The Purpose of Brand Purpose

To create lasting impact, look beyond profit.

Matt Steel
Nov 8 · 10 min read

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain

Drowning in Muchness

To live in society today is to be covered up in brands. Finding unbranded space is increasingly akin to the difficulties of building a new home in the heart of London: there’s almost no room. In the US alone, most people encounter between 4,000 and 10,000 brand messages every day. With roughly half of the world’s population — more than five billion people — walking around with handheld computers in our pockets, those numbers are not dwindling. A quick scan of my immediate workspace as I write these words reveals 39 brand names or symbols, and only four of them are identities that Parisleaf designed. The fact that I’ve already been exposed to thousands of messages today and may be exposed to thousands more before my eyes close tonight — I can’t wrap my mind around it.

We’re drowning in muchness, and the only way for anyone to maintain high-level functioning is by ruthless filtering. We can’t consciously process the vast majority of communications that are accidentally floated or intentionally lobbed our way. Like a sound machine in a baby’s room, these impressions slowly wear us down and teach us to drown them out. At some gray and fuzzy point, the message no longer communicates. Many people try to take a more proactive approach by taking tech sabbaths or by choosing subscription services like Netflix and Spotify in an effort to stem the tide of advertisements in their lives. Brand messages are viewed dimly if they’re noticed at all. And I think brand saturation even prompts some of us to dress more simply and wear fewer messages on our bodies as we grow older.

A comprehensive Gallup study found that brand engagement among millennials is very low and that many are actively disengaged. “Only one in four millennials are fully engaged — meaning they are emotionally and psychologically attached to a brand, product or company. … What is more discouraging is that millennial customers are also much more likely to be actively disengaged than any other generation of consumers. In some industries, their level of active disengagement is nearly on par with — or exceeding — their level of engagement. In the insurance industry, 31% of millennial customers are fully engaged and 27% are actively disengaged. In the airline industry, just 12% of millennials are fully engaged, while almost four times as many (46%) are actively disengaged.”

How can brands push through the noise and cynicism without turning people off? And what makes a brand desirable and worth hearing among so many competing voices?

In a word, purpose.

If that sounds like pseudo-spiritual nonsense, then stick with me for a short walk through the qualitative woods. There’s ripe data hanging from these branches. Data that relates to people, planet, AND profit.

If you want to drive business and make a lasting impact that extends beyond the bottom line, you need a brand that people not only notice but love. For any enterprise, a brand is a promise and a reputation: built on purpose, matched by aesthetic, proven by results. Reputation is built on the trust you earn by delivering on your promises. The promises you make may deal with what you do and how you do it, but they are motivated by what drives you. And to the degree that you are driven by healthy principles and aspirations, you will make a positive and durable impact on the lives and margins within your realm of influence.

If advertising is the tactical art of creating desire, branding is the strategic art of finding and telling magnetic truths. Magnetic to whom? The people you’re here for: ideal customers and ideal teammates. Your people — the ones for whom you created a product or service because it brings meaning and value to your life as well as theirs. When you deliver on your brand’s promise, cultivating a reputation of consistency and quality, you gain trust. And when people trust you, the net result is stability. Trust retains employees. Trust keeps customers coming back.

You’ve learned to ignore the brands you dislike or find irrelevant. You tolerate the ones you need. But oversaturated though you may be, I’ll bet there are at least a few brands you love. Products made with care and conscience. Causes you admire, that contribute to the greater good. Media to which you happily pay attention.

What’s the common thread among all these brands? They’re human. They’re authentic. They have a stance. They meet us on the level of belief. They’re built on purpose.

Let’s take Patagonia and my friend Jared as an example. Jared is an avid hiker and camper who takes stunning photos of his excursions into the Colorado Rockies. He loves his Patagonia gear, both for its practical features and what the company stands for. Patagonia’s products are highly functional, reliable, and long-lasting not because they want to grow rich, but because the people running Patagonia are driven by a love of the great outdoors. Their interests and the interests of their customers are in complete alignment. Their business was founded on a desire that founders Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost shared: to make better climbing gear for themselves and their friends. Why? So they could keep climbing and know that their equipment wouldn’t fail them. The pitons Chouinard hand-forged and sold from the trunk of his car eventually grew into a business. And since the 1960s, that business has weathered multiple recessions and remained buoyant for one simple and powerful reason: they never lost sight of why they started.

Jared, and many like him, understand all of this at an intuitive level. Patagonia’s why seeps into every touchpoint that consumers have with their brand.

“We have never had to make a ‘break’ from the traditional corporate culture that makes businesses hidebound and inhibits creativity. For the most part, we simply made the effort to hold to our own values and traditions.” — Patagonia

Long-term and Short-term Impact

An article by the EY Beacon Institute describes how purpose serves as a needle-moving strategy for leaders who need to take the long view and respond to present-day demands (bold emphasis mine):

“Businesses today are finding that doing good also means doing well. For instance, companies with an established sense of purpose — one that’s measured in terms of social impact, such as community growth, and not a certain bottom-line figure — outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 times between 1996 and 2011.”

“The need for purpose may be driven by global socio-economic factors seemingly beyond the control of corporations. But there is an upside: much of the discussion about purpose suggests that companies perform better if they have a clear sense of purpose. Purpose-driven companies make more money, have more engaged employees and more loyal customers, and are even better at innovation and transformational change.

“Research by author Raj Sisodia, for the second edition of his bestseller Firms of Endearment, found that companies that operate with a clear and driving sense of purpose, beyond the goal of just making money, outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 14 between 1998 and 2013. Three quarters of executives of purposeful companies reported that the integration of purpose creates value in the short-term, as well as over the long run for their companies.

“Companies with a strong sense of purpose are able to transform and innovate better. Executives who treat purpose as a core driver of strategy and decision-making reported greater ability to drive successful innovation and transformational change and deliver consistent revenue growth: 53 percent of executives who said their company has a strong sense of purpose (prioritizers) said their organization is successful with innovation and transformation efforts, compared with 31 percent of those trying to articulate a sense of purpose (developers) and 19 percent of the companies who have not thought about it at all (laggards).”

Purpose can also have a dramatic impact on hiring and retention. In the above-mentioned Gallup study, CEO Jim Clifton reports that “Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck — they want a purpose. For millennials, work must have meaning. … Back in the old days, baby boomers like me didn’t necessarily need meaning in our jobs. We just wanted a paycheck — our mission and purpose were 100% our families and communities. For millennials, compensation is important and must be fair, but it’s no longer the driver. The emphasis for this generation has switched from paycheck to purpose — and so must your culture.”

At Parisleaf, we’ve found that purpose can have immediate impacts on a business, particularly in the sales process.

In June 2017, we were about two-thirds of the way through a rebranding effort for Gainesville-based Walker Architects. When we presented the new brand strategy and narrative, our proposed ideas immediately resonated with Joe Walker and his team, especially the purpose statement: “Make old spaces new, new spaces timeless, and think beyond the limits of architecture.”

We were thrilled to learn that the very next day after presenting the strategy to the Walker team, they had already memorized the core statements and used them to pitch and win an eight-figure project — one of their largest engagements to date.

Joe told us that for the very first time since starting his firm, he’d felt equipped to describe what makes Walker Architects different and why they exist — in a way that made the client sit up and take notice.

The Shape and Grain of Purpose

Effective expressions of brand purpose are equally useful for internal guidance and public calls to action. For many of Parisleaf’s clients, a statement of purpose appears in the first or second impression of their homepage. Some brands have spoken and written versions; some have one that fits all circumstances. Formats vary from three or four-word taglines to maxims that blur the line between poetry and prose to emotionally-charged manifestos that adorn conference rooms, about pages, and product packaging. They range from light and witty to philosophical and urgent.

Whatever form it takes, an effective purpose statement cannot be written by working backward from what you think your audience wants to hear. That’s the chameleon’s way, and it rings hollow. Your audience matters a great deal, of course. They’re the people you’re here for, after all, and you should do everything within your power to understand them. But creating fruitful relationships with them is like building friendships: it’s only when you understand who you are that you can determine what kinds of friends you need. The drives and interests you hold in common is the space in which your friendship forms. So it is with brand-building.

Effective purpose statements have a natural grain; they grow like trees from the inside out. They stem from the best motivations of your leaders but are larger than any one person. They are easy to memorize and easy to say with a straight face. They invite action. They display your stance. They select the right audience. They offer a clear and compelling answer to the question, why do we exist?

Crucially, your purpose must be frequently discussed with your team and put into practice at every opportunity. Every employee should know the words by heart and know what they mean. If it’s written and then forgotten but never absorbed, you’d be better off having no stated purpose at all.

Here’s a handful of brand purpose statements that make it crystal clear what each organization stands for. Some of them are tagline distillations of longer “core” statements. The last four were written for Parisleaf clients.

Note that all of these are less than 20 words. I can tell you from experience that writing one of these is like making a diamond with your bare hands.

Nike
To unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all.

Starbucks
To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

FedEx
The world on time.

TED
Ideas worth spreading

Charity: Water
Clean water changes everything.

Teach First
Our challenge is to unlock the potential in all our children, not just some.

Scorpio
Build people. Beautify cities. Bring exceptional buildings to life, for life.

Crippen
Simplifying the Business of Business.

ReMission Summit
We’re here to rewrite the story of brain cancer.

Cade Museum
Spark Wonder. Invent Possible

As for Parisleaf? Our why is helping clients find theirs. We’re here to help you find your brand’s purpose, show it, and make your mark.

This is why we say and believe that purpose makes brands matter. Purpose makes progress matter. Purpose makes profit, product, and place matter.

We think purpose makes everything matter. We’ve staked our livelihood on it, and so have our best clients.

Your brand’s essence lives at the place where your passion and abilities intersect with the needs and interests of your audience. Where you and they overlap — that’s the ground on which you brand. So how can we find the exact shape and nature of that overlap? How can we import personal identity into brand strategy in a way that is genuine, accessible, and inspiring? We’ll explore various methods in my next article and talk about the approach we’re developing at Parisleaf.


This article first appeared in The Perceiver, Parisleaf’s some-time dispatch of articles, case studies, and more. Visit our website to sign up for these emails.

Love Letters

Insights on creative practice and mindful living from the desk of Matt Steel

Matt Steel

Written by

I’m a designer who writes, father of four, and husband of one.

Love Letters

Insights on creative practice and mindful living from the desk of Matt Steel

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