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Designing a Purpose Worth Activating

Shilpa Gadhok, Founder & CEO

Brand and businesses of all shapes and sizes do better when there is a coherent and cohesive strategy in place guiding their decisions, their partnerships, their culture, and their impact on the world. This cohesion is what builds brand identity which leads to a consistent following. In the realm of brand management, this cohesive strategy is set by a guiding light we call The Brand Purpose (or can also be called the Organization’s Purpose – if you’re a one-brand kinda company). The role of purpose has been written about exhaustively, so I’m not going to waste your time with more definitions of what it is, but what I will do is help you tease out what makes a strong purpose that drives actionable results and unlocks growth vs. the kind that sit on a PowerPoint slide filed away in a folder on One Drive or SharePoint somewhere never to be seen or heard from again.

So let’s dive right in! Here are some important Do’s and Don’ts when crafting Brand Purpose statements:

The Do’s:

  • Involve key stakeholders in the creation process. A purpose statement goes nowhere if key stakeholders are not bought into the result. One of the many roles that an effective purpose statement serves is to inspire your key stakeholders to act – it can’t be a guiding light if no one wants to follow it. So, beyond executive leadership, at a minimum consider involving the following stakeholders in the process: employees across functions, board members, and a sample of consumers/customers (if B2B).  Does this mean that all of these parties need to co-create the purpose statement together? No. That would be a “too many cooks” situation. However, understanding their values and motivations as it relates to the role of the company in broader society would be important to know and incorporate.
  • Be specific …enough. Building a purpose statement is an art and a science. It requires hitting the right balance of being broad enough to leave room for whitespace growth opportunities (see the “Don’t” section for more info here) but also specific enough that it is relevant to your company, your industry, and is clear on why a company or brand such as yours would have this role in broader society. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, is the connection between your business and your purpose clear? If it’s not, refine the connection. The best purpose statements do not leave room for interpretation. They are specific enough such that when read aloud, there is a universal understanding of what the phrase means. For example: “to challenge the status quo” (Apple) –this is pretty straight forward. The general population understands what it means to ‘challenge the status quo’ – things that readily come to mind are: to think differently; to not be confined to norms; to unleash creativity. And one can easily understand how Apple’s business is tied to this purpose.
  • Evaluate its effectiveness – A good purpose statement fuels action. To evaluate its effectiveness, I use what I like to call the RIG framework. First, make sure there is clarity in the role that each department plays in serving the purpose. If identifying the purpose is the “what” then the way each department operates in service to that purpose is the “how.” Some functions may have a more direct role in activating behind it while others may support it indirectly. Both are just as important, but the clarity will guide department leaders in working toward the same objective. Next, is it inspiring to your stakeholders? A purpose worth activating is a purpose that moves people and fuels their fire. Is the purpose statement fire-inducing or fire-extinguishing? Why? Are we going after something big and bold or are just checking a box? Don’t waste valuable time and resources checking a box. Finally, evaluate if the statement leads to useful guardrails to guide your decision-making on a macro level. Does it help identify what to go after and what to stay away from? Don’t be afraid to outline it. Remember: if the role of the purpose is to be a filter for decision making, it should be clear in providing direction.
  • Tie it to your heritage and/or founding story – Taking a step back for a moment, the “why” your company or brand exists in the world often stems from the inception of the brand or company. What is the founding story of your brand? Do a deep dive on its history. Understand the cultural context of that period, the circumstances, the motivations, and variables that played into the brand or the company starting up. Why should that matter? I firmly believe that heritage helps us define who we are and how we view the world. It guides an underlying motivation that is inexplicably ours. Therefore, a purpose that is tied to a brand’s founding story is authentically linked to that brand forever – and in every competition on the market, IMO, authenticity always wins.

The Don’ts:

  • Don’t…mistake the purpose for the mission. I may be bringing out my internal “brand nerd” here for a moment, but what can I say, I’m a purist. Please understand that the mission of your organization is NOT the same thing as the purpose. I see this a lot. Yes, these two statements are related (and they should be), but each plays a different role in the foundational architecture of your company or brand. The purpose statement answers the question “Why does your brand exist” whereas the mission statement answers the question “How will your brand accomplish its vision?” When designing company fundamentals, I find it critical to ensure the relationships are linear between the purpose, the vision, and the mission because each should feed the next when fueling a cohesive identity. However, each has a different role to play in this linear equation. Mixing up the three terms can lead to confusion when building out annual brand plans.
  • Don’t…build a purpose that is too broad. When I see purpose statements that are too broad, I often encourage clients to first evaluate whether this is truly the most effective purpose for your brand or business. If any brand can say it, is it serving its purpose (pun intended)? If there is a strong desire to keep a broad purpose, then consider defining key words in your purpose statement to remove ambiguity and drive focus. For example, let’s take an example purpose statement such as: “to bring joy to everyday life.” In this situation, define the words “joy” and how that relates to “everyday life” – what does that look like? Joy can be defined in different ways by different people. For some people, “joy” looks like making a million dollars. For others, it is spending time with the people they love. For others, it could be going to a show. How would your brand specifically play a role in bringing joy here? How would the element of “joy” guide your partnerships or operations? Be specific.
  • Don’t…focus your purpose around your product or service. Provocative statement for some folks, I know. Here’s the thing. Your purpose is a higher order reason for existing. The product or service is a channel through which you accomplish or serve your purpose in the world. But it’s not the only channel! When I’ve coached CEOs in the past, the analogy I like to use is a person. A person’s purpose is their ultimate reason for being on this earth, but they do that through multiple channels and various roles they play in society – a parent, a sibling, a spouse, an employee, etc… Let’s be more specific. I’ll use myself as an example: I believe my purpose in the world is to inspire others. I do that in a variety of ways: through my career as a brand builder in inspiring my teams and inspiring a community through the brands we build together, as an inspirational public speaker, as an aunt to my nieces in encouraging them to maximize their potential, as a teacher and coach in inspiring clients and students. These are just a few channels through which I live my purpose. The same goes for your brand. If you build your purpose around your product or service, you are limiting the scope through which you can maximize your impact.
  • Don’t…base it on a cultural moment – The intersection of culture and product-market fit when it comes to content or lifestyle marketing is essential – but remember, your purpose is not a campaign idea. Brand fundamentals are meant to be evergreen (at least for the foreseeable future) because it is a part of your DNA. The purpose is part of the soul of your organization or brand – it shouldn’t waiver in changing times. In fact, if you use it the way it is intended, the purpose should help you be a steadfast leader when times are dynamic and give you unwavering focus and clarity. Culture can change and often does change, which is critical to keep in mind as you build your marketing plans. But when it comes to determining who you are and why you exist, keeping things consistent is what builds longevity and authenticity.

Did you find the above helpful? If you’d like to discuss ways we can help your teams craft or refine your brand or company’s purpose, reach out at info@seegoodstrategy.com. After all, it’s kinda our jam.

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