It's true of us as humans that what you do isn't necessarily who you are. It's also true of companies - what you make, how you make it and why you make it might be totally distinct. But for most companies, purpose (what you promise ) and product (what you actually deliver) are inextricably tied.

The problem for many companies, however, is in really understanding what their purpose is. You might think that filling a market need is your purpose. But usually, for the most successful brands - ones that connect authentically with customers around purpose - there is something more, some deeper need that they are filling through the products they make, and how they make them.

When purpose and products don't align, customers may fail to connect in an authentic way or to care very much about your brand. Conversely, a recent study by Gallup found that when purpose and product were aligned, customers gave almost twice as much "wallet-share" as when these factors didn't align. So it's very important to understand at a deeper level what your purpose actually is. After all, if you don't care about your why, why should the customer?

So let's take a closer look at how purpose and product connect for brands.

For the Love of the Game

What is the true purpose of a company that makes sporting equipment? And why does that purpose matter to customers?

Think of the name Wilson, and few images might come to mind. Maybe you'll think of the footballs they make for the Super Bowl every year. The company prides itself on having made every NFL ball ever made for over 75 years, using vintage machinery, high-quality materials and old-school craftsmanship.

Wilson also owns the Louisville Slugger brand, a name that has become synonymous with baseball. For more than 130 years, Louisville Slugger bats have been used by major and minor leaguers, college athletes and players at every level all the way down to the youngest tee-baller. Louisville Slugger has sold more than 100,000,000 bats, making it far and away the most popular baseball bat of all time.

So how do Wilson and Louisville Slugger align product and purpose?

A clue can be found in how Wilson makes those NFL game balls. The same vintage machines that have been used to manufacture game balls for generations are still being used today. Only top quality leather is used to make each ball. The workers who make the balls have been there for years and have the expertise to make sure each ball is manufactured according to the rules of the game and the traditions of the sport.

A similar clue comes from the way Louisville Slugger makes its wooden bats - they're made using the same steps and processes since the 1880s and that hand craftsmanship is just as integral to the process today as it's ever been. It's about preserving traditions, just as it has always been. So committed is Louisville Slugger to the traditions of baseball, the factory where the bats are made is also a museum where the company has been doing factory tours for so long, they aren't even sure when they started.

So what does this say about purpose? It says sporting goods manufacturers aren't just making game equipment, they're in the business of making memories. After all, sports are something that families share. We tell stories about the bat, the racket, the ball we used in the big game. Bats and other equipment become collectibles passed down through the generations. Stories become legends and lessons that are handed down from mothers and fathers to sons and daughters, from coaches to players, from today's pro to tomorrow's players just coming up.

Kyle Schlegel, Wilson's Global Marketing Director, says, "At Louisville Slugger and at Wilson, we are inspired by the stories of athletes and everyone who comes in contact with our brands. This inspiration fuels everything we do, from how we manufacture product, the professional athletes that we partner with and the way we tell our stories. In the end, we are all athletes at heart as well, and find our calling in making players great and helping them transform how they play the game."

In the end, a sporting goods manufacturer's purpose isn't just about making a piece of equipment that will be used and forgotten. It's about preserving a heritage and passing down the love of the game.

Purpose is About Getting Real

Whether you want to call it paleo, Whole 30, or just eating healthy, eating food that is made from natural ingredients, not over-processed or filled with unpronounceable chemicals has become a goal for many of us in recent years.

Yet, when you look closely at many of the health food and protein bars that have been marketed as "health food" you can quickly see that there is a disconnect between the purpose of these products, which is to support a healthy lifestyle - and the products themselves. A protein bar, for instance, may contain protein, but it might also contain a lot of refined sugar, processed ingredients and a list of chemicals and preservatives as long as your arm.

Chicago-based RXBAR set out to change all that. The company was founded by two friends who simply wanted a better bar made from real ingredients, so they made one.

According to RXBAR CEO Peter Rahal, "In 2013, my co-founder Jared Smith and I called B.S. on the protein bar category and set out to make a protein bar that wasn't full of shit. Our mission was very simple - to create the best protein bar possible from nothing but 100% real, whole food ingredients. Our goal was to create a bar that served a purpose and solved a problem."

Rahal and Smith created their first bar in their kitchen and began marketing their product door to door. No venture capitalists, no flavor scientists, no marketing gimmicks, no logos. The product's packaging to this day contains a list of ingredients - eggs, nuts, dates - and not much else.

Said Rahal, "At RXBAR, we're all about being real and upfront - we don't cut corners, we add corners. We established these values day one, and it's still ring of everything we do. From our selection of high-quality ingredients, to bold and transparent packaging, to how we take care of our customers. Our purpose is making quality food from real ingredients and this will never change."

As it turns out, real food made from real ingredients was what customers wanted from a protein bar, so the product took off. The founders have worked hard to keep their focus on being real as the company has grown. The company's marketing features real customers, and is notable for the lack of claims they make regarding health benefits, weight loss, muscle gain, or anything else. What the company has done, however, is align their purpose - making real food - with the product they make.

The Takeaway

Purpose is the difference between managing people and resources, and mobilizing them. It's about what motivates your tribe of employees, customers and others invested in your brand to care enough to choose you over the other options. Your purpose is to fill a need that people have. A kid might need a bat, but the parent buying that bat needs to pass on their love for the game. You might need to eat more protein, but what you really need is to eat food that isn't filled with a lot of garbage.

That deeper need that your customers share and that you can fulfill is where your purpose lies. In other words, it's not about what you make, it's about why you make it in the first place.

Published on: Apr 19, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.