Is your purpose statement really just a marketing gimmick?

Simon Sinek presenting on purpose.

When Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, went viral, it fueled the resurgence of the purpose driven organization. Of course, the best practice in corporate development has long included the development of mission (and vision and values) as a cultural baseline for strategy. But, as the corporate world has increasingly come to be dominated by attention to shareholder value and short term results, purpose had faded to the background.

In his talk, Sinek explains how great leaders inspire action by communicating from the inside out. These leaders communicate, first and foremost, their core beliefs – the reason why they do what they do. By doing so, he explains, their message resonates with those that believe the same thing and ultimately has a disproportionate impact on behavior due to human biology and psychology.

But is it a true embrace?

The business community’s embrace of purpose could not have been more apparent at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference, which I attended last week. It seemed as though nearly every person on stage felt a need to weave in their mission or purpose.

What struck me, however, even more than the predominance of purpose was the various degrees of effectiveness with which they delivered. Frankly, it was quite apparent which statements were an authentic expression of the leader’s ideals and which ones were contrived messaging intended to resonate with the audience.

The authentic message was accompanied by big eyes and genuine passion. The leader naturally wove the purpose throughout the conversation, effortlessly and without thought. In many cases a story about how the business came to be clearly highlighted the purpose, which often went back to the founder’s childhood or a key life experience. Other stories reinforced that the company was living this ideal. The purpose was painted, over and over throughout the interview. You could tell that it was a deeply held belief. The emotion that accompanied the stories was tangible and it was clear that the purpose illuminated all aspects of the company’s decision making. In other words, it was genuine.

The contrived messages stood in stark contrast. The purpose was espoused almost awkwardly. In some cases it was delivered in a clunky manner. The sentences seemed over prepared, almost as a slogan or tag line, not coming from the heart, but, coming from the mind. The purpose statements that seemed contrived often lacked emotion. They were stated from the head, not the heart. They seemed like gimmicks or “salesy.” They came across as inauthentic, and, in the most extreme cases as frauds.

Why Purpose Matters

According to Sinek, it turns out that the most effective leaders communicate in the reverse order to most others. They start with their why, then share how they intend to fulfill that purpose, and finally, describe what they are going to do. Most communicators do the opposite. They describe what they want, how they want it done, and, rarely do they even discuss the reasons why.

This method works because as humans we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to identify with those who share our ideals. We want the people we associate with and the goods we purchase to represent our ideals. Our biology is wired this way. It is wired for belonging.

Martin Luther King had a dream that all men were created equal. The Wright Brothers believed that figuring out how to fly would change the course of the world. Steve Jobs wanted to challenge the status quo.” Each one created a tribe of followers who believed – and believed in – the same things.

Effective leaders and marketers, it turns out, do the same. They share why the organization exists, how it makes this a reality, and then what they sell. Building loyal customers and raving fans, it turns out, comes down to attracting those who “share your fundamental beliefs.”

Where Marketers Get it Wrong

Unfortunately, too many marketers bastardize the ideas put forth by Sinek. They embrace the mechanics of the golden circle and they understand the biology behind it. And, so, they search high and low for a a “Why” that fits.

When marketers attempt to create a why to affect marketing, they make a fatal misstep. As humans we can sense authenticity. When someone communicates a fundamental belief that they don’t truly believe, we feel misled. It seems contrived. We may even feel manipulated.

In other words, by creating a “Why” that “makes sense,” marketers often forget that the “Why” is all about espousing a “fundamental belief.” A purpose is not a message that compliments a product or a service in order to promote sales – that’s called messaging. A fundamental belief is fundamental. It is genuine. It is authentic. It exists long before there was anything to market. No marketer can “create” a fundamental reason for being. Marketers can only figure out how to leverage the one that already exists.

Where Marketers Got it Right

Martin Luther King didn’t develop his “I have a dream” message in order to get folks to show up at the National Mall. To the contrary, his message was an authentic representation of what he believed and had been espousing for quite some time. It naturally attracted like-minded people.

The most successful marketers have followed in this same approach and embraced the reality of the organization’s authentic passion. Apple’s “Think Different” slogan came from an authentic purpose. Jobs’ desire to challenge the status quo always existed. It’s why he started the computer maker in the first place. No marketer could change that reality or create a new one. What Apple did was tell the world and find a way to connect that underlying purpose to computers. And, in doing so, they created raving fans.

In the same way, marketers at Harley Davidson didn’t decide that motorcycles were all about action, adventure, and rebellion. The company was founded on these ideals and the motorcycles they make are simply a representation of this reality. The genius of Harley’s marketing is that they have burned the connection between this purpose and motorcycles into almost everyone’s head. And, in doing so, they have built a cult-like following.

The right way to apply purpose to marketing

In HBR’s article, “Building Your Company’s Vision” by J Collins and J Porras, the authors state that purpose “is the organization’s reason for being. An effective purpose reflects people’s idealistic motivations for doing the company’s work. It doesn’t just describe the organization’s output or target customers; it captures the soul of the organization.“

Marketers should refrain from creating or changing a core purpose. Marketing’s job is to espouse the purpose upon which the company was founded and to paint the connection between this purpose and how the organization fulfills it. They can reinforce it, use it in branding, and connect it to the product or service that the organization sells. But, they can’t create or change it to meet their needs.

Of course, connecting the dots between purpose and product is a daunting task. Apple Computers weren’t always identified with Thinking Different. We might think that Harley owners are naturally rebellious, but, that’s only because years worth of marketing has engraved that connection in our head. Yet, it’s making this connection and making it clear to the market that makes magic.

A great challenge.

Marketing’s great challenge is to espouse the organization’s purpose, ensure that the world knows what it is, and connect it to the services that the firm provides. When a company does this, it is magic. They will be communicating it in a way that will resonate with buyers. When they try to force one that fits, the message often falls flat and comes across as off-putting.