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.