Walk the talk – from statements to actionable brands

May 15, 2020

Read time 5 min

The magic word “purpose” has become an essential part of the branding discourse in recent years. Also known as the big idea, the why, the essence, and the meaning, it has gained a reputation as something crucial for every brand. A clarity of purpose enables an organization to demonstrate what it stands for to its employees and customers. But why does it matter and how do we make the purpose more than just empty words?

In our fast-changing society, the lack of well-grounded purpose will eventually force an organization to a constant reaction mode. It’s easy to get lost in mimicking, differentiating, following, competing – or simply just rushing in various directions. A persistent battle to keep the brand’s position intact in the market begins to blur long-distance goals and the original idea of an organization’s existence.

A brand purpose can be transformed into an internal asset to navigate these rapidly-changing times. It is something to be built inside-out, not based on continuous comparing or competing. A company can use purpose to reflect its decisions on, and to inspire its employees. The constant state of renewal is not the problem, on the contrary, it is more or less necessary. You just need an anchor to survive the storms of all sizes.

Clarifying the purpose is a mutual journey

Luckily creative agencies are capable of coming up with beautiful brand purpose statements. Unfortunately that doesn’t suffice. Though a statement might be borne in a couple of workshops, it is only a kick-off. Even if carefully crafted, merely making a statement makes nothing real. The “big idea” ends up being small – a couple of pages in a document accompanied with lots of white space and a geometrical sans serif. It takes more to live up to the purpose.

A non-actionable purpose statement is a bit like a poorly made contract: you need to get back to it at the latest when things are going south. A good contract is something you never go back to – you have crafted it together with the right people and learned it by heart during the process. It fulfils itself.

“The traditional agency model with creatives working in a black box is far from optimal.”

Clarifying the purpose takes time and patience and involves listening, learning and coaching more than art direction. It is a collaborative effort that can not be dictated from above – and its results should not be presented by a consultant nobody has seen before. The process of exploring purpose has a co-creative approach written all over it, since purpose works only if shared.

The traditional agency model with creatives working in a black box is far from optimal for the task. Collaborating closely at client’s – digital or physical – premises benefits the process. The mutual journey behind the statements counts, be it a cliché.

Purpose beats money

The journey covered together helps purpose cut through the organization and fade out boundaries inside them. Collaboration creates wide ownership while the purpose itself is still in the making.

Purpose forms the basis of a company’s strategy at the leadership level, but also acts as the most important motivating factor for all employees. It has potential to inspire and make employees feel how their everyday work actually adds up. Finding a common answer to “why” helps company culture flourish.

People prefer to work for and invest in organizations that have a clarity of purpose steering them to create long-term value for all stakeholders in the broadest sense – individuals, communities and the planet.

Walk the talk

Brands that dare to take a genuine and consistent stand are capable of creating a deeper sense of belonging. Well-informed customers – as well as employees – expect to find meaning from brands that goes beyond great products and maximizing profit at any cost.

Changes in customer behaviour towards a more sustainable life have already given brands with a similar purpose edge. Patagonia campaigns to remove dams from blocked rivers, Harry’s helps to make mental health care more accessible for men, Asket disrupts the clothing industry with “pursuit of less”, and Casper makes people sleep tight by donating its products to those in need – just to name a few.

“Start by asking employees if they know what the purpose of their organization is.”

These are prominent and even flashy examples on how living up to a purpose can be manifested in actions. However, this is not how you are expected to start. Making big statements that can’t be backed up is not going to help anybody; neither is riding with a random cause. Increased demand on transparency will eventually get you busted from woke-washing and damage you more than drifting without a purpose in the first place. A better way to start is by asking your co-workers if they know what the purpose of your organization is.

Let it manifest

But how to turn purpose from an internal to an external asset when the time is right? How does purpose translate to meaningful stories, symbols, services and actions that customers can relate to? Once the internal journey has reached a good place, that’s the next question to tackle. It’s time for creatives, designers and technologists to continue the work and help you manifest it.

If a solid strategy is anchored in a common purpose, so is a brand identity with all its applications.

Matti Tuominen works as an Art Director at Reaktor’s Helsinki office. He’s interested in turning verbal into visual.

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