“That was another lifetime.” Who hasn’t uttered these words? In the course of a lifetime, one woman might be a super-smart scholar, family caretaker, mildly famous entrepreneur, madly-in-love wife, aspiring painter, and anxious mother. Yet, she knows that these are “circumstantial identities” and that underneath she has an ever-present purpose that is her real identity.

Similarly, organizations are not static. Organizations change over time—a phone list so short you can recite it becomes a phone maze in just a few short years. The fluid nature of an organization as it grows, focuses, and changes is an identity challenge. Which “lifetime” do you reflect, particularly when these lifetimes overlap and co-exist? That is where determining purpose is essential. A clear and distinctive purpose transcends the identities that are expressed by circumstance.

A core set of values and beliefs form purpose. A person who has empathy and generosity at his or her core and believes they are essential aspects of their purpose in life will have many identities: famous philanthropist, lifelong tither at church, college food bank organizer. These circumstantial identities bob above the surface of purpose—in this case a purpose to express empathy and generosity.

Determining purpose is an essential first step for an organization as an anchor for all subsequent brand expressions and experiences. A company that knows that its purpose is “to make people safe” can offer hundreds of products and services that evolve with technology and societal trends and rally enthusiastic employees as brand ambassadors. In contrast, a company that makes “lights, sirens, protective clothing, and safety devices” is not anchored, it is boxed, and has a decidedly uninspiring recruiting pitch.


Many companies skip over the value of the purpose statement and find themselves generating wordy, redundant, and often contradictory vision and mission statements as well as a score of brand values, brand behaviors, voice attributes, messages, themes, taglines, and slogans, in the mistaken hope that they will “stumble upon” who they are and why the world should care. Marketers conjure up justifications for each of these items, but in reality, they will not be remembered, used, or embraced.

Much like brand managers in a consumer goods company who feel compelled to proliferate brand variations to justify their jobs, companies and brand consultants churn out variations on a theme with little attention paid to the reality of their use. The more statements, rules, guidelines, and “verbal assets” created, the more companies must explain to employees and convey to customers. The resulting complexity robs us of money, time, and confidence. Adding descriptions of your brand until you have so many that you need a map to help employees know what to make of them and when to use each, is a sure-fire signal that you have gone too far.

One purpose statement, no more than ten words in length, is the essence of distillation. Purpose should be memorable, enduring, and useful as a platform for communications, activities, hiring practices, and customer service standards. Spontaneous recitation of purpose by each employee is the goal. When you achieve that level of internalization, employees will behave and speak in alignment with your identity.

If your company, hospital, university, organization, or foundation doesn’t have a purpose that you can find or you are embarrassed to state it, you don’t have a purpose worth branding. To be succinct and clear is to be brave. Don’t join the uncertain, guilty, and weak by getting trapped in the net of a voluminous mission statement.

Ernest Hemingway’s response to the challenge to write a 6-word story was this: “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” A purpose statement can be as evocative, provocative and engaging as Hemingway’s response, but above all, it must be grounded in truth.

What is your organization’s reason for being? Whether you are a company, non-profit organization, or government agency, you exist to accomplish something. State your purpose boldly and clearly—as a buoy for employees, as a depth measure for all subsequent brand expressions, and as a means of staying on course. Use purpose as the anchor.

Cover image: Matthew Wheeler