Over the past year, I’ve interviewed 23 CEOs, CMOs, and marketing directors from brands of all sizes, and I’ve noticed something really interesting when it comes to brand purpose: There’s no shared definition of the term. Even in this time of “purpose ubiquity” or “PU” (you’re welcome), the idea gets many different labels.

I asked one CMO of a brand that clearly has a stated purpose if they considered themselves a purpose brand, and they said, “No, we don’t have a social mission.” But after talking it through, it became clear they had a very inspirational purpose that lives inside the company and out, and it drives everything they do.

So what gives?

The benefits of having a purpose are widely reported – here, for instance, from Harvard Business Review. But purpose is either widely misunderstood as a social mission or it gets weaponized to pejoratively mean woke-ism on the part of brands. It’s also been relegated to only relating to marketing activity.

Well, maybe this will be helpful because we have a very concise definition of purpose and a pretty nifty way of looking at and implementing it.

Purpose is the reason your company exists beyond capital gain. (Unless, of course, the purpose of your company is purely capital gain.)

It’s the receipt your customers and employees are left with as the result of experiencing the tangible aspects of your brand, things like your high-quality products, outstanding commitment to service, unique shopping experience, and transformative internal culture, just to name a few.

Where the mistake seems to happen is thinking of brand purpose as something loftier than the reach of your product, brand, or company.

So think of it this way. There are two kinds of purpose: “big P” and “little p”.

P/purpose, if you will.

“Big P” encompasses brands centered around some very big, highly principled stand, maybe social good and justice. Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s continue to top the favorite “big P” brands lists. These brands are built primarily to better our collective experience and have a long history proving it. They build their products, services, and experiences to aid the broader good they seek to do. Business as a force for good, if you will. See the B-Corp movement.

They’re also willing to take a hit in the marketplace if something goes against their values. Looking at Ben & Jerry’s latest controversy, one guesses that they’re okay with this in the long run because they believe the move advances their purpose to spread peace, love, and ice cream.

Then there’s “little p”, which captures brands built around bettering our individual experiences by fulfilling an emotional or rational need or solving (if even just a little) for a tension that exists in your life. “Little p” brands use things like quality products, exceptional customer service, and in-store experiences to shape the experiences of our lives for the better. Think retail brands like Target or package goods brands like Old Spice or Tide. Most brands, really.

The trouble comes when a “little p” brand tries to exceed its grasp or impact and ventures into places it shouldn’t or can’t be. This is when you might see cognitive dissonance in the marketplace.

In either case, the P/purpose and the values therein guide the behaviors of the company and the brand, from the way they go to market, the kind of people they hire, their packaging and design, and the kinds of partnerships they pursue. These are all just behaviors guided by a purpose. When it comes to marketing, purpose may or may not be the lead story, depending on the need of the customer. But that’s for another article.

So, look at your own brand, why does it exist? To create a solution for its users? Or create a solution for its users and save the whales at the same time?  Either way, there’s a purpose to help guide you forward and grow.

 Cover image source: Daria Volkova