The Difference Between Brand Purpose, Vision and Mission

September 6, 2016

by Carla Johnson

The ability for a brand to separate itself from the rest of the market and rally employees to deliver distinguishing experiences for customers is a challenge for every company. Taking care of the daily details of running a business of any size is demanding. Add to that the fact that more customers want to do business with companies that stand for something beyond just making money, and that’s a lot to balance.

While nearly every organization has put together its mission, vision and values, few have gone beyond to look into brand purpose. The importance of building a brand on ‘purpose’ is becoming more and more important, not only for customers but also for a new wave of employees. While a brand promise lets people know what to expect – think of FedEx’s promise of reliability “when it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight” – a brand purpose goes much deeper.

Its Not What You SellThe best book I’ve read on brand purpose is It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For by Roy Spence. Spence is one of the main voices in articulating brand purpose, having worked with powerhouses such as P&G, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods and the Clinton Foundation. He defines brand purpose in this way:

Core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being. And effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work – it taps their idealistic motivations—and gets at the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money.

(In my work, I use the label brand story more often than brand purpose because it’s a term that has greater awareness.)

The brand purpose is the WHY of the brand. Why are we in the business that we’re in?

For example, here’s Zappos purpose: To inspire the world by showing it’s possible to simultaneously deliver happiness to customers, employees, community, vendors and shareholders in a long-term sustainable way.

It doesn’t matter the size of your brand, every company can benefit from this kind of clarity.

As we expand into the relationship between brand purpose, vision and mission, we can look at Unilever as an example:

Purpose: To make sustainable living commonplace

Vision: Double the size of the business, while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact.

Mission: We will work to create a better future every day. We will help people look good, feel good and get more out of life with brands and services that are good for them and for others. We will inspire people to take small, everyday actions that can add up to a big difference for the world.

Purpose: The Why

What’s your brand’s ultimate reason for being? If you went away tomorrow, what gap would there be? These are foundational questions that your purpose statement needs to answer.

David Packard described this beautifully in a speech he gave to Hewlett-Packard’s training group in 1960, saying, “I want to discuss why a company exists in the first place. In other words, why are we here? I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being.

“Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop stimulating change and progress.”

Vision: The What

If your purpose statement is your ‘why,’ then your vision is ‘what’ you want to accomplish as a result of it. If you remain committed to your purpose, what will be the outcome of it? When Unilever is able to make sustainable living commonplace, then they see their vision of what will happen as doubling the size of the business, while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact.

Mission: The How

This is where most brands start and stop, by just describing how the work gets done. Both executives and marketers have an easier time getting their head around tactical things. But unless you know ‘why’ you’re in business and ‘what’ you expect to accomplish, how you get there won’t mean a thing. The first two steps are hard to work through but you can’t have a believable company mission without them.

Whether you develop your brand’s purpose, vision and mission all at once or in phases doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you understand the need and place for each, and use them where they belong in order to succeed.

Related Posts:

How Brand Purpose Drives Profit & Performance in Uncertain Times
The 10 Functions of Storytelling
Storytelling: How to Stand Apart From the Competition [Video]

Photo credit: Joshua Earle

     About Carla


Carla is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author. Having lived, worked, and studied on five continents, she's partnered with top brands and conferences to train thousands of people how to rethink the work that they do and the impact they can have. Her visionary expertise has inspired and equipped leaders at all levels to embrace change, welcome new ideas, and transform their business.

Her work with Fortune 500 brands served as the foundation for many of her books. Her tenth, RE:Think Innovation, is a #1 new release that busts the myth that innovation is something that requires a specific degree or special training. In fact, Carla explains why, to be a successful company in today's hyper-competitive, customer-driven world, innovation must be everyone's business. Her goal is to teach one million people how to become innovators by 2025.

Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.