Last summer while flying from Delhi to Hong Kong en route to Tokyo, I had a very unfortunate flight experience. The airline in question? An extremely prominent Indian carrier. It was a muggy night in the capital and we were stuck aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner with no air-conditioning, no escape, and no information. One hour into our imprisonment (yes, that’s what it felt like at the time), I requested that a young flight attendant provide some water for my fellow passengers and me. Many were breathless, some were dizzy, and most were downright angry by this point. Instead of water, I was served a casual shrug. A while later, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I could still make it for my connecting flight from Hong Kong, I asked another flight attendant—older and therefore, I assumed, more experienced—about when we could hope to take off. She replied, “If the flight has been delayed, what can I do? It’s not my problem.”
In that moment, it hit me. This particular airline brand—a fond memory from my childhood—had lost its soul, its spark, and, above all, its raison d’être.
Last year, the airline hired a new CEO—we’ll call him Mr. CEO—with the hope that his experience in railways and tourism could help turn this stagnant airline around. If the opportunity to have a tête-à-tête with Mr. CEO ever presented itself, there are a few things that I’d like to share with him about soul-searching for this fading airline brand.
Purpose comes first
As a brand strategist, I’ve interacted with chief executives across myriad industries. I’ve found that many of these executives share a common trait—a propensity to gloss over the “Why we exist” section of the positioning statement. I understand that it can be tempting to jump straight into revamping your vision, mission, and corporate values—after all, that’s the most important part, right?
I guarantee that if you conceive these critical pieces from thin air, you will fail. That’s because the fodder for these statements is the reason you exist—your higher-order purpose, the single-minded ambition that makes you tick.
And it isn’t money.
So, what is it?
Purpose is the change you want to bring to the world
Let me ask you some questions, Mr. CEO. What is the change that this airline wants to bring to the world? Why does that change even matter? How is this particular airline best suited to make that impact?
Think about these questions.Think big and think hard because the answers will help you frame your corporate statement—your answer to why your company exists. An effective purpose must excite and inspire. It does not focus on the brand but on the world around it. It often seems larger than life because purpose is a journey, not a short-haul destination. It has neither a beginning nor an end. It cannot be “achieved” but must be lived.
Nike is my favorite example of a brand with purpose. The company could have said, “We exist to create high-quality sportswear.” But it didn’t.
Nike’s calling, “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world,” is succinct enough to be understood by stakeholders and to guide business and brand activities. At the same time, it’s lofty and large. It’s larger than a product line. It’s larger than a profit statement. It’s larger than short-term objectives and long-term goals. It’s larger than Nike itself. As Nike branches out into new products, new markets, and new audiences, its purpose will continue to light up its path for as long as the company stays true to it.
Nike is doing a great job so far. Slip into a pair of Nike LunarGlides and you will know exactly what I mean.
Purpose must inspire action
If you’ve flown Virgin America in the last five years, I can safely assume that your experience was nothing short of delightful, and it would come as no surprise that the airline’s purpose is “to make flying good again.” A tall claim? Indeed. But does the airline deliver? Most definitely.
Virgin America puts purpose into action by finding pain points in traveling and converting them into pleasure points. From staff who aren’t afraid to crack a joke with passengers to a flight safety video that people actually want to watch, with Virgin, flying truly is good again.
A successful brand lives its purpose by creating experiences that align with its mission. After all, there are many other companies that do what you do—why you exist is what makes you different. And if you truly live this purpose every single day, it will become the reason that your customers always choose you, and only you.
Your purpose must become the blood that runs through every employees’ veins, and that change must start with you, Mr. CEO. You must cascade it downward. If you can build culture around this purpose, and if the reason that your brand exists is the reason that its employees wake up and come to work every day, you’ve won half the battle.
Mr. CEO, as you revitalize this airline brand, I cannot stress how important purpose should be for your airline. Purpose is the change you want to see in the world, and it must inspire action. If your CFO disagrees, you can give him a few facts about businesses with purpose—Nike operates with one of the highest profit margins in its industry (it’s grown basically every year). Virgin America posted its first full-year profit after concentrated efforts on aligning its brand experience with its purpose.The cherry on top was the successful IPO that followed. Contrast this with the airline in question: neck-deep in governmental debt with losses of more than $700 million last year.
There is an inextricable link between purpose and profit. Just ask Mark Parker or Richard Branson.
When you do lock down the brand’s core purpose—the blood that runs through its metaphorical veins, the fire in its heart—run toward it with vigor.
Perhaps then this iconic national airline will be restored to its former glory as the pride of India.
* University of Oregon track-and-field coach and Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman said, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
A version of this piece was featured in WPP’s Atticus Awards and was awarded the winning prize in the Under-30 Essay contest.