By all means, start with your “why?”. But please, spare us the b*llsh$t.

We all know that a compelling raison d'être helps brands to connect with their customers on a deeper level. But if your brand purpose lacks authenticity, then your brand reputation could take a dive.

Back in 2009, Simon Sinek’s TED Talk opened the world’s eyes to The Golden Circle and the idea of ‘Start With Why’. He was talking about a brand’s ‘purpose’; the idea that people don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.

The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. When you do that, you’re able to build trust, build loyalty. So you need to be able to articulate not what you do, but what you believe, why you exist.

Having a clear brand purpose has been recognised as a driver of business growth. This Deloitte study suggests that brands that commit to purpose gain a competitive advantage.

And it’s not just about helping to attract and retain customers, it’s about attracting and retaining the best people too. When employees buy in to why they do what they do, when they truly believe in it – they’ll enjoy it more and work harder at it.

As Simon Sinek says, “Working hard for something you don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something you love is called passion.”

It just makes sense.

And so, as you would expect, businesses large and small have jumped on the bandwagon. It’s an idea that has led thousands of companies to re-think their brand. And some to re-think their core business model also.

But here’s the thing.

Whilst some businesses have done it well, others have been less successful with it. And some have completely failed to understand the point.

So what is Purpose?

According to Peter Field, Purpose can be defined as:

A commitment articulated by a commercial brand or its parent company to goals other than improved profits or products, involving contribution towards one or more positive social impacts in the fields of health, the environment, human development, sustainable business practices, or other similar areas.

So according to that definition, brand purpose is about having social impact. Doing some good.

The problem with that, is of course that the vast majority of brands did not set out in the first place to do good. They set out to make money, by exploiting a gap in the market. Doing good was never their intention – and now, because they’ve worked out that establishing a noble brand purpose (and acting on it) is the key to making even more money – they’ve all bloody got one.

And there they are, brands that we all suspect of conducting various nefarious activities in the interest of more profit – all parading their holier-than-thou ‘why?’ statements:

McDonalds: To feed and foster communities

Does ‘foster’ include helping communities fight obesity and heart disease?

Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit

Huh? By doing this?

Or this?

Heineken: We Brew the Joy of True Togetherness to inspire a better world.

Really Heineken?

You’re telling me that you exist to inspire a better world?

I’ll accept that you’re selling enjoyment not beer. But inspiring a better world? That’s laddering up a few steps too far. If that’s true, then Carlsberg Special Brew should be in a position to end all human suffering.

It all just smacks of awful insincerity.

It’s transparent. It lacks any real authenticity.

And that’s the word.


Surely, sometimes brands exist for perfectly good reasons other than to make the world a better place?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely no harm in brands taking a responsible view and trying to do good things. It’s fine to be working towards the reduction of CO2 emissions, supporting local fundraising initiatives, becoming more sustainable, being a better neighbour, becoming more diverse etc.

Go ahead and plant a few trees. That’s all good.

But don’t pretend it’s why you exist. We can smell it a mile off.

For people to buy into your purpose, for it to really resonate, it has to feel authentic.

Take Patagonia. It’s a great example.

Founded by rock climbing fanatic Yvon Chouinard back in 1973, the outdoor clothing brand has always felt authentic. Always tried to protect the environment. And recognised that as a manufacturer and retailer it was part of the problem.

They’ve undertaken marketing campaigns urging people to only buy what they need.

They’ve changed production processes in order to use as few resources as possible. The downside is that their clothing is often more expensive to buy – and yet that hasn’t dampened sales.

They made a commitment to using business to protect nature with 1% of all sales pledged to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment.

And in 2018 the company changed their purpose to “We’re in business to save our home planet”.

That’s a pretty huge purpose.

Now – the company has been sold into trust. To ensure the work goes on. Every year, the profits left after investing in the business will create a dividend that will be distributed to help fight the environmental crisis.

That’s proper purpose. That’s not just paying lip service to it.

That’s a brand that’s committed to a genuine purpose for its business. Something that drives every single decision it makes.

Heineken and Patagonia. See the difference?

Brand purpose is for businesses that have genuinely looked into the heart of their business and identified a truth that lies at the core of what they do – then used that to drive their business forward in every respect, in every decision they make.

A brand purpose should give real meaning to a business.

And it doesn’t have to be of benefit to society. Not every business exists to save the planet. Or to combat loneliness. Or to end modern slavery.

The point is when we start with “why?” – when we ask WHY did we start this business, it forces you to consider our own truths. What do we actually believe in? If we can articulate what we believe, we’ve got more chance of attracting customers (and employees) who believe the same thing.

A purpose doesn’t have to be pretentious.

Unlike Starbucks, Costa Coffee have not created a jumped-up brand purpose.

They stuck to a good old fashioned mission statement which is ‘to provide the world with authentic coffee flavours’.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s nice. It’s clear. And it’s a purpose.

They haven’t called it a purpose, but it is one.

They obviously care about the quality of their coffee.

I like nice coffee. I like people who care about the quality of what they sell.

I don’t need anyone to inspire and nurture my spirit. Least of all one of Starbucks’ non-union baristas.

Thanks Costa, a flat white please.

Don’t get distracted.

The point is that yes, there’s a good case for brand purpose. A clear purpose helps you connect with your customers, with your employees and even with your shareholders. There’s good evidence that purpose helps drive business growth.

It makes a lot of sense.

But remember to keep it real. Keep it true. Keep it authentic.

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

Remember these principles:

1. Identify your “why”. Be honest about it.
2. Give it meaning. Why is what you believe important? What difference can that make? And who to?
3. Find a way to articulate it as simply and powerfully as possible. Make sure people understand what it means. Make sure it’s as important to them as it is to you.
4. Mobilise your employees. Talk to them about your purpose. Ask what they could do to ensure you deliver to it. Get them driving ideas through the business.
5. Execute. Not just through marketing initiatives and campaigns, but in every part of your business model.

Remember, for a brand purpose to be believable it has to be authentic. In the first instance, your employees need to buy into it. Get it right and your brand purpose can provide a clear, unambiguous direction for your business and an identity that wins hearts.

But you have to see it through. You can’t just pay it lip service. You can’t pretend you’re trying to change the world when all you’re really doing is pandering to some misplaced notion that brand can only succeed if they’re somehow heroic. That’s a dangerous place to be: get it wrong and your brand could be subject to ridicule.

Right, I’m off to nurture my spirit.

Where’s the Nescafe?