Building Your Foundation

Your brand’s foundation is comprised of:

  • Your motto (cornerstone)
  • Your answers to 5 questions
  • Your mission statement (cornerstone)

It’s not an overestimation to say that 95% of companies skip defining a solid foundation before launching their business.

In their defense, they don’t skip laying their foundation because they are lazy; they skip it because everything seems so clear in their minds that it almost seems silly to write it all out. It’s only when they realize that customers aren’t aware of basic information that they realize they’ve left seven “free employees” with nothing to do or say, at which point they start clarifying foundations retroactively.

Never assume customers know why you’re in business and why they should choose you.

The foundation of your custom branding pyramid brings everyone up to speed on what you do, why you do it, and how you do it better. Helping customers understand these elements of your business involves thoughtfully implementing seven assets—two cornerstones and the answers to five clarifying questions.

Let’s start with the five questions that will help you define and support your cornerstones.

5 Questions

The foundation of your brand can be identified by answering the five questions support and connect the cornerstones in the foundation tier of your brand pyramid.

Question 1: What do you sell?

Question 2: Who is your target audience?

Question 3: Why should consumers buy your product/service? (What is the difference between you and competitors?)

Question 4: What do you stand for?

Question 5: How does your company impact the world at large?


Take a few minutes to answer each of the five questions in writing.

Don’t worry about getting it perfect out of the gate. You can always come back and change your answers. Just get something down right now, because this is your foundation. Everything else you will add in future tiers builds on these answers.

If you feel stuck or uninspired on any of the questions, check out the tips and quick examples for each question below to get things rolling.

Tips on Question 1—What do you sell?

Your initial answers to this question may be a one-word response like:

  • Cars
  • Coffee
  • Massages
  • Widgets

But once you have the noun of what you sell, don’t be afraid to add an adjective into there. Maybe you sell:

  • Sexy cars
  • Savory coffee
  • Healing massages
  • Nerdy widgets

Don’t get too narrow in your description here—leave yourself room to grow—but don’t be afraid to throw an adjective or two into your response either. Then use the adjectives you’ve chosen to see what truly binds you and your customers together.


Chances are that your loyal customers value the adjectives you offer (i.e., sexy, savory, healing, nerdy) at least as much as they value the nouns (i.e., cars, coffee, massages, widgets).

Last of all, once you have the right combination of adjectives and nouns, take a closer look at the values your descriptions support to define what you’re really selling:

  • Sex appeal
  • Indulgent empowerment
  • Health and comfort
  • Identity with a tribe


Trader Joe’s is a health-conscious grocery store with an arguably cult-like following of people who like high-quality products at affordable prices. At Trader Joe’s, gorgeous flower arrangements for under $10 make every day the perfect day to give someone a bouquet. Affordable wine means you never have to show up to a party empty-handed. And the high-quality food products Trader Joe’s carries are pretty much exclusive to them. You can’t go buy a Trader Joe’s item somewhere else. . . but you can go down the road to another health food store and pay more for a similar item.

If you declare that you hate Trader Joe’s at a party, people may look at you like you just kicked a kitten. Why? Because Trader Joe’s in-house brand is solid, and if you go to their website, they’ll spell out what they sell (and how they stand behind it) as follows:

Trader Joe’s private label products promise great quality fare for exceptional, everyday prices. We taste everything before we put our name on it and offer only what we feel is extraordinary. We tried it. We like it. If you don’t, bring it back for a refund or exchange — no hassles.

When you see our name on a label, you can be assured that the product contains:

  • NO artificial flavors or preservatives
  • NO synthetic colors
  • NO MSG
  • NO genetically modified ingredients
  • NO partially hydrogenated oils (artificial trans-fats)
  • NO “marketing” costs
  • YES tasting panel approval
  • YES quality ingredients
  • YES great price

(Content from

Trader Joe’s food sales are a byproduct of what they are really selling: Values.

Trader Joe’s is selling quality. They’re selling natural flavor. They’re selling trust. This is a platform that allows them to control current inventory while also creating an inherent screening process for new and exciting products that will be a match for their current customer as they move into the future.

If a new product meets all of the listed requirements, it can be added into inventory. If not, it belongs in a different store with different values. No product is worth breaking a customer’s trust, and Trader Joe’s knows it. When considering Question 1, think about what are you really selling and how can you define it in a way that helps you to continue to introduce new products and services without alienating your target customer.

Tips on Question 2—Who is your target audience?

I have never spoken with a start-up business owner who has a strategic answer to this question. Not once. Why do I say that? Because most small businesses aim too broadly when targeting their ideal customer.

For example:

  • If they’re a plumber, they think their customer is anyone with a toilet.
  • If an author has written a book, they think it’s a book anyone could enjoy.
  • If an artist designs shirts, they think their market is anyone with a chest and torso.
  • If a business is making steering wheel covers, they think their market is anyone who owns a car.

No, no, no, and no. Even Walmart can’t target customers with such broad strokes. In fact, most companies benefit more from approaching from the opposite extreme and targeting a very narrow market.


If you remember, the #1 company on Forbes 2014 list of most valuable brands was Apple, and they are a fascinating case study in identifying one’s target customer.

Now, if you are an Apple-phile, please don’t be offended when I point out that Apple has not always been #1 in the computer world. Apple has definitely had its fair share growing pains when it comes to gaining market share. Back in the twentieth century, Apple’s high price tag and incompatible software allowed competitors like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and many others to successfully edge Apple out of the work place.

Yet, ultimately, it wasn’t usurping Microsoft’s hold on the workplace as the word processor of choice that took Apple to #1. The shift in power occurred when Apple embraced the fact that all work and no play made Mac a dull boy. Forget boring documents! Apple needed to position Macs as the go-to technology for people who were all about art and expression and music. And given how rampant digital piracy was in the early 2000s, Apple knew exactly what people wanted: they wanted what came to be known as iTunes—the ability to buy portable music at an easy-to-stomach price.

After decades of trying to get a solid foothold in the market, Apple had finally found its sweet spot in addressing the digital piracy epidemic. The day Apple made it their goal to get all their customers to legally buy all their music through iTunes was the day Apple started marching up the path to #1.

Training consumers to buy music files that were only playable on Apple software put the entire music industry on the path of going digital. This same digital revolution then expanded to include movies and other forms of entertainment (and is now copied by other companies wanting a piece of the digital pie).

How serious is Apple about having you buy every form of entertainment through their iStore? Well, they’ve started removing CD/DVD drives from their latest hardware offerings. No more uploading CDs or DVDs to your computer. If you want content on your iPhone, iPod, iPad, or any other iDevice, you need to buy it through Apple.

And this dynamic came to pass all because Apple made the choice to say: Our target customer wants access to their music at all times. Let’s do that.

And they did.

As you consider how Question 2 applies to your brand, remember that the answer may not be what you think it is. Use any validated research or hard data you have at your disposal as your guide and ask yourself: Who am I helping, and how?

Tips on Question 3—Why buy you? (What is the difference between you and competitors?)

This question is a biggie. A customer usually has several competitors to choose from—some of which are very likely cheaper. So why should this customer choose you?

What will a customer get from you that they won’t get from the competition?

Maybe your differentiator is that you are the cheapest. No one undersells you and that’s a promise! But only one business in each industry gets to legitimately make that claim, so chances are you have a unique differentiator that propelled you into your industry.

What is it?

  • Affordability
  • Improved quality
  • Shared values
  • Increased capabilities
  • New benefits
  • Filling a current market gap

Your answer to Question 3 can address both what you do and how you do it—or what your customer does and how they do it. It can also include awards you or users earn or differences that make you stand apart from the competition.


Shane Co. is a national jewelry chain. It’s by no means the largest jeweler in America, but its brand keeps growing because it knows its differentiators.

  • Your friend, Tom Shane, has spent decades developing strong business relationships that get you the best product for the best deal.
  • Shane Co. cuts out the middle man, handpicking their jewels one at a time before leaving their castoffs to be bought by other jewelers.
  • Exclusive designs mean you won’t see your jewelry on someone else.

Another differentiator is Shane Co.’s consistent use of the owner’s voice in all of their radio advertisements. While other brands switch out voice-over talents and actors from commercial to commercial, Shane Co. sticks with the same dry, nasal tones of owner, Tom Shane. And in a sea of radio songs and commercials that are trying to sound perfect, Tom Shane sounds homespun and under-produced, and that’s a differentiator.

If you don’t know Shane Co. is a thriving national chain and you hear their commercials, the Shane Co. commercials might get you to believe that Shane Co. is a little-guy upstart that’s trying to get your local business away from the jeweler giants.

Why? Because of their message reassuring you that  Shane Co. is:

  • “Your friend in the diamond business”
  • Hands-on in selecting only the finest jewels for you to choose from
  • Friends with sellers who always let them buy diamonds their competitors never even got to see
  • Committed to creating one-of-a-kind designs you won’t see anywhere else

So when answering why people should buy your brand over the competition, think about not only what you do, but how you do it. Then think about how that can be a value-add to your customers. Write down everything you can think of and then simplify them into bullets. And remember, your answers should be simple, straightforward, and easy to understand.

Tips on Question 4—What do you stand for?

There is no universal right or wrong answer to this question. The answer will be your truth and because the value is such a deep part of you, it will somehow be embedded in your product.

Maybe you’re a magician invested in filling the world with childlike wonder, or a comedian who uses humor to keep people aware of current events in the world. Maybe you’re a mechanic who never overcharges a naïve customer, or an Amish man who builds luxury campers without using electricity or modern tools in your process.

Each of these individuals have their product, but they also have the following values built-in to their products:

Magician: Keeping wonder alive

Comedian: Laughing at the status quo when it deserves it

Mechanic: Being honest when others might not be

Amish man: Continuing traditional, handcrafted excellence

Your answer to this question will not necessarily be business related. Your answer should stem from the personal ethics that drive you on a day-to-day basis.

Another way to ask yourself this question is to say: If my product or service made me overwhelmingly rich, what would there be more of in the world? Or, what causes would I donate to or what issues would I fix?

The answers to these questions matter can be built into your business and communicated to customers in a way that will help you stand apart from the competition.


The last century has shown a massive shift in how and what people eat in developed countries. Farming and ranching have been drastically altered to meet the demands of an ever-growing market. For example, a few years back it was reported that a half a billion chickens were required to provide Buffalo wings on Super Bowl Sunday alone.

In a financially driven market aimed at providing more and more meat for less and less money, animals universally come out as the losers. Chipotle knows this and they’ve taken a stand.

If you have never eaten at Chipotle, it is a franchised Mexican grill specializing in burritos and tacos. Its menu requires a lot of meat, but the company has chosen to be very specific in its meat requirements. They believe in animal rights, so if you wish to sell your meat to Chipotle, they are going to come tour your facilities.

What will they be looking for?

It’s important to Chipotle that animals they source have lived natural lives. So if your pigs spend their lives in a pen, Chipotle is not interested in your meat. If your cattle aren’t free-range, then Chipotle will pass. If your dairy cows don’t have daily access to outdoor pastures, the Chipotle representative may just chastise you before s/he leaves. And if you pump your chickens full of antibiotics or hormones, Chipotle won’t touch them.

Chipotle is in the meat business, but Chipotle loyalists will be quick to inform you of how all the ingredients are ethically sourced. Yes, they may be eating beef, but it’s from an animal that lived a good, natural life.

This matters to Chipotle ownership just as much as it matters to all the loyal customers that could easily go eat somewhere else, but don’t.

So as you consider Question 4, take a look at how your personal ethics inform the product or service you are providing. Think about the words and causes others use when describing you. What do you value, and how has that value made its way into your business?

Chipotle builds company policy about ethical treatment of animals, while the ownership of Chick-fil-A feels so strongly about their Christian faith that they are closed on Sundays. These policies are values that may cause you to connect or disconnect with these companies as a customer, and Chipotle and Chick-fil-A fully accept the consequences of allowing these values to be brand identifiers.

Is Chick-fil-A a more controversial company than Chipotle? I think most people would agree that it is. The values inserted into their brand are arguably more divisive than the values of a cigarette company like Marlboro. I point this out not to tell you that you should be controversial, but to clarify that there is room for everyone in business and if you have values, there is no reason to hide them.

Maybe you believe in obsessive cleanliness.

Maybe you believe in volunteering time in the community.

Maybe you love animals and support a local rescue or shelter.

Maybe you believe in daily exercise.

Maybe you keep your eye on the latest fashion.

There is a nearly endless list of qualities and values that can help you attract customers who want what you are offering, so if you don’t think you have a value-based brand identifier, think again. We all do. And if you still come up empty, then ask around, take a look at what you’ve “liked” recently on social media, or take a personality quiz to get your wheels turning on where your values lie and how they inform your work.

There is no right answer for Question 4. There is only an authentic answer.

Tips on Question 5— How do you impact the world at large?

This question seems similar to Question 3, but this is really more of a combination of Questions 1 thru 4. Think of the question more in these terms:

If you were to become the goliath of your industry—like Apple—how would the industry change? How would your audience change? How would the world change?

The answer to this question can be large or small, but your answer should pass the six-year-old test and be a statement a child can comprehend.

Maybe if you rise to the top of your industry no one would ever eat corn syrup again, or maybe prescription glasses would never again be a source of pressure-point headaches. Maybe all software would become freeware, or maybe every home would have recycling services.

Your vision may be small or large. Scope doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can see it and explain it in one sentence that is easy for anyone else to understand.


McDonald’s is an example of a business leader literally changing the world. Founder Ray Kroc brought the assembly line into fast food and automated the food-making process. Despite the fact that few people openly champion McDonald’s for having the best food, they still serve over 70 million customers each day.


The ease, accessibility, predictability, and uniformity of McDonald’s menu offerings clearly holds an appeal. That appeal has empowered ethics that have shaped the food industry as a whole. And that industry is literally shaping the human race—how we eat, what we eat, and the (im)balance of our calorie intake.

The automation of food, making formerly scarce and laborious-to-prepare meats easily accessible, may have literally changed how humans eat for the rest of time. In this regard, Ray Kroc changed the world. That is his legacy, and he’s proud of it. If you were an industry leader, how would your business practices change the industry and maybe even world? How would you change the world, and what legacy would you be proud of?

Your Brand Cornerstones: Motto and Mission Statement

Now that you have completed five of the seven foundation stones, it’s time to use the material your brainstormed with each question to help you form your brand cornerstones.

  • Your brand motto
  • Your brand mission statement

As you build your pyramid, these cornerstones will likely go through multiple revisions before being finalized. Right now you’re in brainstorm mode, so don’t worry about getting your motto or mission statement perfect on the first take. Feel free to be scattered and wordy as you brainstorm. It’s okay. Get anything down that comes to mind then come back to it later and refine. It’s all part of the process.

Then, once you have your motto and mission statement nailed down, carve them in stone.

Brand Motto

Your brand motto is something you or your employees can say as a mantra as you work to encourage optimal products or customer service.This is separate from your tagline.

How are taglines and mottos different?

We will discuss taglines later. A tagline is phrase used to help customers identify you in the marketplace. Taglines embody the marketing message of a company, and are used in advertisements.

Examples include:

  • I’m lovin’ it!
  • Can you hear me now?
  • Be a hero

You, as a customer, likely recognize most of these taglines (Nike, McDonalds, Verizon, GoPro), but these are separate from internal company mottos.

Nike doesn’t want all their employees to “just do it”… whatever it might be, and an employee who’s “lovin’ it” isn’t necessarily providing great customer service.

In short, remember:

  • Taglines are for customers
  • Mottos are for employees

For the moment, we’ll focus only on your motto.

Creating a Motto that Works

Your brand motto should inform quality parameters for employees across all job descriptions. It can be helpful to think of it as a memorable mantra brand insiders can recite to remind them how to deliver on brand promises. This mantra is your company motto and Guy Kawasaki advises that you make yours “short, sweet, and swallowable.”

Unlike the marketing taglines, you are very unlikely to recognize a company motto unless you have worked within its walls. Examples include:

  • Customer service so good people tell stories about it.
  • Make something you love.
  • Style to the people.
  • Get it first, get it right.

You don’t know what companies these mottos belong to, and that’s okay. Their employees do, which is important because these are internal calls to action.

You would never want your marketing tagline to be “Customer service so good people tell stories about it,” and yet an employee in an unusual customer service situation can use the phrase as a lighthouse to guide them to a good solution.

Same goes with “Make something you love.” If the company culture is make sure that employees are consistently developing things they want and love, then making their mantra match that call to action makes sense and will actively weed out ideas that are less than inspiring.

Now that you know who your motto speaks to (you and your employees), it’s time to brainstorm mottos that are a match for your business.

What is a mantra you can all say as you work?

What is a motto you want everyone to live up to?

Keep it simple. Keep it straightforward. Great companies are built on simple mottos everyone remembers.

Your Mission Statement

The term mission statement sounds intense and serious, but it doesn’t have to be. At its heart, a mission statement is simply what you do, why you do it, and who you do it for. It can be simple; it can be elaborate. It’s all up to you.

The purpose of a mission statement is to let the world know what to expect from you—no flowery words or legalese required. Be succinct and feel free to see if it passes the six-year-old comprehension test.

The perfect place to see the role of mission statements in business in the TV show The Shark Tank. In this unique approach to reality TV, real-life millionaire and billionaire investors invite small business owners to come pitch their business or product. There is no narrow niche the companies must fit into to pitch to the Shark investors, but to gain an investment from one of the Sharks, a business owner must convince these savvy business people that they are a wise investment.

In each episode, every hopeful candidate answers the same questions for the Sharks.

  • Who’s your market and how do you help them?
  • Why does the market need you, specifically?
  • How does everyone benefit when you succeed?

The good news is that you’ve already answered five questions in the previous section that spell all this out.

Question 1: What do you sell?

Question 2: Who is your target audience?

Question 3: Why should consumers buy your product/service? (What is the difference between you and competitors?)

Question 4: What do you stand for?

Question 5: How does your company impact the world at large?

As you move forward through this book, you’ll see that the answers to all of these questions come into play again and again. So if you skimmed over answering these questions, backtrack and thoughtfully answer each question before coming back to get started on your mission statement.

Take a look at some mission statement examples from successful companies.

Trader Joe’s

“The mission of Trader Joe’s is to give our customers the best food and beverage values that they can find anywhere and to provide them with the information required to make informed buying decisions. We provide these with a dedication to the highest quality of customer satisfaction delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, fun, individual pride, and company spirit.”


“At IKEA our goal is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”


“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Create Your Second Cornerstone

Be thoughtful when crafting your mission statement, but not pretentious. There is no need to present yourself as anything you’re not. The more honest you are, the simpler the statement will be. And the simpler it is, the more it will resonate and be remembered. That’s what you’re looking for.

Foundation Conclusion

As you lay the foundation of your brand, take the time to write out some basic language for every building block in the foundation of your branding pyramid. There’s no need to be perfect on your first draft. You will have plenty of opportunities to refine and edit, but writing things out will give you a foundation to reference as you move forward to the remaining three tiers.

Before you move on, be sure to have placeholder answers for each of the following questions:

  1. What do you sell?
  2. Who is your target audience?
  3. Why should consumers buy your product/service? (What is the difference between you and competitors?)
  4. What do you stand for?
  5. How does your company impact the world at large?
  6. What is your company motto?
  7. What is your company mission statement?

The answers to these questions are the foundation of your brand. Everything else builds on top of it. So once you have completed your foundation, you will be ready to move into Tier 2: Your Brand Personality.