives. Hire people and work with vendors who hold similar values. Everything — from your company benefits to your marketing messages — should be consistent with your core value.
When your message is consistent and appeals to your audience’s most deeply held values, you’ll gain devoted customers who pledge allegiance. Priorities change, and your company might need to pivot to survive, but your dedication to a value dimension will always keep your messaging consistent.