This is a question founders ask a lot. As companies grow from ideas to startups to corporations, every decision is impacted by your core brand values. What the company stands for shouldn’t be a guessing game to the founder, employees and, most importantly, to customers. That’s why it is important for startups to get them right early.

URBAN-X Experts-in-Residence (EIRs) provides over 1,000 hours of training, mentorship and development to startups in our program in areas like product development, engineering, funding, UX/UI and, yes, branding. One of our EIRs, Michael Sharp, provides one-on-one feedback to help refine the brand values that go on to determine what many typically think of as branding: logo, color, typography, illustration, photography and — the often overlooked — tone of voice. Michael is a graphic design lecturer at the Shillington School of Graphic Design in New York and has worked as a creative around the world, including London, Amsterdam, and Sydney.

Why should a startup worry about their brand values as much as they worry about product development or funding? It’s because innovation moves quickly. The company may not have a competitor now, but there will be competitors in the future. Companies need to decide how they want to be perceived in the marketplace. Brand values can affect business decisions, fundraising, marketing, customer acquisition and retention, employee recruitment and loyalty, and many more factors that determine startup success.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Michael breaks down branding simply to a simple statement: “Branding is how people feel about your business,” he says. “So, you need to decide how you want people to feel about your brand. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you awake at night? Why should we care? The passion is really important.”

This isn’t just true for customer acquisition. It’s also true for pitching to investors.

“We want to believe that we make decisions based on intellect, but we don’t. We make decisions based on feelings.”

In his branding sessions with startups, Michael asks founders to identify three to five brand values that will become the “driving force” that guides every decision the company makes.

“Innovative, trustworthy, reliable, and quality don’t differentiate you from another brand,” he says. “Push past the generic. Find something that means something to you and means something to your customer.”

According to Michael, brand values should follow these three rules:

  • They must be unambiguous.
  • They need to be easy to explain.
  • They must be understood by a variety of people. Simplicity is key.

The test: can you explain what your company stands for so that a 12-year-old could understand?

Still stuck? Start thinking about branding as your reputation.

“It’s useful to think of your brand as a person, preferably a famous person. If you think of your brand as a personality, who would it be?” Michael says. “It makes it easier to create a brand that people aspire to be.”

If you’re working on a solution that helps to reimagine city life, early applications for URBAN-X Cohort 07 are open now at

– Jennifer Jefferson