mark earls and the "purpose-idea"

When I’m talking with clients about marketing, it’s very hard for me to go more than a few minutes without mentioning the term, “Purpose-Idea”.
The “P.I.” is not a term I coined myself. That credit goes to my friend, marketing hero and frequent podcast partner, Mark Earls. He wrote about the P.I. in his seminal marketing book, “Welcome To The Creative Age”.
Marks begins his thesis by saying that actually, when you think about it, talking about “The Brand” is pretty meaningless. Imagine lots of meetings crammed full of suits yakking on about “Core Brand Values”, “Living The Brand” and all that marketing waffle, and you kinda get the idea. I’ve been in those meetings and they suck.
What’s far more interesting, Mark says, is the reason we all get out of bed in the morning. The thing that drives us as individuals, as a company. Ask yourself, what is our company for? Is all our professional life about just selling aluminum widgets for 16.7% margin, or is there some sort of higher meaning involved? What are we trying to change? To improve upon? To disrupt?
Why are we here?
Mark then goes on to say how much more fun, interesting and profitable it is for a company when what it does has a sense of shared purpose, an idea it can believe in. This is the “P.I.”
The Blue Monster i.e. “Change The World Or Go Home” is a P.I., the Microsoft tagline, “Your Potential, Our Passion” is not.
Why not? Because that’s not how people talk in real life. Sure, the word, “passion” may be in the line, but it burns with about as much passion as a wet Kleenex. Which is why it comes off being contrived and phony at worse, boring and uninspired at best.
I’m not trying to go after Microsoft, here. They’re still buddies of mine, I continue to like, admire and respect them. But there’s so much real, genuine passion under the hood of that car, I just WISH they could do a better job of letting the rest of us see it more often. I find their tagline a sorely missed opportunity.
I would guess that the cheapest and easiest way to better articulate this passion, My Friends in Redmond, is to spend more time thinking about what your Purpose-Idea ACTUALLY IS, as opposed to what you think people outside the company might want to hear. I’d recommend any Microsoft employee who knows me, to go read Mark’s book. Rock on.
[Disclosure: I consider myself a friend of Microsoft. They’ve been clients of mine in the past, they’ll hopefully be clients of mine in the future, they are not not clients of mine at the moment. It’s all good.]



  1. that, and “The Brand Gap” link for the book:
    I think they nail it when they write (roughly as follows)
    “a brand is the gut feeling somebody has about you”
    (or your product, or your service, or your company)
    I agree Microsoft should let the good side be more visible. But then we go back to the argument I made commenting in this blog a few weeks ago:
    Abolish culture of terror so the good, passionate guys can speak.
    People will never see how good and passionate they are otherwise.
    And then the gut feeling will start to slowly change.
    Reading Mr Clayton replying to my comment the other day is certainly a great start.

  2. Now that “there’s a computer on every desktop” MSFT is trapped in “now what?” mode.

  3. I share your admiration of that book and am amazed that companies don’t take the first simple step of ensuring that their marketing reflects their strategy (purpose). Microsoft’s business strategy is not directly anything to do with other people’s potential so why they say that in their tagline is, I agree, a mystery.
    If a company knows and believes in a strategy that enthuses its staff and customers, the marketing should literally fall out of it. If it doesn’t, I have to question if that company either knows or believes in what its purpose is.

  4. Great conversation. The book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (a little dated as you read through it, though)has a similar gem to what vruz quoted as to what a brand is. It said that “what you think your brand is doesn’t really matter. It’s only what your customer thinks your brand is that matters.” So now the question is how does the perception of what you want your brand to be become that in the eyes and minds of your customers/audience?

  5. You’re absolutely right, Hugh — and you’ve especially hit the nail on the head there at the end, when you talk about what Microsoft thinks about what other people think about what they think (ad infinitum . . .).
    This calls to mind one of my favorite quotes about the creative process — said originally by Arthur Miller about writing, but just as applicable, in my mind, to ANYTHING you’ll try to put your guts into:
    “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He has to be endangered by it. His own attitudes have to be tested in it. The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”
    The antithesis of what Miller is talking about is “Your Potential, Our Passion” — or Sara Lee’s ludicrous “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee”. THAT’s what you’re gonna hang your hat on? THAT’s what’s gonna get you out of bed in the morning? No.
    Changing the world? Hell, yes.

  6. @john
    Instead of ‘taglines’ and ‘P.I.s’ Guy Kawasaki, in “The Art of the Start” talks about “mantras”.
    His startup checklist item #2 is:
    “MAKE MANTRA. Forget mission statements; theyʼre long, boring, and irrelevant. No
    one can ever remember them—much less implement them. Instead, take your meaning
    and make a mantra out of it. This will set your entire team on the right course.”
    he gives some real life examples:
    * Authentic athletic performance (Nike)
    * Fun family entertainment (Disney)
    * Rewarding everyday moments (Starbucks)
    * Think (IBM)
    and some possible fictitious mantras:
    Real Mission Statement:
    “The Coca-Cola Company exists to benefit and refresh everyone it touches”
    Hypotetical Mantra:
    “Refresh the world”
    Red Cross
    Real Mission Statement:
    “To help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies”
    Hypotetical Mantra:
    “Stop suffering”
    He draws an important distinction between a tagline and a mantra.
    “A final thought on mantras: Donʼt confuse mantras and tag lines. A mantra is for your
    employees; itʼs a guideline for what they do in their jobs. A tag line is for your customers;
    itʼs a guideline for how to use your product or service. For example, Nikeʼs mantra is
    “Authentic athletic performance.” Its tag line is “Just do it.”
    Looks like the concept of P.I. seems to fall closer to the mantra than the tagline.

  7. @Rasul
    Now quoting literally from “The Brand Gap” pdf presentation by Simon + Associates Advertising,
    based on Marty Neumeier’s book.
    it’s a PERSON’S gut feeling, because brands are defined by individuals, no companies, markets, or publics.
    it’s a GUT FEELING because people are emotional, intuitive beings.
    in other words:

  8. @tim and @hugh
    just like “DO NO EVIL”
    doesn’t automatically translate into
    “CHANGE THE WORLD” doesn’t automatically
    translate into
    change the world how ?
    in which way ?
    for whose benefit ?
    There’s no doubt Microsoft has already succeded at changing the world, beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.
    Is that enough ?
    If one’s really being honest and authentic, what’s the actual impact you want to make in the world ?
    Why not saying it ? Just say it !
    If a brand is a gut feeling, the P.I./mantra, is a deed you’re bound to.
    It’s a contract, a vow if you will…
    There shouldn’t be small letter, legal gaps or philosophical tricks in it.
    It has to be AUTHENTIC, unfakeable, and true by the light of day.
    How about:

  9. omg, go read derrida; “It has to be AUTHENTIC, unfakeable, and true by the light of day.” nausea is a gut feeling, but these mantra/vow/PI things mistake a string of words with a metaphysical idea of presence and being. but then again, i don’t work in marketing.

  10. Hugh-
    I dig the thought process behind the question of a company and it’s existential purpose. Many companies attempt to embrace what I refer to as marketing philosophy, but only skin deep. Realistically, they are usually more worried about making that 16.7% market share. That’s a shame, but probably necessary for most organizations.
    Creating a clear manifesto for a company is admirable. Google aims to organize and make accessible all the worlds information. I like that. Not every company has such a grandiose purpose. Some of us have to clean toilets. That’s life. But it’s still valuable at a consumer level. I’m just not sure how an organization can embrace it in layman’s terms. And for a company such as microsoft to condense the gamut of initiatives they have as such; well it gets a lot tougher.
    Long story short, I agree with the idea that a company should be marketing with clear cut reasons that the organization exists. But I also think it’s much more difficult to implement than you may give it credit for. $.02.

  11. Web 2.0 in the world of business and work … re-discovering core organizational development (OD) principles, one at a time 😉

  12. The problem isn’t as much the P.I. statement as it is implementing said statement. Philosophy is all well and good, but action is what carries the “brand.” “Do as I say not as I do” has been the de facto, invisible, mantra of most companies including Microsoft for as long as I can remember.
    The best slogan, catchphrase, “mantra,” is useless if business practices don’t jibe. Microsoft can say what it wants, but it feels like they’re actually punishing us when we don’t want to upgrade to Vista. And while the Nike brand is all well and good, exploiting workers to shave a couple bucks off the cost only undermines their marketing strategy.
    “Put your money where your mouth is,” is a more appropriate corporate mantra these days than anything slse.

  13. Hugh, it’s not the Microsoft people who know you who need to read Mark’s book, it’s the Microsoft people who don’t :)

  14. Nathan, with respect, I think we moved beyond the “computer on every desktop” approach quite some time ago. Our success or otherwise is debatable but that era is behind us for sure.

  15. I’d differentiate a “tag line” – (the latest Microsoft one being a fairly typical and by no means the worst bland ho-hum advertising creation) with a rallying call that connects and builds a sense of purpose within the company (“a computer on every desktop” would fit that, imj). Tag lines for the most part seem to be a solution in search of a question … I’m not sure why they’re even needed much these days.
    I actually wrote the tagline for GlaxoSmithKline when it became GSK some years back. It’s still there (a minor miracle in itself) – but I do wonder just whose behaviour/perception it actually influences.

  16. @michael
    who let the Derrida lecturers out of the mental institution ? :-)
    no, seriously, if I were to deconstruct you, Michael, there wouldn’t be much core substance left to analyse.
    so why bother ?
    now be a good boy and take your pill.
    sleep well.

  17. I should start by saying that I don’t work in marketing. Are taglines not just baloney on some level? Not to sound totally cynical here, but is everyone not massively over-thinking this? My goodness, including a link to Derrida? Does it actually matter what Microsoft uses as their tag line? Most products I trust, I have no idea what their tagline is. I love Wheat Thins. Do they have a tagline? Who gives a crap? Most consumers of most products, like Microsoft’s, are not super advanced life forms. They’re my mom Shirley. Or my cousin David. I can’t ever figure out what the heck they’re thinking, much less figure out what tens of millions of Shirley’s and David’s are thinking. Maybe marketers should stop all the intellectualizing and just drop taglines altogether. Maybe have a nice picture on the box, a mocked-up picture of a family enjoying themselves using the product, and then concentrate every other last dime on making the product great. In other words, spend less time creating fun taglines and more time figuring out how to make Vista suck less. If the product is good, espeicially in this internet age, and if it has a simple marketing message, I believe it’ll sell itself.

  18. “core substance”–wait, let me “deconstruct”: recovering catholic, artscene hanger-on, becomes web 2.0 cluetard? everybody now…
    seriously, give us a mantra for something. what you were trying to say, through a post-liberation theology idiom, is that you want to invest a thing with an idea bigger than itself; this is religious thinking, simply put. this is a marketing strategy? tweettweet: hallmark’s calling.

  19. Ooo, I’m gonna like this blog. as a marketing person, I’ve sometimes gotten strange looks when I say in meetings that consumers don’t give a crap about what WE think the brand is. It’s about what THEY think the brand means to them…and you have to build on that, not stick your head in the sand and try to change it.
    Or you wind up with a steaming pile like “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobil.”

  20. @all
    adding to the terminology…
    Marty Neumeier in ZAG ( uses *YET ANOTHER TERM* to describe roughly the same thing as P.I. and mantra. (I think)
    He calls it the ‘trueline’.
    (as opposed to the ‘tagline’)
    what makes you hang out with recovering catholic cluetards ? that’s so out of fashion !!
    (even worse, among dangerous people, with perilous artistic tendences, aren’t you afraid it’s catchy ?)
    because you’re worth it !
    now I like you, you’re funny :-)

  21. @Madrugada
    precisely, we’re not talking about taglines here.
    that’s what Hugh is saying: taglines don’t mean a thing.
    P.Is are an entirely different animal.
    ignore the comments and over-intellectualisation in the comments area.
    the article itself is worth a re-read :-)
    on Microsoft : I agree Microsoft have an awful lot of work to do, both technologically fixing the ‘flagship product’ and internally, reshaping the organisation itself.
    but they can’t close doors and go on vacation to find themselves in a distant beach, and magically return renewed and afresh after a couple of weeks. the machine has to keep cranking all the while they make these changes.

  22. Microsoft may have passion, but they lack focus to channel it.
    Microsoft’s products affect us everyday. Sequel server runs our databases. Windows runs our desktops. Websites are written in ASP.NET. Many people use office every single day. These are everyday parts of our lives. They fuel our economy and progress our society.
    Why then, do I see Microsoft jumping into every single market possible? Why does Silverlight exist? Why are they trying to squash Google? Why can’t they just take the products that they have a virtual monopoly on and actually make them flawless? Why must we suffer through duds like classic ASP, Windows Millennium, and now Vista?
    If you are truly passionate about your product, you see it as a moral imperative to make your products as relevant to your customers as possible. There may be passionate individuals at Microsoft, but their lack of interest in releasing solid products concerns me.

  23. @Michelle
    There’s a reigning view for some, that companies have no morals.
    Their only legal obligation is to their owners/shareholders.
    It’s the individuals, from inside and outside of the organisation who need morals and getting their voices heard.
    Individuals can have a protestant “work ethic”, secular ethics, or plain catholic guilt.
    But whatever it is, customers and employees want their voices heard.
    Because it’s a market, and there’s value in what these customers and employees do.
    Sticking to the minimum required by law is not enough.
    It’s only in the best interest of the company –and the market as a whole– to serve them well.

  24. welcome to my CUBE OF DESTINY?!!!!!!!!?!!!!!!!
    oh gosh my stomach hurts.

  25. To Vruz, I see what you’re saying. Hugh’s posts are often about humanizing the marketing process, about putting a human face on numbers, which I like a lot. This one’s no different, which is a good thing. I’m glad you asked me to reread the post.

  26. I am a professor in the Middle East where I teach my local/national/indigenous students to think of the story and how it will effect people.
    This post and the drawing with it are nothing short of exactly what my students just cannot wrap their heads around.
    Funny so simple but so difficult to grasp.
    Maybe we try too hard?

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