Are Marketers Too Consumed With The Consumer?

Originally published in the Forbes Industry Council Feb 13, 2020.

So much talk in marketing today is about the customer—consumer centricity, consumer experience, consumer data and personalization. But are we too consumed with the consumer? Don’t get me wrong: I’m a geek’s geek when it comes to mining for audience insights. But to truly understand who our highest potential customers are, don’t we really need to know ourselves first? Our organization? Our co-workers? Our brand? How often are we looking internally to inspire what we say and do externally? For all the virtues and benefits of a strong customer focus, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are and what makes us special.

That brings us to brand purpose.

A recent study from Harvard Business Review confirmed what many studies have shown: A strong, clear and compelling brand purpose drives business growth. Previous studies by Millward Brown and Meaningful Brands showed that purpose-driven brands outperformed their competitors by 200% to 400%. Additionally, consider that, according to Gallup Poll, less than 30% of employees believe in the brand that employs them.

Purpose is powerful. Purpose is profitable. And purpose comes from within. Consumers can inform and inspire it, but purpose is all about passion, and no one can give you passion. No one can define your purpose for you.

How to find your brand’s purpose: soul searching.

You can’t sell from an empty soul, so start internally, and prepare to dig in. Deep. The HBR study suggests that there are two approaches: internal and external. However, both start and largely center around an internal focus. So perhaps more than internal and external, we should recast these approaches as inspirational and aspirational, meaning you can dive in and be inspired by your history, or you can dream about your future and what you aspire to be. I’d recommend both.

So here are five tips to get started:

1. Start with your company’s creation story.

Who was there at the beginning? Why did they do it? What passion was driving them, and what problem were they trying to solve? All brands and organizations were new at some point. Brainchildren. Passion projects. “Aha” moments. True, not every company started romantically, in a garage by a scrappy young person with a dream in their heart and a sparkle in their eye. But building new brands and bringing new products/solutions to market is hard work. Someone somewhere poured every ounce of their blood, sweat and tears into the cause. Look back before you look forward. Find inspiration in your company’s legacy and lore. And be sure to hear them from as many points of view as possible.

2. Work to understand all those within your walls, from every angle, throughout your organization.

What gets them out of bed? What drives them? What brings them the most satisfaction? Don’t just rely on employee surveys or a few focus groups. Become an anthropologist within your own organization. Use observation, interaction, inference and intuition.

3. Get dreaming.

Absorb the past, but dream about the future. And, most importantly, don’t get bogged down in the present. Lift people out of their day-to-day struggles by showing them how cool they are and inspiring them to think even bigger about how much cooler they can become.

4. Avoid traditional mission/vision/values paradigms.

They often take you to an undifferentiated place. For example, how many companies the world overuse words like “integrity,” “equality” and “collaboration” as their cornerstones? While these are amazing and essential qualities to look for or demand in employees and can define your culture, they are not the makings of an insightful and impactful brand purpose. This is marketing, not HR (at least it is for this exercise). If any brand or company can claim your same purpose, try again.

5. Bring in outside help.

This is important work. It’s proven to have a strong return on investment, but you can’t get that return without the investment. An experienced outside firm can bring two critical capabilities. First, they bring the much-needed outsider’s perspective. They simply can see things you cannot, and usually very quickly. Your employees will talk to them and share things they wouldn’t with a colleague. Secondly, the right partner brings the ability to shape your purpose and bring it to life. Remember: Purpose is about passion. Passion is about emotion. And you need expert communicators to express your newly uncovered purpose in a truly powerful, galvanizing way.

By following these tips, you’ll be well on your way to building something more than just an authentic, purpose-driven brand. You’ll be shaping an authentic, purpose-driven organization. And with that purpose firmly in hand, all of your consumer research and insights become far more meaningful than your starting point. They become part of a truly holistic understanding of your brand ecosystem that comes from, expresses and stirs the soul.