Monday, January 19, 2009

What's YOUR Higher Purpose?

Today, of course, was Martin Luther King's birthday, a day we celebrate not just the man, but the ethics and noble ideals that he inspired in so many. We honor this man for his selfless dedication and ability to inspire others to commit to a higher purpose of achieving equality and justice for all.

All across America today, many communities participated in a day of service motivated, in part, by President-elect Obama's call to honor Dr. King's example by working for a common good.

President Kennedy's famous inauguration speech--"ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" has been a guiding principle in my life since childhood. I grew up with the sense of idealism and higher purpose Kennedy speaks of, and thankfully, it has weathered several decades of cynicism.

The Higher Purpose of Community

Today is a good day to remind ourselves that we ALL have a higher purpose, and this concept relates to the practical matter of using social media to develop online communities. Now, I don't want to diminish the magnitude of Dr. King's achievements by linking him with marketing and social media. Rather, I want to show how his inspiration can be applied to some of the common aspects of life too, not just the big things.

I've been musing a lot lately on the definition of 'community.' How do you define it? I'm coming to the belief that every community, in order to be called a community, must possess two core elements: action and higher purpose.

What noble ideal will inspire people to join...and work for this community?

Now, I am a community manager for several well-known brands and many folks might want to know where is the higher purpose in selling something? What's Nike's higher purpose? Exxon's? McDonald's? Can you really build a community around each of these brands? (note: I don't work for any of these companies)

Well, yes, I could. By bringing people together around what these companies either represent or COULD represent as their higher purpose.

What Business Are You Really In?

Nike isn't in the business of selling shoes. Their higher purpose is selling Excellence. Their higher purpose has to do with YOUR self-image--your desire and ability to see yourself as a high performance, healthy person who values Excellence, Discipline and Hard Work. The shoes are just a means to those aspirations.

Can you create a community of people who are motivated to excel and give them the tools and peer support to do so? You betcha. A Nike community is easy to develop.

If I were developing a community for Exxon, I would suggest that their higher purpose is providing the energy that powers our life. (regardless of the lifestyle we choose). McDonald's higher purpose is feeding people inexpensively.

Image Problem? Look in the Mirror.

Each of the companies I've mentioned has an image problem, and yet, each of these companies sells their products to MILLIONS of people around the world. Obviously, they have some fans. If you buy these products or are employed by these companies, YOU are their image. What kind of story do you tell?

Having ordinary people tell their stories of how these brands have a positive influence in their life would go a long way to altering the common public perception.The fact is that Nike, Exxon and McDonalds DO do some good things--we just hardly ever hear about them.

Now, I'm not defending or promoting any of these companies...I'm just pointing out how appealing to a sense of higher purpose is needed to develop a sense of community. If these companies more clearly define their higher purpose and develop a community based on those ideals, then their community will help them...and help direct them towards right, noble actions.

No one would join a community that supports child labor in Third World countries, encourages the pillage of the environment or promotes obesity in children. Nobody is going to join a community about shoes, gasoline or cheap hamburgers, either.

Appeal to the Best in People, not their Fears or Prejudice.

50 years ago, no one would join a community and face jail, beatings and death to support the right of supposedly inferior humans to vote, sit anywhere on the bus or in a restaurant, or have equal access to schools either. It took the inspiration of a higher purpose--the appeal to more noble and loftier notions of Equality and Justice--to bring about that type of change.

Only communities--people acting together with a higher purpose--can deliver that type of change.

So before you build your community, ask yourself--what is your higher purpose? Make it big. What noble ideals are you promoting?

Please share your comments--I'd love to engage in a conversation with you.


Dave said...

You know how much I love the thinking that you're doing about community, but I have a small bone to pick with this piece: Nike is in the business of selling shoes via the strategy of "selling excellence.". Or maybe, Nike is in the business of selling shoes, but they also have a higher purpose: selling excellence. Their pedestrian purpose (if you allow the pun) is selling shoes to make money. They also choose to have a higher purpose, selling excellence, that is paired with their business purpose in a virtuous cycle: selling shoes allows them to sell excellence allows them to sell shoes...

Actor, director, adventurer, community manager and social media geek. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Actor, director, adventurer, community manager and social media geek. said...

Good point, Dave.

I think it's important to make a distinction between the *product*, and what it is the company actually sells.

Or maybe, what people *buy* is that actual distinction?

Lots of people make (and sell) athletic shoes. Why does one buy Nike, compared to say, Adidas, Brooks, Asics?

If you ask the folks who buy these *particular* shoes, they will all give you a reason *other* than "I need a pair of shoes". One chooses a brand on a much deeper (or higher) connection than the product--we often make our purchases based on what the brand represents.

If the product was just shoes--why does Nike sell more of them than Brooks? Given equal quality in terms of how long they last before wearing out, Brooks shoes cost less, so it would stand to reason that Brooks would sell more, wouldn't it?

I think that for most people, the perception of the brand is what they buy.

The point I'm hoping to make is that the loftier the perception of the brand, the deeper emotional attachment people will have with the brand...

...and this deep emotional attachment is good for both the consumer AND the company. It uplifts both parties to a greater good.