Why you should boil down your brand to just a few words

Lewis Ashman
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The words 'inspiring', 'challenging' and 'useful' are spelt out in alphabet spaghetti

Sometimes it helps just to write things down. To clarify an idea, focus the mind, or just remember something. This is no different when it comes to building a strong brand identity. Choosing the right words to describe who you are, where you’re going, and what you stand for can provide a powerful reference point for many areas of your work.

There comes a day in the life of every startup when it’s time to get serious about building a brand. You’ve had the big idea, and you’re starting to deliver on it. Now you need that wonderful, mysterious thing known as “a successful brand.”

There are many factors you need to consider to get this right, and selecting the right words to describe your brand is just a small part of it. But it can still make a big difference.

Whether you choose three keywords, list a few mantras or write a paragraph outlining your vision, putting your brand into words is an important exercise in defining what makes your business unique.

Do I really need to?

To a startup, this kind of work sounds a lot like what unwieldy corporate giants waste their time doing. Exactly the kind of thing you want to avoid.

While that may be true, there is a reason why people started doing this in the first place. If you’re smart about it, you can still get all the benefits without splashing the cash on brand consultants and lengthy projects.

"Go up and never stop" written in fluorescent lights on a black background

You should try and be a little more specific.

Let’s take a look at what those benefits are, and how you can get there without wasting your precious time.

(There are many ways to do it, so I’ll just say “brand words” to bring together all the different methods covered here.)

Done well, boiling your brand down to just a few words can be inspiring, challenging, and seriously useful for communicating who you are and what gets you out of bed in the morning.

“Inspiring”

Selecting a few keywords to describe what you do can be a constant source of inspiration. Because you won’t just try to capture what you do right now, but also what you want to be doing in the future.

Choosing a handful of words to sum this up can force you to get serious about where you want to be in the long term. Maybe you have a fluffy, nebulous vision of what success would mean to your company, or a vague notion of where your big idea might one day take you. This exercise will help put some shape to those daydreams.

But, more than that, choosing just a handful of words with which to define your brand can help keep you on the right track.

Beyond who you would like to be, they can help you realize who you should aspire to be.

A Lego man hand and a human hand recreate the renaissance symbol, 'The Creation of Man'

Lego have breathed new life into an historic brand

Build it like Lego

One company whose brand words were crafted to keep them on the right track – and one dear to our Danish hearts – is Lego.

They’ve been around “forever” (well, for a while), and have an almost universally recognized product and brand. But that doesn’t mean their work is done.

To stay relevant, remain recognized, and even push themselves to new heights, Lego has a brand vision which they can measure everything they do against.

They have chosen five core words to sum this up:

  • Creativity
  • Imagination
  • Learning
  • Fun
  • Quality

That’s a lot to live up to. But if your brand vision doesn’t challenge as well as inspire you, something’s going badly wrong.

This needn’t take up an excessive amount of your time. Brainstorming at least three (and at most five) words – capturing who you are, what you do, and why you do it –will help clarify what your brand is (or should be) all about.

Defining a brand is not about patting yourself on the back, but about creating a roadmap for future success.

It won’t be easy, and you won’t be able to rest until you’ve found just the right ones. But once you get there, you’ll be glad you read this blog post.

“Challenging”

To grow a business or scale an idea you need to look forward, not back. Learn lessons, yes – but then move on.

You can’t let yourself get stuck in the moment, either. You need to take what you’re doing now and measure it against what you want to be doing in the future. Then try to get there.

A strong brand vision can help you do just that. Find something your company believes in, and use that to aim high.

Defining a brand is not about patting yourself on the back, but about creating a roadmap for future success.

Slacking off is not an option

Slack has used three solid mantras to try and capture what is important to them, important to their customers, and a rallying cry to follow through on the promise of their product.

  • Work Hard and Go Home
  • Speak with Purpose and Speak Well
  • Empathy is Key
A cartoon from Slack's website visualizes the ideal work scenario

Don’t miss the sloth hanging on the plant

Not only do words like these keep your brand on the right track (and capture a bit of your company’s personality), they help guide everyone in your team. If they are principles everyone can get behind, they will undoubtedly make for a stronger collective.

This kind of work may not be easy, but if it challenges you and everyone in your team to try and achieve what is meaningful and important, then you know it’s definitely been worthwhile.

Make a list of all the values and principles which guide you in your work and keep everyone on the team focused on the right thing. By doing that you will have made big strides toward defining what your brand really means to those whose work makes it happen.

“Useful”

Don’t worry, all this work comes with a clear and measurable pay off. Once you have your brand encapsulated in carefully chosen words, you’ll find it a whole lot easier to talk and write about what you do.

Everything you write should measure up against your mission and your vision.

For example, Apple’s “Think different” campaign wasn’t just based on a great marketing slogan, it doubled as a company mantra, too. What made Apple the company they are today is precisely their ability to innovate and be unique. “Think different” was something the whole company – not just their customers – could get behind.

The classic "Think Different" campaign's logo and slogan

Every brand needs to explain what makes it unique

Today, Apple has a vision which still holds true to that message, amongst other things:

“We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.

This is the “2017 Vision Statement”. There’s a lot in there. And it might seem daunting to put something like that together if you’re just starting out. But, if you count it up, it’s only 166 words. And it’s describing one of the most successful brands in the world.

Practice what you preach

Try putting together a paragraph that describes what you see your company as contributing to the world. It may or may not include your ‘mission.’ (If not, make this a separate paragraph.)

Defining your brand is just the beginning, but it’s an important first step.

Basically, if you truly believe you’ve got something unique to offer, and no one else quite does it like you do, then you should be able to put it down in words. Once you do, “unique” will sound a lot less like a cliché and a lot more like an asset.

Now try selling your product and your purpose to customers, investors and even potential employees. Everything you write should measure up against your mission and your vision. Once it does, your communication will be a whole lot clearer, and a whole lot more effective.


Defining your brand is just the beginning, but it’s an important first step. How do you approach branding? Have you ever boiled your brand down to a few words, phrases or paragraphs? Let me know how you’ve done it in the comments below.

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