The Intelligent Brand: Building Meaningful Purpose

I can hardly recall the purpose statements of organizations I worked with throughout my career much less the philosophy which guided them. Several years ago I interviewed with two senior executives at an organization. It was the last lunch interview and I knew I had the position. As typical at the end of an interview they asked me if I had any questions. With trepidation I asked, “What is your philosophy in business?” After an awkward silence they responded, “To sell more business.”


I believe in order to compete in the 21st century individuals, start-ups, and corporations alike will need to rethink how they brand themselves, not as an afterthought, but inextricably from their business or career strategy. It’s a new world where purpose driven organizations are increasing in number and force. In this article I’ll share my experiences on how I used purpose driven branding to help me create 1AU.

Purpose Driven vs. Profit Driven

Building purpose is the very awakening of intelligence inside an organization, a new level of consciousness. Profit, whether economic or social, is validation of that purpose.

One of my favorite examples is Patagonia. The founder, Yvon Chouinard, is known for his environmental activism, a philosophy that permeates throughout the Patagonia organization. During Patagonia's 2011 campaign "Don't Buy This Jacket", ironically, revenues soared despite the efforts of the company to minimize consumerism and waste. Check out this video:

The purpose of Patagonia, "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis," has been developed over a long period of time with consistency in action. I believe people are starving for this kind of leadership in organizations.

What Is A Purpose?

Let's get past some definitions to avoid confusion.

A purpose is an existential question. It is the answer to why your organization exists. A purpose is the overriding arch over the vision, mission, or manifesto. Purpose is the core of a brand and is central to everything about an organization. It is the driver of all decision making. The purpose of an organization permeates every interaction with employees, vendors, colleagues, and customers, otherwise the purpose will have little to no meaning.

A vision provides long term direction to an organization, what the organization aspires to become at some point in the future. For example, Linkedin's vision is "To create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce."

A mission describes what they do, how they do it, and who the organization intends to serve. Linkedin's mission is "To connect the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful."

A manifesto, on the other hand, is the philosophy of an individual or organization. It describes the guiding values of an organization. Check out Acumen's manifesto here.

In this article we are focused solely on purpose. While the choice of words will matter to connect with and inspire others, this is not the time to start marketing your organization. As an example, Nike derives its purpose from the statement “If you have a body you are an athlete” but you never see this or hear this in their marketing. The purpose of an organization needs to be authentic, genuine, and meaningful. What do you think Lego's purpose is in this commercial?

Philosophy Is Your Launchpad

During my previous career I felt starved of finding meaning and purpose in my work. I lived in a world where revenue and profit primarily defined success or failure. I didn't feel motivated or convinced my work added any meaning. It was time to let go. But after I left my career it left me with staring at a blank piece of paper. I knew what I wanted to do, but what was my purpose? I needed to stir my soul. Check out this video from Witch Creative.

It dawned upon me during the course of developing my first brand that I wished I had spent more time at the beginning of the process to reflect on my own philosophical beliefs and values. In my view this is a necessary first step. This requires deep introspection. What about the humankind do you wish to change? Why do you want to change it? Why is it important to you? A richer understanding of philosophy and values is likely to help write a more compelling purpose statement.

"A richer understanding of philosophy and values is likely to help write a more compelling purpose statement."

Tools You Might Need

Finding the words to convey your purpose in a meaningful way will be easy for some but daunting for others. I fall in the latter camp. I needed some tools to help me write a purpose. An exercise I found helpful was the ladder approach. Write your statement of purpose. Then read the statement and ask "Why?". Write the answer and then ask "Why?" again, and so on and so forth. Keep climbing the ladder. You might end up with something silly or ridiculous. Not to worry. Just start over with the best statement you came up with.

A good purpose is remarkable and transformative. Reaching the purpose is not necessarily the goal, rather, striving to reach your purpose is the goal. This is how a brand grows much how we would like to see in both ourselves and humankind.

"Finding the words to convey your purpose in a meaningful way will be easy for some but daunting for others. I fall in the latter camp. An exercise I found helpful was the ladder approach."

Another useful exercise is to survey the brands you identify with. What makes them compelling? How could they be improved? Some examples of purpose driven brands are Warby Parker, Toms and Life is Good.

One final point, working more than a couple hours at a time on my purpose statement ended up being unproductive. I found my best ideas came during random moments when I wasn't thinking about it. The simplest ideas will find you and turn out to work better.

Writing A Purpose Statement

Being a more technical writer made writing a purpose statement extremely difficult for me. It took me more than 20 drafts to write something that felt compelling. My organization, 1AU, is focused on sustainability related to agriculture and water resources. I believe humankind's agriculture and water resource problems will face remarkable challenges much beyond our lifetimes. Here are some examples from my own notes over time while writing my purpose statement.

September 16:

Our purpose is to strengthen the ecological culture of humankind to make sustainability a genuine experience and way of life.

Hmmm…ecological culture sounded good, but I wasn’t sure I could define it clearly. The word strengthen doesn't feel strong enough or inspiring. The statement also speaks more to what we are going to do not why.

November 12:

Our purpose is to foster human development by thinking long term while creating beneficial building blocks to meet our current needs.

This sounded totally uninspiring and boring, like out of a humanities textbook. If I told you I was going to foster something, it probably wouldn't stir your soul. The same problem here, again the statement speaks to what rather than why. I needed to push harder.

December 15:

To transform the course of human progress.

Much better. Note in this statement the terms agriculture, water, or sustainability do not appear. Neither do any tangible products. The product or the intended audience should not be described in the purpose. The purpose itself is the product we're trying to articulate. Answer only the question why.

"The epiphany I reached while writing my purpose statement was that I needed to address or challenge the human condition, human struggle, or status quo."

The epiphany I reached while writing my purpose statement was that I needed to address or challenge the human condition, human struggle, or status quo. I believe it is humanity's very way of thinking that requires change in order to permanently address our agriculture and water resource problems. It's not that we think we'll transform the course of all human progress.

It's more about a human struggle that's worth fighting for.

See how 1AU used its purpose to develop its values here . More on how to inform elements of a brand in a future article.

The Takeaways

A brand is not the purpose by itself, but rather the first step. A well written purpose will likely be the core of many parts of a business, career, or brand strategy. The main takeaways from this article are:

  • Profit is not the primary motivator but rather the natural consequence of a well executed purpose.

  • Philosophy is the fuel needed to create a meaningful purpose statement.

  • Keep asking "Why?". Use the ladder approach.

  • A powerful purpose statement addresses or challenges the human condition, human struggle, or status quo.

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