When It Comes To Purpose, Most Brands Fail. Here’s How Not To.

For most companies, there is little emotion inherent in the practical reality of what they make, do or sell—which makes having purpose as a context for product all the more critical.

While 2020 brought widespread brand engagement with critical social justice issues, few brands have asked themselves a more fundamental question: what does our company stand for?

While every for-profit and nonprofit organization is crystal clear on the product or service they make, do or sell, very few are as clear on why they exist beyond those products or services, limiting their ability to distinguish themselves beyond the practical. Typically, leadership misses or actively avoids the proactive, introspective work of defining a core, unifying belief to which the enterprise could meaningfully align both inside and out.

Introspection is not a navel-gazing exercise, but rather a logical undertaking that yields proven tangible rewards. Not only because 87% of today’s customers desire a more meaningful relationship with brands (with only 23% of customer’s able to find one), but also because the people within an organization desire that very same meaning when it comes to where they work. Additionally, more and varied stakeholders, from investors to vendors and partners, are becoming considerably more conscientious about where they attach both capital and reputation.

These are not passing trends, but rather a new reality. The common trait shared by some of the most successful brands in today’s economy is that these organizations are clear on the purpose that defines them—of which products are merely an expression. These are organizations where the company culture, customer experience and communications are very intentionally aligned with a core, emotional and unifying belief.

For most of these organizations, there is little emotion inherent in the practical reality of what they make, do or sell. Alignment in purpose as a context for product makes it very clear to everyone internally and externally why it matters that their organizations exist, why someone would wish to work there and not someplace else, and why customers should buy a similar product from them and not a competitor. For all involved, the experience with a brand is more emotional than practical because the practical connections in our lives are the least durable and most replaceable. Operating in this mindset, these organizations are more than an assemblage of capable practitioners. They are an idea that can be believed.

While meager earnings and a short CEO tenure (usually) await the truly sinister, it is just as easy to predict that purposeless companies will see similarly sluggish growth and poor leadership performance. Why? When there is no central, emotional belief that unifies, motivates and serves as the basis of a culture, the absence of emotional alignment internally makes it harder for employees to engage or inspire. This is no different than the dissonance that exists between a company and a customer when advertising/branding makes promises that cannot be kept.

This analogy can perhaps be better understood and addressed when inverted. Emotional absence makes supply chains harder to maintain, executives harder to retain and in the end, companies harder to run. It is an inescapable and logical truth that manifests in slow growth and unsustainable success.

Purpose, while seemingly natural and self-evident in the most disruptive and altruistic of companies, is accessible to any company willing to be intentional enough to extract and define it. From which point, any company can commit to it, transmit it internally and bring it to life so that every decision, experiment and experience is organically aligned with the reason they exist, with product merely an expression of that purpose. This is when an organization transforms from just giving people something to buy, to giving people something to buy into.

Henry Ford saw branding as “what one customer tells another customer we are.” That description by employees, stakeholders, leaders, customers, suppliers is never a practical thought. If the association with a company is merely practical, there are very few, non-committal words of mouth.

So why is successful purpose-based marketing, which has been so omnipresent, blogged and TED-talked in recent years, so elusive to many executive teams?

Likely because it feels softer and less predictable than best practices focused on increased sales and minimizing expenses. This is ironic since the product-centric, net-profit-increasing-best-practices being employed by most is exactly what makes purpose such an effective differentiator to consumers and employees in separating the companies people love from the ones they ignore or endure. Alignment on a core, emotional belief actively reduces internal dissonance and arbitrary decision-making practices that take away from the necessary believability for creating and sustaining a connection.