Purpose is a pattern that can be seen in repeated approaches to different situations.
Purpose Before Vision and Mission
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said at a Y Combinator’s Startup School Event that he feels it’s better for passion and purpose to come before the pull to “start a company.” Understanding your purpose first helps you define everything else. It helps you make decisions about whether to get into a market, industry or develop a product or not. Steve Jobs was often asked if he was going to get into a particular market and his response was always the same and the answer had nothing to do with money, “If we can innovate and make it insanely great, we will.” Jobs was good at staying connected to his internal compass. In Jobs’ book, he didn’t consider the drive for money a strong enough “passion” to create a great brand or company. A company needs something more—a purpose. His successor, Tim Cook, uses the phrase we will “participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.” And “We are constantly focusing on innovating.” Steve Jobs was one of those rare CEOs that were both creative enough to explore and disciplined enough to wait until Apple got it right. Purpose allows you to pursue a different direction as long as it has the same destination of purpose. The vision and mission should come behind and support that particular endeavor.
The vision statement is a lofty ideal to aspire to. I wasn’t able to find an official vision statement for Apple when Steve was running the company, but I imagine it would have sounded something like “Focus on making the best products simply great.” As you can see, there is no mention of innovation. It’s implied. You need to innovate to make products simple, easy to use and provide benefits to the user. Because you have identified your purpose first, you have tapped into the human side of the business and made the business less about “the what” and more about “the why.” When you start talking about “the why” you enter the world of meaning and purpose.
Contrary to an accepted understanding of business, people are starting to understand that businesses should provide something deeper than just money. In a book called Good to Great, the author Jim Collins writes, “Companies need to exist for a higher purpose than mere profit generation to transcend the category of merely good.” A Forbes podcast interview with Melanie Whelan, the current CEO of SoulCycle, was asked what she learned from Virgin Airlines and Starwood Hotels that she brought with her to SoulCycle. She said, “First, every brand I worked for was hyper-focused on the consumer and putting the consumer first. Build it by not thinking about putting your shareholders or economic return first. Think about how to make point of difference and how to make your product stand out—which is hard to do for capital intensive businesses like hotels and an airline to invest in customer experience. I learned from Richard Branson that you need to listen to your employees and make sure they are engaged with where you are going with the vision and mission—making sure culture is first.”
I’ve done a lot of research and study on how all this works—why you need to build a business on purpose—and its connection to branding. So as not to jump down a deep rabbit hole, I can say it very simply: it’s based on the way we learn as humans. We learn by connecting meaning to objects or experiences. If you put an iPhone in a child’s hand that has never held one before, the child will do one of two things: they will put it in their mouth or throw it. It has no meaning to them. Once something has an associated meaning, it has value.
Viktor E. Frankl, a Holocaust concentration camp survivor and world-renounced Neurologist and Psychiatrist wrote a book called The Will to Meaning. His philosophy on life was based on the belief that people’s “main motivation for living is our will to find meaning.” He saw firsthand that those who believed that they weren’t born to die in a concentration camp didn’t. This desire to find and have meaning is innate in us humans. We look for meaning in life. It’s how we navigate through our environment. This extends to the use of signs, symbols, and language. A company’s brand should use all these tools to communicate their identity and purpose.
When building a business—building a brand—start on a foundation of purpose. This will allow you to communicate with meaning and build value. The clearer the communication, the more accurate the people’s expectations will be before interacting with your company. The more accurate expectations are, the better the experience they will have. If you communicate with meaning from the center of purpose, you will attract those that believe what you believe. You’ll start growing your tribe—your loyal followers that see your business for something more than providing a product, service or making money.