Start with Purpose

Why Communities Need Purpose-Driven Brand

When thinking about brand, the first thing that comes to mind is logo—and not without good reason. Logos are a vital visual element of brands. When you think of companies like Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola, it’s hard to imagine them without their iconic symbols. But is that all that comes to mind? Many organizations think that brand starts and ends with a logo, and it’s time to erase that notion.


Brand is so much more than a logo. If you let it, your brand will work harder for you than a sexy logo or catchy tagline.

More than a Logo

A logo serves as a key symbol of your community, but your brand speaks to much, much more. Brand both represents and shapes neighborhoods. It’s your experience, your people, your story. Brand is everything.

You have a brand, whether you manage it or not. People’s experiences in your community have evoked impressions that form brand identity. Every time they drive down your main street, go to a local restaurant or talk to another constituent, they are developing memories of your brand that stick. The question remains whether or not it’s the brand you really want.

The good news is that it’s never too late to work on your brand, but be deliberate with your efforts. A common mistake that many community and city organizations make is looking at what other place-based brands are doing and trying to replicate it. Gathering insights and ideas from peers is a great way to start, but proceed with caution. Simply replicating what your peers have done diminishes your community’s distinctive strengths and qualities. The task at-hand is to create an authentic brand that’s inherently yours.

Start with Purpose

So how do you make your community stand out in a world where people have so many choices? The process starts with purpose.

Since the beginning of time, humans have been motivated by purpose. Both consciously and unconsciously, people are driven to find meaning in their lives and leave behind a legacy that benefits the greater good.

Your community’s purpose should answer one simple question: Why do we exist? Many organizations and places get purpose confused with mission and vision statements, which are designed to communicate what an organization does and the lofty ideals it’s trying to achieve. While these are critical brand tools, your purpose takes it a step further.

Best-selling author Simon Sinek said it best, “…people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This popular mantra reflects our desire to connect with organizations that fulfill a need. Because of this reality, your purpose must be rooted in the human experience. It should be authentic, emotional and of service to others, helping you build the strongest foundation possible.

The Utility of Purpose

It’s important to remember that purpose isn’t just institutional fluff — it is useful. A clearly defined purpose provides you with a framework to design experiences that engage your target audiences. And when you face a challenging situation, you can evaluate your choices against your purpose statement.

The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Cleveland articulates their purpose as follows: To inspire generations of passionate conservation advocates for our natural environment. Not only does this statement clearly define the Nature Center’s target audience, it serves as a key decision-making tool, allowing the organization to make recommendations and evaluate solutions that serve for the betterment of their community. It helps them stay on track, aligns messaging and organizes efforts around a common theme.

With every initiative and spend, ask yourself, “Does this help us fulfill our core purpose?” If the answer is “no,” does it really have a place in your community?

So what happens if you skip the work of understanding and articulating your purpose? It will become extremely difficult to create a cohesive brand that helps you achieve your goals. People need more than a logo or a website to latch onto. Brands come to life when an experience amplifies the promise that you’re offering.

Why Your ‘Why’ Really Matters

Focusing on your ‘why’ — your true aim — makes the rest of your branding work a whole lot easier. You cannot develop strategies to open up a new future for your brand if your ‘why’ is undefined or vague. In mountaineering, you plant a flag after reaching the summit, but when it comes to defining and managing your brand, you plant your flag at the start. Having that powerful symbol in sight will keep your team focused on goals, while also attracting others who want to participate in the adventure.

Ask yourself: Does our core purpose serve our key stakeholders? Purpose-driven communities thrive because they are about people and for people. People are the lifeblood of your economy — people go where other people are. Your sustainability relies on their contributions, work and advocacy. So give them something to rally around.

A Purpose-Driven Brand

Managing a brand that will stand the test of time takes courage and a lot of persistence. Why? Because it’s shaped by public perception; therefore, you need to constantly evaluate how community members’ attitudes toward your brand balance against your intentions. Your brand is defined by people’s experiences in your community. It is everything, and it will be judged in accordance with what you plan, print, write, say, build and offer.

Armed with purpose, you have the opportunity to align what you want people to think about your community with what people actually think about your community. Let your purpose be the north star of your brand, guiding your master plans, messaging and actions. When you know exactly what emotional response you want to provoke, every asset that you design — your logo, website, events, programs, classrooms, infrastructure, etc. — should reinforce your purpose-driven brand in a consistent, authentic way. And in turn, you’ll attract people who believe in the same things that you do.

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