About 14 months ago, I had the good fortune to interview Simon Sinek, author of the transformational "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action." From that interview came the spark of an idea: interview a thousand brands to learn their stories - their why - and understand how they're telling them.

From startups to multi-billion dollar brands, the inspiration, or why, behind your storytelling is one of the most critical questions marketers need to answer. Although many - if not most - marketers believe themselves to be "in the storytelling business." How they approach their why, or the reason they tell those stories, may differ, but there are a few lessons that these brands tend to share.

So far, I've interviewed about 450 brands, at a pace of about 30 interviews a month. That's seven each week. That's a lot of interviews. It has been a heck of a journey; along the way some important lessons have started to emerge. I thought I'd share some of them with you.

1. Purpose - Your Why - Is the Driver

Trying to tell stories without a clear purpose, is like trying to take a roadtrip without a map. It makes things much more difficult, if not downright impossible. You'll wind up taking wrong turns, if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, you'll get hopelessly lost.

Your why is basically your storytelling map. To tell effective stories, and to make good business decisions, you need a clear understanding of why you're doing what you're doing. What guides you? Where are you trying to go? What are you hoping to achieve?

The answers to these questions are the core of your why statement or your purpose. Often these statements miss the mark: they're too long, too complex, they talk about what and how you do, rather than why you do it. But when your purpose hits the bullseye, it will be: Simple. Genuine. Aspirational.

Purpose differs from value propositions and mission statements in that it's really about boiling down why you exist. A purpose that connects - whether it's with your tribe, customers or stakeholders - is one with the power to transform businesses and lives. Your purpose is the most important story your brand must tell - it should be simple enough to be easily understood, genuine enough to connect authentically with your tribe, and aspirational enough to inspire people to take action.

2. Your Brand Reflects Your Culture

Your brand isn't just about the stuff you make or the services you provide. It's about the culture that makes you unique. This means there can't be a disconnect between the face you present to the outside world, and the one your tribe experiences. It's important to be who you say you are.

Unfortunately, many brands have created a wall between who they say they are, and who they really are. They see their brand as being external, while culture is internal. This can happen for many reasons, but perhaps the main reason is when companies think of the brand purpose as separate from culture. When this happens you might see brands promoting their customer service orientation, while simultaneously making business decisions that are harmful to the customer, the environment, or their own employees. As Simon Sinek might put it, your why, what and how need to align.

In a world where employees and customers can increasingly see behind the veil, this way of doing things creates a real mess - disengaged employees, unhappy customers and disappointed stakeholders. The story you're telling (you know - the one you're promoting on your website, your marketing materials, etc.) and the lived experience (what your customers, employees and other stakeholders actually get) must line up.

The challenge for many companies - especially as they get larger - is finding a way to tell purpose-filled stories while keeping the internal and the external in alignment. Finding a purpose that truly reflects your culture is largely an internal process, but one that needs as much participation from those who connect with that purpose as possible.

In other words, the more people you can involve in finding purpose, the more reflective it is of the culture your people are living, the more compelling your story will be.

3. Culture is Tribe, Tribe is Culture

Speaking of culture, a lot of companies get it wrong. People think culture is about things like "work life balance" or beer and pizza on Fridays. These are nice to have, but they are not the hallmarks of a great culture.

Culture is defined in various ways, but one of the ones that resonates best is in the anthropological context of culture as the sum total of human endeavours regarded collectively. In other words, it's about what people create when they build something together.

There is a reason our organization uses terms like "culture" and "tribe," rather than mission or employees. It's about creating a shared sense of belonging, a belief in something that is bigger than the service we provide.

And so it is with your culture. When people come together as a tribe, they each contribute to the culture. Your people and their stories are the unique DNA that makes your brand different from the rest. Great cultures happen when each tribe member believes in the purpose, understands why it matters, and how their job or role plays into it. Great storytelling happens when what you're telling the world reflects what your company really is on the inside.

The takeaway from 450 interviews is that when your purpose aligns with brand, brand aligns with culture, and culture aligns with tribe, businesses succeed. When people engage their hearts and minds around why your brand exists, great cultures and brands happen. Pizza and beer are optional.

Published on: Mar 7, 2017
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