One of the eleven P’s (the coordinates that define a brand) in my Brand Discovery models is “Purpose”. You will imagine, each of the elements that go to make up a Brand Discovery brand model involves some discussion and some a degree of soul-searching. That’s what we do in our workshops, but purpose is among those that often takes the most time to resolve. Appropriately so in fact, because a business without a purpose is a ship without a compass – you might hit land sometime … but then again, you may just remain at sea!

Most clients start with the assumption that their purpose is clear-cut and it isn’t until I test their resolve that they recognise the importance and complexity of this apparently simple subject. For example retailers will often say they are there to “provide the lowest price for their customers”, but their commitment to this starts to wobble a little when I point out that this might be in conflict with social responsibilities such as sustainability or avoidance of worker exploitation. Likewise there’s often a conflict between what’s best for customers and what’s best for shareholders. There’s no escaping this issue, you have to make a decision and stick to it.

Its also quite common for the executives in my Brand Discovery workshops to confuse “purpose” with “promise” and/or a strap-line, so let’s define what a purpose should be. I define purpose as “your role in life’s great plan”. This isn’t necessarily the same as what you are good at or what you offer your customers, hence the distinction between purpose and promise. Purpose is the contemporary replacement for what we used to call “vision” (which is rather more wishful thinking from most companies than the here and now) and as such should be supported by a list of actions that lead to the realisation of the purpose (or the achievement of the vision) My Brand Discovery brand models refer to these as the pathway (yet another “P”) but in the traditional context these would be your mission.

For example, the purpose of the UK’s national trust might be “to preserve history and beauty for future generations” but this isn’t the promise they make to the market, which might be something like “We enable you to experience history first hand”. Strangely, they don’t appear to have a strap-line and I’m not going to presume to offer one here.

When I was researching this post I came across a really good article by Mark Di Somma on Branding Strategy Insider. Mark has been around nearly as long as me and I’m sure from the ideas he promotes he’s experienced much of the same kinds of things, so its hardly surprising that he and I are pretty much on the same page.

Of all the Brand Discovery coordinates purpose is one of the most substantial. Many of the others will change, probably quite frequently, but purpose is pretty constant and as such provides an anchor for your business, so its worth taking time to define it.

Phil Darby
June 3, 2014

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