The business world is awash with debates and discussions about brand purpose. Who has it. Who appears to NOT have it.

I don’t believe there is a more important discussion to be having as a marketer or brand leader.

Like you, I spent much of the December holidays cramming in some reading (between trips to the mall, wrapping presents and family gorging of course) and became reacquainted with Roger Martin and AG Lafley’s superb book “Playing to Win”. One of its key lessons is brands can only win if they have a winning aspiration. Certainly operations, marketing, distribution all play a role but a guiding aspiration is pivotal. Lafley and Martin reference the classics like Nike (To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world) and McDonalds (Be our customers favourite place and way to eat) but their point is simple.

Brands with a purpose win.

Those without a purpose, or aspiration, fail.

Simon Sinek is the recognized expert on this subject. His TED talk and book “Start with Why” are required reading for anyone grappling with this thorny point.

Simplistically his premise is that people don’t buy WHAT you make. They buy WHY you make it. His go-to example is Apple. They don’t communicate that they build laptops, music devices, phones and tablets like HP, Lenovo, Microsoft or Samsung. Instead, Apple communicates that they’re driven to unlock the creative potential in everyone who wants to think differently about the world…and don’t you want to join them.

Different approach but powerful.

Why, not What.

That got me thinking. Which Canadian brands would Simon Sinek be applauding and which would have him shaking his head…or offering to consult for several thousand dollars a day?

Hat Tip

Certainly we have a few.

Canadian Tire has brilliantly positioned themselves as Canada’s General Store. Granted they have the heritage and the inventory to support that, but they genuinely act as a brand that understands that life in Canada is tough and arduous (look at December 2013 if you want proof of that) and folks want the assistance of a General Store to get them through. Canadian Tire wont stock items that can’t take the kinda beating Canada’s weather will throw at you. That purpose shines through even in some hyperbolic advertising from their agency TAXI.

 TELUS is another. Originally carving out a distinct Challenger opinion with their “The Future is Friendly” positioning they’ve morphed into an organization logo_telusobsessed with heightened customer service and a genuine customer-centricity throughout the firm. In a sector – Telecommunications – often derided, TELUS have been posting impressive gains in all key metrics of customer acquisition, reduced churn which is the category death knell, and customer satisfaction. Signs that their purpose is making a mark.  (Disclaimer I’ve worked with TELUS)

Hudsons Bay, under the guidance of CEO Bonnie Brooks, has been transformed from a lumbering retail chain that many had written off, to a vibrant, up-scale clothing destination. No small feat but Bonnie has trimmed inventory, revamped locations, injected personality into the advertising all in an attempt to redefine, or resurrect, The Hudson Bay Company for the 21st century. Importantly Brooks has stated she wants The Bay to be “an adventurer”. What a glorious reflection of the company’s heritage – and stimulating way to contemporize the company. A clear singular purpose, to be a pre-eminent shopping destination, has catalyzed The Bay internally and with ordinary Canadians.

Head Scratch

I’d categorize these as “I’m no longer sure what their purpose is”

Tim Hortons was once the distinctive mark of Canadian brands. A cup of Timmy’s, a box of Timbits, a 5am hockey practice, a maple leaf on your backpack or logo-entattoed on your body and you were Canadian. No more. Somewhere between pressure from Starbucks and a reinvigorated McDonalds Canada (disclaimer I’ve worked with McD) and Tim Hortons appears to have lost their way. Perhaps their purpose hasn’t changed internally but as a customer I can’t see any signs of that purpose in their delivery. Uncomfortable seating, time limits on their WiFi, perpetual promotions and Tim Hortons no longer feels warm, convivial and nurturing…and that just doesn’t feel Canadian.

Head Shake

Sadly this grouping was easier to compile. Canadian brands that personify an obsession with WHAT they make, build, offer and no sign of that elusive WHY.

Blackberry has to top this list. Too much has been written, and too much has been lost on the stock market, about how BB lost its way. Another stellar example of a purposeful organization at the outset that couldn’t react and respond to a tumultuous sector. The lack of vision and purpose couldn’t be clearer than this chronology of quotations from former CEO’s Basillie and Lazaridis. Forget Playbook, missing touchscreen as a trend, spotty OS and a freefalling stock, those are merely symptoms of a larger organizational lack of purpose.

Rogers Communications has long been the bad boy of Telco here in Canada. An impressive array of top-notch products, a recent content coup with the NHL and aggressive moves into retail banking all signal a very driven organization. Yet they’re seen as the poster child for atrocious customer service and a bloated corporate culture. Many Canadians are waiting with bated breath to see what new CEO Guy Laurence has planned. Expectations run high based on his UK reputation but there is no denying he has his work cut out for him defining, instilling – and communicating – a purpose for Rogers that will shift current perceptions.

lululemon-logoLululemon has to epitomize the “hero to zero” award. The Vancouver-based athletic company was once the sweaty sexy symbol of the yoga crowd until some ill-considered remarks from the (former) CEO tore that to shreds. As stupefying as those comments were, the internal schism it created was even sadder to watch. This from a company whose internal cohesion and purpose was so well-defined that it was legendary in Canadian business.

Sinek, Lafley, Martin may just be the loudest and most recent proponents for this type of thinking. And heaven knows Canadian brands aren’t the only ones struggling with this problem. But you can’t deny it’s a critical business issue.

Brand purpose isn’t just a mission statement but a set of principles that guides all decisions by a company.

Brand purpose becomes a pivotal touchstone for customers and employees giving them a reason to say “this is why I choose this brand” and “this is why I choose to work here”.  Purpose is why consumers will find a way to bring your brand into their lives. It’s certainly a deeper motivator than the functional, or even emotional, benefits we tend to cajole them with.

Ultimately, today’s proliferation of me-too brands and fickle customers affords no marketing and brand leader the luxury of being without purpose.

If you’ve not seen Simon Sinek speak at TED, you must watch this. Better yet, get your team, your agency, your CEO in a room and watch it together.

Any Canadian brands I’ve missed? Do you agree with the ranking I’ve given the one’s above. Sound off folks, this is too important a conversation not to have.

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