Brands transform all the time, in different ways and for a myriad of reasons. New name, redesigned logo, shift in positioning, restructure of architecture – some or all of these may evolve over time, often in a complex dance of interrelated moving parts and layered communications.

So when it comes to a rebrand, how do you know what to change and what stays the same? 

Successful brand transformations leverage two key elements: a compelling purpose that stays consistent over time, and a flexible strategy built to navigate disruption and long-term change.

These seemingly opposite principles combine to help brands evolve and seize opportunities while staying true to themselves. An authentic and emotional purpose can make a brand more relevant to key audiences and more resilient in times of change. 

I won’t dissect the importance of brand purpose. Rather, this piece dives into how to make your purpose a stronger foundation for your brand – or guide for your rebrand.

A purpose should be unearthed, not manufactured

Because your purpose (aka mission) is all about what drives your people, this is one of the few areas of branding not derived from analyzing customers, internal capabilities or competitive landscape. We’ll worry about all that later.

Rather, your purpose should come from within: talking to employees, revisiting your past, exploring genuine motivates and root causes. It’s something that should be uncovered through introspective conversation, not engineered by strategy consultants or marketing creatives. (Even though I’m both of those things.)

“It’s important that a brand purpose is authentic to the company and not manufactured. It’s an archeological dig, where purpose just needs to be carefully unearthed, polished and presented to the world in a way that makes sense.” –Rachel Klein, VP Global Brand and Marketing, TransUnion

A few ways to unearth the most powerful version of your purpose:

  • Ask your people why? Uncovering brand purpose often begins by listening to employees and other key stakeholders. Often the most valuable gems are found when you dig deeper. One approach I enjoy is the Five Whys – an iterative research technique that involves a series of why-led follow ups to your initial questions, e.g. why do you feel that way? Why does that matter? This helps go beyond the surface for insight into root motivations.
  • Find the right altitude. Are you striving to improve things for the customer, company, community, industry, planet? Intuit’s aim to “profoundly improve customers’ financial lives” or Southwest’s “dedication to the highest quality of service” focuses on the individuals they serve. That differs from Cisco’s “shape the future of the internet” or Tesla’s “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” A quick altitude exercise with your team can determine what strikes the right balance of aspirational and attainable.
  • Draw from your history. Some companies are born with a brand purpose in their founding story. Others derive it later – after some time wandering the desert. To uncover an authentic purpose, it may help to look back and ask what has driven our people all this time? What guided our big decisions? With all that’s changed, what’s stayed consistent? Sometimes your purpose is a prominent part of your narrative; other times it’s been in the background the whole time, quietly guiding your journey.

A Zeno Group study found global consumers are 4-6x more likely to trust, buy, champion and protect companies with a strong purpose over those with a weaker one. But if you’re looking to evolve your purpose, be careful to avoid a completely new concept or seismic shift in direction – that risks confusing people or appearing disingenuous, which turns people off.  Instead, you can find a more compelling angle by changing the depth or altitude or POV.

To make your purpose strong, make it sing

I’ve shaped and advised brands in scores of diverse industries, from national defense and cryptocurrency to contact lenses and carpet fiber. One thing they all have in common is that  they are all made of people who want a reason to get out of bed in the morning and give it their all. The passion is there.

It’s one thing for a purpose to hit the right message at the right level. But to truly resonate, you want to articulate it in a way that strikes a nerve – and that means making some bold, emotional word choices.

Like Spotify’s “unlock the potential of human creativity.” Or Harley-Davidson’s “freedom for the soul.” Or Walgreens’ “champion everyone’s right to be happy and healthy.” Or Patagonia’s “we’re in business to save our home planet.” They serve different audiences and hit at different altitudes, but terms like champion and freedom and everyone’s right and save our home transcend industries to speak to raw human desires.

“A good purpose has heart, a great purpose also has legs.” –Shachar Meron

So when drafting some purpose language – whether it’s a simple sentence or an epic manifesto – try running it through an emotional litmus test:

  •   Does it get you excited? Your purpose captures the motivation of your company and its people. Some describe it as “the reason we exist” or “why we get out of bed in the morning.” So does it get your pulse racing? Does it have a little rah rah in substance and style? Does it pass the swag test? If it appeared on a mug or t-shirt or desk item, would you want one yourself? 
  •     Does it make you nervous? Here’s the flip side. Is there something about your purpose that you’re a little uncomfortable with? The verb that’s a bit too aspirational and ambitious? The adjective that’s less who you are and more who you strive to be? That may be ok or even desirable – language that makes everyone feel fine rarely makes anyone feel amazing.
  •     Does it play inside and out? Your purpose may address multiple audiences, but they’re not all created equal. First and foremost, write it for your internal audience – employees at all levels, from leadership down, including stakeholders, partners, vendors, customers, recruits and more. A good purpose has heart, a great purpose also has legs.
  •     Does it jibe with reality? The actual statement doesn’t need to get into the nuts and bolts. Though ideally it easily connects with measurable and actionable aspects of your business like hiring practices, corporate behavior, strategic decisions, marketing and communications, and employee culture. This can help fend off any skepticism while summoning inspiration.

Too many purpose statements feel like they’re written by a committee. (Many are.) But a purpose is not the place for “optimizing efficiency” and “maximizing shareholder value,” or for a laundry list of your top five priorities for this year. 

Rather, a purpose is more like a song than a memo. In the best of cases it is something simple and emotional that appeals to the reptilian brain. So give it a little copywriting love to make it pop. Because even if the core sentiment stays the same, infusing some humanity and energy can give it new life.

Use purpose to guide your rebrand, not anchor it

Once you move beyond purpose, any other brand element may be open to change – either as a targeted transformation or holistic rebrand. 

That’s because brand strategy is tied to business strategy, and business strategy is built on a changing world. A value proposition may evolve with shifting customer preferences or entry in a new market. A differentiator may adapt to new capabilities or competitive disruption. Even brand identity – name, logo – can change to reflect a substantial pivot in the business. You may emerge feeling like an entirely new entity. 

And that’s exactly when a powerful purpose can serve as your north star – the center of gravity that lets other elements turn over without the whole ecosystem spinning out of control. It’s what let IBM pivot from computers to mainframes to AI and big data processing, all under the banner of “a catalyst that makes the world work better.” It’s what let Starbucks expand from selling “authentic coffee beans” to being “a third place between home and work,” because it’s all in the service of “inspiring and nourishing the human spirit.”

When almost every part of your brand is in motion, a solid purpose isn’t an anchor holding you back. It’s the root of your essence that future growth can sprout from. Purpose is the DNA that makes you you, so people can find comfort and familiarity in an ever-changing world.

A singular purpose can set you free.

Cover image source: DV Imaginarium