Nov 16, 2023

Branding fundamentals: core attributes

By: Josh Dougherty



This is the second in a series of posts unpacking the key concepts at the core of your brand strategy. At A Brave New, we call these your brand drivers.

A company is only as important as the memory it leaves in its customers’ minds. And each business must curate that memory diligently. That’s difficult to do if you aren’t clear on what that memory should be, which is where the brand drivers come in.

Brand drivers have their roots in the Integrated Branding method. We think of them in simple terms: Brand drivers are the building blocks at the center of your brand that define what makes you unique and memorable. Stated another way, while your mission and vision are what you do and what you are trying to accomplish, your brand drivers are the unique way that you accomplish your mission and vision.

In this series, we’ll be spending time unpacking each of the following brand drivers:

  • Essence & promise
  • Core attributes (this post)
  • Positioning statement
  • Personality
  • Benefit ladder
  • Decision-making filter

Today we’ll explore core attributes.

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What are core attributes? 

Core attributes are essential to bringing your essence and promise to life (read our previous post about essence and promise here). Here’s our definition:

Core attributes are three to five attributes that explain the way you live out your essence as an organization. Think of these as the foundational character attributes of your business.

When combined with your essence, these attributes form the core elements of differentiation for your brand.

Let’s unpack this a little bit more for clarity.

Imagine if your company’s brand essence was “building better.” It’s entirely possible that there are other companies in your category that have a very similar brand essence. Hopefully not but possible. That’s where core attributes come in. Look what happens if you combine “building better” with the following core attributes:

  • Winning together
  • Not cutting corners
  • Making others the hero
  • Embedded in each community
  • Down-to-earth expertise

All of a sudden the combination of the core attributes and essence create a brand that is fully differentiated. Only your organization can live out this identity authentically … and you have tons of immediate ways that you can express this differentiation throughout your org structure, messaging, processes, and service design.

Now that we understand what core attributes are, let’s talk about how to evaluate good ones. There are three questions to keep in mind:

1-1Will this core attribute stretch you to be your best while also feeling completely natural? The first question relates to whether you are aiming too low with your core attributes. Similar to the essence, each attribute must feel like it matches who you are perfectly, but it also needs to push you to do more. Make sure you aren’t choosing things that are comfortable that everyone else does. Stretch yourself. Growth comes in the challenge.

2-1Does it have applicability in more than marketing and messaging? The next question to ask is whether this is something that can be applied throughout your business. Think about the most functional roles and ask how the attribute would influence them. Good candidates are accounts payable and HR. These are essential functions that aren’t always executed with personality. Our goal with the brand is to change that.

3-1Does it offer an interesting juxtaposition/contradiction to your other attributes? Finally, we want to build in juxtaposition and contradiction, just like we find in any interesting person. People are attracted by characters that stand out, and the same is true for brands. Make sure people won’t perceive you as flat here.

Why do core attributes matter?

I spoke to the main reason why core attributes matter in the previous section. They add an extra layer of uniqueness to the brand essence. The reality is that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to branding, so the differentiation comes in the unique and beautiful pairing of multiple concepts together into a cohesive whole.

But there are additional benefits.

Additional benefit 1: Core attributes provide practical guidance for how to live out the brand

ABN - Branding fundamentals - benefit1In many instances, your team will struggle with the practicality of how to live out the brand in their day-to-day work. Take a company with the “building together” essence mentioned above. Team members may struggle to understand how to bring that to life in their day-to-day routines, but when you pair it with an attribute like “winning together,” they can likely come up with 5 or 10 ways to make the concept real.

Additional benefit 2: Core attributes can double as company values

ABN - Branding fundamentals - benefit2Sometimes a client will ask me what the point is of having both company values and core attributes. I would argue that there may not be a huge amount of practical benefit. In many cases, if the core attributes truly reflect the core of who you are, they should be able to double as your values. But be careful here, I do not think the same is true for values because they often aren’t unique. A value like excellence isn’t going to make a good differentiating brand attribute.

Additional benefit 3: Core attributes add depth and facets to the brand

ABN - Branding fundamentals - benefit3Finally, core attributes bring essential depth to your brand, allowing people to see and understand it differently and from different perspectives—just like any person. Practically, these facets provide multiple ways for you to build strong connections with customers and the rest of your audience based on what is important to them.

How to start defining your core attributes

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My favorite way to begin the process of defining your core attributes is through card sorting. Over the years at A Brave New, we’ve developed our own card set that has over 300 cards. I love adding to it over time. But, even if you don’t have a pre-built set of cards, you can find multiple options online.

We follow a four-step card sorting process. Before I jump into the details of each step though, let me share a couple of principles to follow:

ABN - Branding fundamentals - icon1-1Although there are online card sorting tools, if at all possible, this exercise is best done around a table with a group of people.

ABN - Branding fundamentals - icon2-1Make sure you include stakeholders from multiple areas of the organization, not just the group responsible for branding. This is an input exercise, so get it from as many areas as possible.

ABN - Branding fundamentals - icon3-1Encourage verbal processing and productive disagreement. 50% of the benefit comes from where the cards land, the other 50% comes from the conversations in between.

Ok, now let’s step through the process (I recommend taking a photo after each step):

  • Sort the entire deck into three categories. No discarding yet. Put each card in the deck into one of the following categories. This isn’t about judgment, so make sure that you put the negative and the positive into the “Who we are” bucket. We want a realistic, not idealized view. Here are the categories:
    • Who we’re not
    • Who we are
    • Who we want to be
  • Set aside “Who we’re not” and remove all of the cards you no longer want to be from “Who we are.” At this point you can finally cull out all of those cards that made you cringe at the beginning of the process. Once you’ve discarded the attributes you plan to leave behind, go ahead and snap another photo for posterity.
  • Sort all of the remaining cards (from both remaining piles) into five to six categories. Now combine together all the cards that remain in the “Who we are” category and those in the “Who we want to be” category. You’ll organize them into five to six free-form categories. The most challenging aspect of this step of the process is that there are no pre-set categories. Let the combination of cards guide you.
  • Choose a top card for each category. Once you have all of the cards in your categories, choose one card to be the key card for that category. 

Congrats! You’ve completed your card sort. Now, each category can serve as the basis for a core attribute. Take some time to refine the ideas down, but it’s likely that at least a few of these will be a good fit.

Thanks for reading this post on branding fundamentals. Check back soon for the next post on personality.

If you want to learn more about A Brave New’s approach to branding, check out our guide: The secret to an accelerated branding process. 

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