3 Steps to Having a Brand Purpose When You're Not the United Nations

Uncovering the 'why' and then bringing it to life

Over the past decade, our industry has become increasingly attuned to the higher-order importance of motivation as it relates to the opportunities and challenges around defining a brand's purpose. As Simon Sinek eloquently articulated, "People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it." 

The UN is a great example. Whatever you think of the organization, there is no doubt they have a very clear sense of why they exist. Born out of the destruction of World War II, their mission is maintaining international peace and security. Clear and highly motivating. 

A friend of mine has been with the UN for about 15 years, living and working in some of the most dangerous hot spots in the world. When most of the world was flying out, she was flown in to Sierra Leone during the 2016 Ebola outbreak. She's been caught up in numerous gun battles and war zones across the globe and is currently based in Mogadishu, trying to do what she can in Somalia's destructive civil war. 

I asked her why she did it. Her answer was pretty simple: It gave her purpose. 

Now, compared to the UN, most brands do not have such a clear and obvious purpose. There is also debate as to whether a "brand" in of itself can truly have a "purpose," as distinct from the organization behind it. All valid discussions. But within all brands there is meaning to be found beyond the commercial.

From Starbucks to Unilever, Nike to Ikea, brands have leapt upon this to bring to life their belief systems and their version of the "why," with significant commercial and community success.

However, in an always-on, socially driven world, and given the importance of transparency and increasing consumer cynicism around brand behavior, we must continually push ourselves to ensure the "why" passes the bullshit test. I've lost count of the number of times I've read a brand's purpose and rolled my eyes as it seems completely disconnected from the actual product or service. So, the first challenge is to uncover this "why" in a way that is true, genuine and inspiring. Nike is arguably the best example here. 

The second challenge is to keep it simple. Too many purpose statements are overly long, complex or crammed full of different "worthy" sentiments that stakeholders were afraid to sacrifice at the altar of simplicity. If you have to have the lung capacity of a free diver to read it, it is probably too long. A good example of simplicity is eBay's "To provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything." Clear and organizing.

The final challenge is to deliver brand behavior that demonstrates the brand is truly committed to delivering against this "why," versus paying lip service. Easy to say, much harder to do, even with the very best of intentions. 

Starbucks' purpose, "To nurture the human spirit—one cup, one person and one community at a time," has been rightly lauded and backed by highly progressive employee benefits. But as recent events have shown, all this can be undermined by a horrific customer experience. 

So, how do you define purpose effectively against this backdrop? Perhaps in a world where we obsess about what is changing, we can still rely on some enduring fundamentals of brand building. At DDB, we talk about the importance of understanding the foundations of a brand—the essential structural underpinning that everything can be built off. Every brand has an origin story and unique DNA. We need to be both archeologists digging around the past and architects to build a new future. 

The second foundational pillar is to have a deeper understanding of who you are for and what motivates them, what tensions exist and how the brand can address that tension both emotionally and functionally in a way that creates value.

Finally, be obsessed about how the brand should behave, how it turns up and when. And recognize that you will never get everything right, but behave with integrity, listen, act quickly and with humility when challenges arise.

Most of the brands we work on do not have the same global importance as the UN's purpose. But if all brands can articulate their own version of the "why" in a true and genuine way, then greater value can be unlocked both commercially and across the community. To paraphrase and slightly misquote Bill Bernbach, we all have the ability to be positive "shapers of society." 

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Chris Brown
Chris Brown is president and CEO of DDB New York.