The Purpose and the Promise: a loose framework for strategic product thinking

This is a loose framework for strategic product thinking that has served me well over the years. It is a tool that can help narrow down the world of what you could do into what you should do. I’ll take you through an example of how I used this process as head of mobile content services for Virgin Mobile USA nearly a decade ago.

Start with two buckets, The Purpose and The Promise.

The Purpose

The Purpose is the reason consumers are interested in the thing you provide. Clay Christensen would call this the “jobs to be done” in his innovation framework. Think more broadly than your current customer base. Consider as many different use cases as you can. For my mobile music team, there were three main consumer purposes for music:

  1. Active Enjoyment. Listening to an album of a band you enjoy. Going to a concert.
  2. Passive Filler. Background music in a mall or anything to distract me from the fact that I am running.
  3. Signaling. A personalized accessory. Ringtones. Concert T-shirts. Less for me and more to express taste to others.

The Promise

In The Promise bucket, think of the promise of what you deliver as your core product when it is at its best. Think about differentiators. In our case, it was less about differentiating from other mobile carriers as much as non-mobile alternatives. As a mobile carrier, to us, your mobile phone promised:

  1. Anywhere Access. The phone always keeps me connected.
  2. Frictionless Commerce. Click to buy, because we already know who you are and how you’ll be paying.
  3. Instant Gratification. Click and receive value.
  4. Personal Relevance. After all, this device in your pocket knows a lot about you.

Each of those buckets will produce a list of items that may seem obvious in hindsight, but they can take significant time to pin down. Take the time to scope each item in a way that makes sense to your team. They may change in the long term, too, so revisit from time-to-time.

The Bridge

Once you have a solid high-level list for The Purpose and The Promise, start linking them. Identify the gaps between consumer purpose for a product and the promise of what can be done. (Remember, this was circa 2007, when many of the options available today did not yet exist.) Here is a sampling of ideas that came from the brainstorming exercise:

The Filter

Next, it’s time to think about guiding principles that serve to help filter the concept list. Some of these are constraints, while others may signal alignment. What are the things for your business that make an idea more or less appealing in the short-term? For us, the filters included:

  1. Technical constraints. As an MVNO, we did not own our own network. It was 2.5G and 3G was being planned. As such, there were limitations to network-level changes and speeds available to us. Our customers’ devices were also highly customized, which presented both opportunities and constraints on things like music formats and DRM (a big deal at the time).
  2. Economic constraints. This impacted us in a couple ways. As an MVNO, we paid wholesale rates for each bit sent over the wireless network, which made streaming a very expensive proposition compared to our competitors that essentially had fixed network costs.
  3. Billing logic. Virgin Mobile was fully pre-paid, which had to be considered for potential user experiences. What would happen if a user ran out of funds while listening to streaming radio, and then could no longer make or receive calls or texts? It would be difficult to appropriately set user expectations.
  4. User profile. Our customers skewed younger and turned to their phones for empowerment. Which ideas would most deliver for this specific audience?
  5. Brand alignment. Our somewhat irreverent brand drove much of our thinking. If Verizon would do it, Virgin Mobile would not. With a brand so steeped in music heritage, which ideas would help us live up to our legacy?

Take it a step further. Evaluate which hurdles could be removed in the long-run, and how would that change things?

Concepts came from identifying opportunities between The Purpose and The Promise. After bouncing those concepts through the filters, several fell away. For example, most streaming experiences would quickly become cost prohibitive. Others would require network or device changes that we could not change.

The Output

What came out of this exercise for us was a theme that centered on:

Bite-size entertainment on demand.

Out of this exercise, we created a downloadable app, which later came preloaded on new devices, called Headliner. It was streaming music adapted for prepaid and network capabilities at the time. Functioning like a jukebox, a user could search for a song, click to “drop in” a quarter, and instantly stream a song. It was easy to communicate the expectation for this relatively new use case on a mobile device with the jukebox analogy.

Headliner was the first “pay-per-play” mobile music service globally! It mainly served the purpose of active listening. It lived up to all of the promise attributesof mobile (anywhere access, frictionless commerce, instant gratification, and personal relevance). The app even provided for a number of branding opportunities for Virgin Mobile through editorialized content and curation.

The Framework

The Purpose and the Promise framework is something I have applied to many strategic questions since. The exercise itself is often much more valuable than the output, because it forces the team to discuss alignment on several fronts in the context of alternatives. Concepts flow through, and concepts drop off. It guides a thought process, produces justification and can serve to align teams around a common story. It works while not forcing rigidity like other frameworks may. It’s flexible. Bend it!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with it. -Tweet Me

Michael Scully
Skookum, Chief Business Officer

Originally published at

Product Exec with a Code Habit, Founder

Product Exec with a Code Habit, Founder