How To Write a Purpose Statement That Actually Matters
by Idoia Gorosabel-Gkikas
Purpose-focused, purpose-led, purpose-driven ... For years, companies have stretched and stuffed purpose statements to where they've lost their, well ... purpose.
It’s a shame. Because a succinct, emotionally resonant purpose statement defines why your brand exists beyond making money. Get that right and you've got the goods for inspiration — even in the toughest of times, for the duration of your company.
Still, not everyone sees eye to eye on purpose statements. Some people think they're critical to success. Others think they're played-out gimmicks to avoid.
At Focus Lab, we’re mainly in the first camp — “mainly” because a purpose statement alone cannot and will not carry the weight of your entire brand. But we’ve learned that brands with a clear purpose win out, time and again, in ways both tangible and intangible, from effective messaging to employee engagement to business strategy execution. In fact, the first three statements we write for our clients are purpose, mission, and vision. Together, these messages are a manifesto on your brand’s place in the world, and how you aspire to operate within it.
Over more than a decade of branding projects, we’ve learned how to identify purpose statements gone wrong — and how to get them right.
What’s the Purpose of Purpose?
In the B2B tech world — the world in which Focus Lab works — purpose can be a hard sell. Who cares why the company exists? Customers have a problem, you sell a solution. Leave the woo-woo stuff to your life coach.
Valid point. All companies exist to make money. It’d be naïve to say otherwise. But, like it or not, the days of “we make shit, we sell shit, and everything else is bullshit” are long gone. Companies are powered by their employees and fueled by their customers — real people, bombarded with brands that promise to help them achieve their hopes and avoid their fears.
This is your opportunity to hit a high note in the cacophony. When part of a thoughtfully orchestrated brand identity, a purpose statement helps your brand:
- Inspire and motivate employees and stakeholders.
- Differentiate the company from competitors.
- Attract and retain customers and clients who share the company’s values and mission.
- Guide strategic planning and decision-making, which can help the company stay true to its vision.
Sounds great, but here’s where things get tricky.
How Not to Write a Purpose Statement
Because purpose is so powerful, it's vulnerable to bloat and buzzwordery. This happens when a purpose statement is warped into a tagline or a hashtag — a symptom of branding confused for marketing.
To explain: Brand, branding, and marketing are related, but not synonymous. Your brand comprises the intangibles — feelings, memories, associations, comparisons. It lives in your customers’ minds. Branding (or, roughly, your brand identity) is the system that guides your external presentation to the world — elements like your logo, color palette, voice and tone, and so on. Branding leads your customers to have the feelings and associations you want them to have toward your brand. Marketing is the strategy for pushing these inputs to the outside world. “Brand is the pull, marketing is the push.”
As a statement, your purpose is part of your branding. However, when purpose is approached like marketing, the statement will likely have one or more of these red flags:
- It mentions stakeholders and/or customers.
- It mentions profits.
- It mentions products or features.
- It’s too specific/time sensitive.
- It’s too vague/abstract.
- It’s too long (>15 words).
- It’s a string of corporate buzzwords.
- No one outside of the C-suite knows, remembers, or believes it.
Your customers may latch onto your purpose, but that’s not why you write it. Purpose can’t have a price tag. For all that’s at stake, there must be no strings attached.
Purpose can’t have a price tag.
How To Write a Brand Purpose Statement
If you don’t have one, or you’ve realized that your current one could use a critical eye, these best practices can help your statement get on track.
- Be comfortable with common language.
Purpose is about heart, not style. You know what Focus Lab’s purpose statement is? “To help unlock the potential of the people around us.” This statement isn’t unique, but our interpretation and execution of it is. It doesn’t shoulder the weight of our entire brand experience; it informs it — from our logomark (which, in fact, symbolizes unlocking potential) to our benefits package.
- Write something you actually live out.
Stress-test your statement. Does it apply to customer service? Products and services? Employee benefits? Business strategy and execution? Visual and verbal expressions? If not, you have two options: Revise the statement to align with your business, or revise your business to align with your statement.
- Invite everyone.
Your brand has the potential to positively impact everyone around you. Include all people and your statement will inspire and endure. Save any mention of customers, revenue, or stakeholders for your mission statement.
- Be brave enough to say eight words that mean something instead of 20 words that sound good.
Brevity is bravery. Let your purpose statement do one job. There are countless other touchpoints that will tell the rest of your story.
When it's time to put pen to paper, be selective about who’s involved. Call on those who are close to the people side of operations — typically HR and customer service, client-facing teams, new hires that have just gone through the onboarding experience, sometimes founders and executives. We don’t recommend involving marketing teams for the reasons cited above. If possible, engage an outside party to corral inputs, impart objectivity, and uncover potential where you might not see it. A brand agency is, of course, one option, but a brand communications specialist or organizational consultant are suitable, too.
Will your brand fall apart without a purpose statement? Nah. Not that it’s not important, but again, purpose is just one piece of your brand’s puzzle. Sometimes, your brand needs space to grow into it. A commonly cited statistic is that most companies undergo a rebrand every 7-10 years, making that a logical time to reflect on why your company exists. Still, we do encourage you to dedicate time to explore your brand’s reason for existing.
This is an exercise that requires you to write from your heart, not your bottom line. It isn’t easy. But when you discover those eight words that are timeless and true, there will be a sense of rightness to their existence — and confidence in their endurance.
Photos by Annie Spratt, Jamie Street and Talia Cohen on Unsplash