Brand Mission: Finding Your Why

If you’re anything like me, it’s way too easy to get caught up in the daily grind of work—meetings, presentations, trips, repeat—and forget the underlying forces that motivate us to keep at it. Of course, we all work to grow our business and make some money, but is that really what gets us out of bed in the morning? What’s the deeper meaning that motivates us to do what we do—and not just work for work’s sake?

I started asking myself this question recently after hearing a terrific speaker: Simon Sinek. He called this deeper meaning your “WHY,” and he makes a convincing case that each of us needs to define our mission and values—as individuals, as teams, and as companies—in order to succeed.

Here’s Sinek’s argument, in sum: You and your customers know what you sell—a computer, a lipstick, a cruise. A few people on your team, and maybe your sales force, know how you create that thing, or your unique selling proposition: Your computers have the fastest processors, your lipstick comes in the trendiest colors, your cruise ships have the best amenities. But not everyone know why you create it. What’s the purpose, the cause, the belief that sits at the very heart of what you do?

Sinek says that consumers respond to the what and the how with their neocortex, the part of the brain involved in rational thought, language, and decision-making. But the why corresponds to the limbic brain, which is where emotions reside. When you go with your gut—led by an instinct or feeling that you can’t always put into words, you’re using your limbic brain. It follows that companies that have discovered their why and express it well, are appealing to customers’ emotions and instincts, and therefore are more successful. As he puts it, “People don’t buy what you do—they buy why you do it.”

Take Apple, for example: The computers and devices they sell are well designed and arguably the best on the market (though they have many detractors). But consumers go crazy for Apple products—waiting in line for hours just to be the first to have the new iPhone. That’s because they’ve communicated a brand mission of “thinking different,” being a force for disruption and helping people unleash their creative energy. If that aligns with what you believe, says Apple, you should buy an iPhone. Otherwise, maybe you’re a Samsung person.

So companies need to figure out what they believe—and talk about what they believe—in order to attract customers who believe the same thing. Sinek has written books that delve into how businesses (as well as divisions of a company, or even individuals) can articulate their common purpose and ensure that it cascades throughout the organization. It involves workshops in which employees tell stories about the effects the company’s products has had on customers, organizing those ideas into common themes, and settling on an overarching “Why Statement” that defines the company’s mission and reflects its values. (To learn more about Sinek’s process, visit his website, StartWithWhy.com.)

Avenue Two Travel, a leisure-focused travel agency in the Philadelphia area, brought in Sinek and his team when it went through a major rebranding a few year ago (it was formerly known as Park Avenue Travel). “We were a second-generation family-owned agency with a good foundation, but we had outgrown our local roots, and wanted to figure out the best way to look at ourselves as a new company,” says CEO Joshua Bush. “We started with why—what was our promise to ourselves, our clients, and our partners?” The answer: A belief that travel unites people and “exposes us to new cultures, thoughts, ideas and ways of life”—and a commitment to work with people who share those values. That translates into everything from marketing materials all the way down to office dress codes, and includes a five-step sales process that begins with a conversation to discover a client’s intentions and expectations from the trip. “We listen to why the person wants to travel, which is often more important than the where and the what.” Bush points to a high client repeat rate and a very low employee turnover as evidence that the efforts have paid off.

Of course, Sinek’s approach is not the only one an organization can take. But many industry leaders I’ve spoken to have gone through similar processes and believe in its importance. “Once we acquire a brand, our number one exercise is to determine its DNA and its unique positioning, first within our portfolio and then against its competitive set,” says Rick Harvey Lam, SVP of Global Marketing at Accor. The hospitality company’s recent acquisition and investment spree has grown its portfolio to 35 brands, adding Fairmont, Raffles, Swissôtel, 21c, SBE, onefinestay, and others to core brands like Sofitel and Pullman. “We ask, what would characterize the brand if it were a person? Generosity? Authenticity? We focus on where the brand was born, geographically—like the French-ness of Sofitel, the Asian-ness of Raffles, the American-ness of Fairmont—and whatever that means. And then we inject that brand essence into everything that we do, whether it’s recruitment guidelines for HR, or the way we roll out experiences, or what the food and beverage is like.”

Photo: Raffles.com

The emotional benefits to the guest are top of mind for Accor. For example, every Sofitel reflects the French joie de vivre and sense of indulgence, says Lam, regardless of whether it’s located in France. “Even in our hotel in Egypt, there are codes of Frenchness, even if the hotel is located in, say, Egypt. It will always have the best croissant in town, guests are greeted with bonjour, the uniforms have a certain French elegance. But it’s not a cookie-cutter interpretation.” Raffles has a discreet approach to service that’s particularly Asian. “We see Raffles as an oasis for the well-traveled, so once people arrive they can relax,” says Lam. “So the butlers are present and proactive but intuitive, not in your face.”

I can think of a few other examples of travel organizations that have a clearly defined mission and follow through on it in everything they do. Singita, whose safari lodges both redefine luxury and promote awareness of the fragility of the African environment. Viking Cruises, whose dedication to “making the world a little smaller” has persisted as they’ve expanded from river cruises to ocean voyages. Six Senses, whose wellness-focused resorts help guests, as they put it, “Reconnect with yourself, others, and the world around you.” All of these companies publish their mission and values on their websites, train their employees in carrying them out, and ensure that their operations ladder back up to these goals.

How about you? Has your organization undertaken a similar exercise to define your raison d’être? I would love to hear about your experience, and how it has affected your bottom line.

As always I welcome your feedback on what’s changing in travel today. I look forward to getting your comments. Let’s keep the conversation going!