To embark on the subject of branding, you must explore its interconnectedness to purpose in relation to the business it represents. The foundation of a business is its purpose. Therefore, you can’t look at a company’s brand without investigating and clarifying its purpose. Once you have a clear sense of purpose, it will help drive all business decisions and activities. You can’t look at your corporate culture, marketing message, the hiring process, or writing a simple website headline without understanding a company’s purpose. Brand and purpose — the two are inseparable.
Branding and the purpose of a business are as inseparable as the brain is to the nervous system. The purpose, just like the brain, directs all.
So, why not build a brand on the company’s vision and mission? Because a company’s purpose transcends its vision or mission. It is the reason behind the vision. What are you hoping to achieve? What would you do even if you didn’t get paid for it? For the owner, founder, inventor of a product or leader of a company, it’s their driving force. It’s what excites them about being in business or developing a product or service. Looking deeper, it’s their approach to solving problems or interacting with the world around them. If someone is an innovator, then they will innovate in almost everything they do. You’ll see it in the small things like helping a child learn math. They will approach teaching differently than the standard method.
Purpose is a pattern that can be seen in repeated approaches to different situations and opportunities.
A good example of purpose transcending a company’s vision or mission would be Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City, Hyperloop, and The Boring Company. He is an innovator. His vision and mission are different for each endeavor. His purpose is the same: innovate on some large issues that are facing society. I know Elon is a one-in-a-million example and most people will not own more than one business in their lifetime or even less will own multiple businesses at the same time, but business owners are confronted with different opportunities that stem from the one business. Also, there can be many parts or departments to one business. Their purpose will affect how each is run. How that purpose is carried out will change based on the department.
Visions and missions can and will change over time. They respond to a change in technology or industry. If you look at a company that’s been around for decades and grown into a very large business like GE, it’s easier to see how the vision and mission can change but the purpose remains. Their current vision statement is “We bring good things to life” which communicates their purpose and tries to encompass the breadth of all their divisions to date. Because Thomas Edison started with the invention of the light bulb and electric generation back in 1879, their drive, purpose and “why” relate to innovations in electricity. The company started on an innovation.
In their early days, I imagine their vision and mission had to do with bringing electricity and lighting to the United States. Once accomplished, their vision and mission needed to change. They applied their innovative mindset to transportation with the first electric locomotive. Next, was the x-ray in the 1890s, appliances in 1902 with the electric fan and finally aviation in 1921. As the opportunities came, they needed a new vision and mission to meet each opportunity. If they hadn’t, they would have plateaued or even declined over time. Even though they had developed new vision and mission statements, their purpose remained. GE needed to innovate in each complementary market they entered to become a viable contender. Innovation was always their guide post, their true north.
Purpose Before Vision and Mission
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said at a Y Combinator’s Startup School Event that he feels it’s better for passion and purpose to come before the pull to “start a company.” Understanding your purpose first helps you define everything else. It helps you make decisions about whether to get into a market, industry or develop a product or not.
Steve Jobs was often asked if he was going to get into a particular market and his response was always the same and the answer had nothing to do with money, “If we can innovate and make it insanely great, we will.” Jobs was good at staying connected to his internal compass. In Jobs’ book, he didn’t consider the drive for money a strong enough “passion” to create a great brand or company. A company needs something more — a purpose.
His successor, Tim Cook, uses the phrase we will “participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.” And “We are constantly focusing on innovating.” Steve Jobs was one of those rare CEOs that were both creative enough to explore and disciplined enough to wait until Apple got it right. Purpose allows you to pursue a different direction as long as it has the same destination of purpose. The vision and mission should come behind and support that particular endeavor.
The vision statement is a lofty ideal to aspire to. I wasn’t able to find an official vision statement for Apple when Steve was running the company, but I imagine it would have sounded something like “Focus on making the best products simply great.” As you can see, there is no mention of innovation. It’s implied. You need to innovate to make products simple, easy to use and provide benefits to the user. Because you have identified your purpose first, you have tapped into the human side of the business and made the business less about “the what” and more about “the why.” When you start talking about “the why” you enter the world of meaning and purpose.
Contrary to an accepted understanding of business, people are starting to understand that businesses should provide something deeper than just money. In a book called Good to Great, the author Jim Collins writes, “Companies need to exist for a higher purpose than mere profit generation to transcend the category of merely good.” A Forbes podcast interview with Melanie Whelan, the current CEO of SoulCycle, was asked what she learned from Virgin Airlines and Starwood Hotels that she brought with her to SoulCycle. She said, “First, every brand I worked for was hyper-focused on the consumer and putting the consumer first. Build it by not thinking about putting your shareholders or economic return first. Think about how to make point of difference and how to make your product stand out — which is hard to do for capital intensive businesses like hotels and an airline to invest in customer experience. I learned from Richard Branson that you need to listen to your employees and make sure they are engaged with where you are going with the vision and mission — making sure culture is first.”
When building a business — building a brand — start on a foundation of purpose. This will allow you to communicate in the universal human language of meaning. If you communicate with meaning from the center of purpose, you will attract those that believe what you believe. You’ll start growing your tribe — your loyal followers that see your business for something more than providing a product, service, or making money.
Diagnose Before Prescribing
Investing in defining the purpose of your brand is hard work and takes time and effort. Having someone outside the business guide you through the process is a game-changer. Start here if you want to start the process of building a brand on purpose.