Defining Your Brand Identity: What’s Your Why?


start with why illustration

Your customers aren’t buying you just because you tell them you have the best product in your category—they purchase based on their perception of what your product is and how it will benefit them.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an exercise for you. Read the following two descriptions of Comcast, and let me know which you think more accurately defines their organization:

  1. “Comcast brings together the best in media and technology. We drive innovation to create the world’s best entertainment and online experiences.”
  2. “Comcast had the worst customer service reviews of any company this year by a wide margin. At 28.3%, more respondents ranked their experience with the company as poor than any other company.”

The problem that Comcast faces—a problem that is by no means unique to them—is that their brand identity is misaligned. When we evaluate a brand at Element Three we focus on three main components:

  1. What message do you think you’re sending out to your audience?
  2. What message are you actually sending?
  3. How is your audience perceiving your message?

Tackling the problem of brand misalignment is neither simple nor straightforward, but it does have a clear first step—one that applies to all organizations in the process of defining their brand identity, regardless of sophistication or level of complexity. You must start with your Why.

Start With Your Why

Yes, we’re talking about the Simon Sinek TED Talk that’s been used a million times by our industry to help companies understand branding at a foundational level. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s certainly worth your time, even if it has become a branding cliche.

Sinek’s concept is simple enough to understand. Organizations focus so heavily on the What of what they provide that they neglect the Why that motivates it, which is ultimately the more compelling motivator. When you define yourself only by your What (marketing agency, luxury RV brand, B2B technology company), it’s impossible for your buyers to make an informed decision about whether or not they should buy what you’re selling. Simply saying you sell the best widget doesn’t make your argument any more compelling.

When you start with Why, you’re letting your customers and prospects into the larger mission you’re trying to achieve through your organization. You’re focusing on the impact of what you do rather than the thing itself. And by focusing on that impact, that grander vision, you’re not only able to stand out from your competitors, you’re able to stand out amongst all the other messages and companies vying for the attention of your audience.

Why Your Vision May Still Fall Flat

Let me let you in on a secret about this idea of defining your why: of those leaders who listen to Sinek’s TED Talk or read blog posts like this one and decide they want to actively work to define or redefine their Why, most of them are still going to get it wrong.


One of two reasons:

  1. Their values are misaligned with their vision.
  2. They developed this identity in a vacuum, without the input of any stakeholders outside of the leadership team.

Let’s explore these in greater detail.

Vision / Values Misalignment

When what you actually value as an organization is misaligned with the identity and vision you’ve defined for yourself, it’s hard to see the Why you’ve created for yourself as anything more than empty words. Visions fall flat when the values and cultural fiber necessary to support the behaviors to believe—and ultimately achieve—them aren’t present.

You could, as Comcast did, claim to create the world’s best entertainment and online experiences. But if that definition doesn’t actually impact your culture and doesn’t translate into greater investments into your customer service experiences, then it doesn’t mean anything. Far too many organizations go through the process of identifying their Why and then think their job is done. Unfortunately, launch is not the finish line.

You have to define a vision or identity for yourself that is authentic to who you are and who you want to be. And then you need to execute on that vision in ways that extend far beyond your brand and marketing collateral.

What Happens When Nobody Believes What You’re Saying

While it is your leadership team’s responsibility to define and articulate your reason for being, they are not the only ones who contribute to it and they are certainly not the only ones who have to believe it.

This is why it’s critical that a major component of defining your Why involves bringing in the other stakeholders who are so fundamental to your organization and its success—your customers, employees, partners, and so on.

Because if and when your leadership’s beliefs are misaligned with how your organization is actually perceived, these beliefs get ignored. Or they get mocked. Or they make your audience angry.

A brand cannot achieve more than the vision of its leaders. But it will not achieve the vision of its leaders if that vision is not authentic.

Defining Your Why with Authenticity

The process of authentically defining your Why is a place where, again, the answer is neither simple nor straightforward. We spend months working with companies to define or redefine their brand identities, and this is what we do professionally. So what’s our team doing during this time?

  • Engaging your leadership and learning what they perceive your differentiators to be
  • Observing your operations
  • Immersing ourselves in your culture
  • Experiencing your product
  • Interviewing your customers, your employees, and your investors
  • Experiencing the norms of your industry
  • Reading the words you’re currently using to define yourself and comparing them to the language of your competitors
  • Researching the trends shaping your industry and your audience
  • Analyzing how users interact with your digital marketing channels
  • Synthesizing all of this information into a framework that gets to the core of why you’re doing what you’re doing and how it actually helps your audience

I’m not saying the only solution is to hire us. There are definitely examples of companies who have undergone successful rebrands using their in-house team, and there are more than enough branding agencies in the market to work with the organizations that need an external partner.

But however you get there, if you really want to define your Why in a way that compels people to action, then you need to actually listen to the people you’re trying to compel.

And again, as you’re listening, understand that the implications of what you’re hearing and observing may go far beyond your brand, sales messaging, and marketing. A great brand cannot mask a fundamentally broken product and cannot make up for terrible customer service.

A company cannot succeed without the genuine buy-in of its leadership, its employees, and its customers. And neither can its vision.

E3 Brand Development Collection

Tiffany Sauder is the CEO of Element Three, a full-service marketing consultancy in Indianapolis. After taking over in 2006, she’s transformed E3 from a small creative shop into one of the fastest-growing marketing consultancies in the Midwest. Outside the office, she spends time with her husband and three daughters, runs half marathons, and is practicing for the day The Food Network calls to cast her on Chopped.

Related resources.

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