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Meaning, Purpose and Authenticity

Every brand I encounter these days is trying to project a sense of authenticity with which it hopes to capture the loyalty of its customers (especially those elusive and inscrutable millennials). Many of these brands represent large commercial enterprises that have recently done serious work to define their purpose in the world, and you would hope that a truly purpose-driven organization would not have to stretch too far in order to feel authentic to its customers. But making the connection between purpose and authenticity is not easy. Most often, the missing link is meaning.

A few decades ago, when I was running an animation studio and struggling to master marketing at Seat of the Pants University, somebody told me I should articulate our mission and vision. I found the assignment surprisingly difficult, in part because I had trouble remembering which was which. Today, I see a similar confusion about meaning and purpose. In fact, more often than not, the marketers I talk to seem to conflate the two, as if “meaning and purpose” were a single concept. From a story point of view, however, it is really important to distinguish between the meaning of a brand and its purpose. In my experience, it is very difficult to use story effectively if you don’t.

In the simplest terms, meaning is what you believe, and purpose is what you do in order to manifest that belief. Authenticity–in a commercial context–is what results when the purpose you demonstrate flows directly from a belief you share with your audience.

Ideally, this is how it works: Because you and your colleagues share a particular set of beliefs, you go out into the marketplace and you do stuff that benefits you and your customers in some particular way. Because your customers also share your beliefs, they feel connected to you, and they have a reason to believe that you might be better at what you do than someone who is just in it for the money.

Purpose, as a concept, is not hard to understand. It is essentially synonymous with mission: Purpose is the thing that you do because of your shared beliefs. Meaning is trickier, and–not surprisingly–it is the concept at the heart of story. In fact, our definition of story is a sequence of events that communicates meaning. If there is, in fact, a shared belief at the heart of your story, then it should not be hard to articulate the purpose of the enterprise, and if you act on those beliefs, your audience will sense the authentic inspiration that drives you.

Nike–the perennial favorite case study for brand equity and the power of story–has a mission statement that clearly articulates the purpose of the brand: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” But that way of articulating the purpose of the brand begs the essential story question: Why? What does the brand believe that drives it to pursue that mission with energy, enthusiasm and conviction?

Interestingly, wherever Nike displays its mission statement, it appends a quote from co-founder Bill Bowerman which says, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” At a superficial level, the Bowerman quote simply broadens the target so that the consumer audience is not defined too narrowly. But to my ear, “if you have a body, you are an athlete” starts to feel like a belief. I can imagine why someone who shares that belief might be excited to bring inspiration and innovation to athletes everywhere. This belief is manifested in a lot of the actions and communications that resonate powerfully for the Nike brand. One good illustration is the “Find Your Greatness” campaign that Nike ran during the London Olympics. Here’s a link to my favorite spot, which features an overweight teenage boy jogging doggedly down the middle of a country road outside London, Ohio.

At the end of the day, whether or not the Bowerman quote perfectly captures the meaning of the Nike story is not important. A good storyteller doesn’t broadcast the meaning of a story. The storyteller’s job is to leave clues that help those of us in the audience discover the meaning for ourselves. What is important for Nike is that the audience is left with a feeling that the brand believes in something beyond just making money. Your audience understands that, if you are running a commercial enterprise, you have to be profitable to stay in business. But what we want to know is whether there is something deeper driving you to do what you do. If there is, then we have a reason to believe that you might be better at what you do than someone who is in it just for the money. In a commercial context, that’s what authenticity means.

“For B2B businesses, Character is a powerful tool. I have used Character three times in my leader marketing roles, 2x were in B2B businesses. The Character work was the foundation of a transformation in product innovation/commercialization, rebranding, M&A, sales growth, and employee engagement. Character’s work helped us take dead brands and make them relevant again and helped us establish lesser-known brands with high share in a B2B market. What’s so unique is that you don’t create something that the ‘marketing talking heads’ think the company needs, you use the history, culture and DNA that is already part of the company to bring out the true story that is unique to only your brand. The Character team is so special, genuine, and has the perfect mix of creative and business knowledge to lead cross-functional executives through this process. ”
—Melissa Minihan, Head of Digital Commerce & Marketing, Veritiv Corporation

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Character’s approach to brand building is unlike any other in the business. Jim and his team use the timeless truths of human storytelling to unlock story potential and connect deeply with brand audiences. I’ve worked with Character throughout my career, and my experience with Tabasco was as fascinating, inspiring, and productive as ever. 

Character worked with our team not only to help us re-examine and re-articulate the elemental truths of our iconic global brand but also to develop and apply practical tools that make the brand story framework user-friendly for our entire organization. 

I whole-heartedly recommend Character to any brand marketer who is looking to make intuitive and durable connections with their consumer.”

Lee Susen, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Tabasco / McIlhenny Company