Your Brand Will Die Without a Why

A recent Kenneth Cole ad reads “Find Your Purpose (but first, your size).” It’s another reminder that the idea of knowing your purpose is, unfortunately, becoming a watered-down buzzword, akin to the ubiquity of “natural” food claims or eye-rolls induced by #blessed.

Is this how you #DOCourageous?

Before purpose goes the way of say “authentic” as the catch-all of the day, let’s set the record straight. Knowing who you are and what you stand for as a brand (and hey, even as a person) are table stakes to inspiring passionate fans and followers of what you do. Brands that embody a higher purpose can and do impact customer preference, drive a price premium, and impact retention.

To know your purpose is to know your North Star. Everything you do subsequently comes from this unchanging core. For brands, it’s who you are today and who you always will be. It’s why purpose-led brands such as Burt’s Bees, known for their “Earth Friendly Personal Care,” have been so successful. Through acquisition by super corporate Clorox, or even the death of their charismatic and earth-loving founder, Burt’s has remained true to its original brand purpose—and retained its place in fans’ hearts.

Who you say you are is who you need to be.

For brands without an authentic purpose today, any instance of a values misstep can breed immediate backlash. We saw this with Uber and Lyft in January, when one brand’s perceived lack of character was a challenger’s gain. Lyft turned Uber’s missteps into their opportunity, doubling-down on a more driver-friendly stance to meaningfully differentiate the brand, with a 5% market share gain to prove it.

Purpose commands not only customer preference but also employee buy-in. While Thinx inspired a bold dialogue to celebrate its truly innovative product, we were less inspired to learn their internal culture was less than empowering to its mostly-female team. More than a quarter of their employees are said to have resigned in the face of it, reminding us again of the purpose imperative: who you say you are is who you need to be.

As Ted Rheingold recently pointed out “the early, seemingly anomalous success of profit-from-purpose businesses are not anomalies, they are the tip of the spear. Younger consumers seek brands that reflect their values.” Tuft & Needle and Harry’s Razors are just two examples of scale-up brands who successfully amplify their why, thereby able to catapult themselves into otherwise crowded spaces.

That said, successfully conveying your brand purpose in communications (internal and external) is no easy feat — especially for more established brands with management layers and disconnected stakeholders. It takes consistency, discipline, and courage to break through. With increasing customer touch points in today’s marketing landscape, not to mention a widening pool of people putting out communications on behalf of your brand — agencies, advocates, influencers — a misstep is always just a moment away.

The way I see it though, there’s an elegant solve.

Step 1: Know your Why.

Getting to a brand’s purpose is to answer: “why does my brand exist in the world, and why should anyone care?”

A charged 3–4 word statement, in my experience, works best for aligning subsequent brand action. Google’s “Organizing the World’s Information” and TED’s “Ideas Worth Sharing” excel at communicating a focus that can galvanize and inspire. TED’s purpose happens to be its tagline, but the statement is first internal, and not always sexy. Nike’s purpose is “The Sports & Fitness Company.” Each word is carefully chosen to define their every action.

A brand’s purpose is distinct from its position: it’s the single, unifying concept it seeks to hold in the audience’s mind. It also serves as a unique lens through which the brand can be understood (i.e. Nike = Performance ; Google = Information) by your target. Position identifies what you want to stand for in the category. An aspirational purpose behind a brand’s position allows you to know who the brand does and does not serve; and what core values it shares with its audience.

Step 2: Amplify the Why.

Ensuring purpose and values permeate everything you do as a brand is akin to wearing your heart on your sleeve. A purpose-led brand can have strong points of view, connect, and foster community in a way that ultimately resonates on a deeper, more lasting level.

REI’s #optoutside is a terrific example of creative execution that stays true to the brand’s ‘life well lived outdoors’ purpose. Their social and content marketing efforts embody the same, all in the name of engendering brand affinity. Brand affinity, or trust, then becomes the long-term goal for marketers to shoot for, a counter-balance to the hamster-wheel chase for engagement KPIs.

Sure, posting that cat pic may get you a few extra clicks. Throwing around words like ‘purpose’ in an empty way might catch someone’s eye. But focusing on the why — why your brand exists, and why anyone should care — is the key a more meaningful, resonant engagement. And that, in the end, is the only way of creating brand love that lasts a lifetime.