9 Tips for Defining Brand Purpose

By Morgan Strawn

Brand purpose has become increasingly critical to how a company differentiates itself, appeals to consumers, and, perhaps most importantly of all, attains a goal loftier than simply making a profit. However, the process of defining a given organization's unique purpose can be baffling for those undertaking it.

Fortunately, guests on the ANA Center for Brand Purpose's Beyond Profit podcast often reflect on the best approaches to this process, and below are nine considerations that can help demystify it. Those beginning a brand purpose journey in their own organizations may find the following quotations helpful starting places.

Be genuine: "[Brand purpose] starts with authenticity. This is a word that is thrown around often. It means the brand has dedicated time and resources towards the topic. And in addition, often this cause relates to the brand's core product or service."
Melissa Anderson, co-founder of and president at Public Good

Look to your passion for guidance: "I can't really tell you what to be passionate about, but what if I can align to what you are naturally passionate about, now that has momentum. It has energy, it has a spark, it has fuel. And it ignites every other area, if we can really get clear about what do the people care about and then how does that relate to the brand, or the organization, or the company, or the cause, if you will. What's the common ground of that care? And it's amazing; when we start from that place, then you don't have to make a case about why people should care about it because it's natural. They see themselves in it, and then they're more motivated to get to work and to get it done and to ground that passion."
Jennifer Mulholland co-owner of Plenty Consulting

Remember, purpose is something you discover, not something you invent: "[Purpose] is not a thing that you can make up. It's a thing that you have to excavate. It's an archaeological project in a company where the founder's departed. You have to dig in there and really figure out what was the thing that animated the creation of this organization and really drove it forward and got everybody out of bed and psyched to show up every day."
Ty Montague, co-founder of and chairman and chief purpose officer at Co:Collective and host of Calling Bullshit

Mine the company's history for inspiration: "We immersed ourselves in history. One of our guiding principles was to really ground it in those founding stories. That's where you start: the history of the company. So we explored the company's archived newsletters. We watched videos of former family members and early employees that were recorded at various milestones in the company's history. And we listened to [founder] Charles [Hyman]'s son, Paul, who is now in his early eighties and who served as the company's president and CEO for several decades. ... We were really looking for those things that kept repeating themselves."
Judy Sroufe, VP, brand marketing and communications at Standard Textile

Consider taking a cue from your industry: "Your category may determine what kind of a purpose is most credible for you to have, though it doesn't completely close out other forms of purpose. A competence-based purpose is really, 'what do we do?' So, Mercedes does this nicely with their, 'first move the world.' They are a transportation provider claiming that there's a broader societal good, though the latter is less important than doing their job as well as they possibly can."
Jonathan Knowles, founder of the strategic advisory firm Type 2 Consulting

Remember, modesty can be a virtue: "[Brand purpose] doesn't have to save the world, right? Like teabags aren't going to save the planet, but [tea brand] PG Tips talks about how having a cup of tea with a neighbor can really combat loneliness. So, finding a purpose that is perhaps not the big, lofty, ambitious stuff, but something meaningful and emotional, and authentic to your business and your product — that's where the sweet spot is."
Amy Williams, co-founder of and CEO at Good-Loop

Be ready to be committed: "Purpose is not a side hustle. Purpose is why you're in business. It's central to your strategy. ... So if purpose isn't your brand strategy or your company strategy, then it's going to be short-term."
Jim Stengel, president and CEO of The Jim Stengel Company

Don't try to please everyone: "When a company or a brand goes for the higher purpose, the higher mission ... it's not going to resonate with 100 percent of the people. Some people ... don't prioritize [that purpose], and that's fine as well. But for those people who really do prioritize it, you are hitting on that personality compatibility between your brand and your customer."
Dr. Yoram Solomon, author of the book series Can I Trust You? and host of The Trust Show podcast

Consider a purpose that empowers others to make a difference: "Don't make yourself the hero but turn people into the heroes."
Thomas Kolster, author of The Hero Trap: How to Win in a Post-Purpose Market by Putting People in Charge

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Morgan Strawn is a senior manager of editorial and content development at ANA.