This is a photograph of the exterior of a Citibank branch.

A brand’s purpose is a topic often talked about, but usually misunderstood. Probably the easiest way to think about it is that a brand’s promise is what they offer to customers; a brand’s purpose is why. One of the better examples we’ve seen is Walmart.

At a conference a few years ago, Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn shared that the promise of low prices was insufficient to connect with enough customers to deliver sustained growth. Despite logistical and operational advantages for which Walmart is reknowned, it’s a promise that is possibly replicated by others such as e-commerce firms, and somewhat hollow. The purpose of helping people provide better lives for their families was what connected the dots, leading to the Walmart tagline “Save money. Live better.”

From our vantage point, probably the most interesting component of Walmart’s purpose derivation wasn’t what it was, but how they found it. Sure enough, it involved delving into the company’s history. Its leadership examined the words of founder Sam Walton, where the answer was apparent.

Purpose, it seems, can be best found by starting with the future (i.e. what should your purpose be going forward) and working back (i.e. finding purpose in the words and deeds of your brand’s history). It’s a process that we live by every day at The History Factory.

It seems that for financial services brands in particular, finding this purpose has become paramount over sharing their promise. Where financial services marketing in the 1980s and ’90s focused on promises—lower rates for mortgages, higher rates for savings, superior service, toasters with savings accounts—the push of late has been to increase awareness about the good these companies are doing in the world and the power of capital to make a difference. It has taken many forms.

Take Lloyds Bank, for instance. Back in April, this venerable brand in the UK leveraged its iconic black horse to demonstrate how Lloyds has been “by your side for over 250 years.” In doing so, it shares a purpose of being there, alongside its customers. Simultaneously, it evokes a more heroic message about the resilience of the British people through monumental change.

The brand’s use of context is exceptional as we see the horse galloping from the merchant docks past the remnants of the Industrial Revolution and into modern times, with semi-detached suburban estates and modern automotive plants. It’s a great example of bringing to life authentic content in an engaging way, and conveying Lloyds’ reason for being—we’re by your side in a changing world—in a compelling way.

Another good example is the work by Citi marking more than 200 years in business transforming America. In this ad, produced a few years ago but still airing, various significant events in history—funding the trans-Atlantic cable, construction of the Panama Canal, the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, the invention of the ATM in the 1970s—are brought together in a video timeline to show how Citi is there for the progress makers. Its purpose, quite clearly, is to move the world (and customers’ businesses) forward. It’s another great example where the history of the company is skillfully brought into a future focus.  Like Lloyd’s, Citi uses context artfully, and leverages past successes along a timeline to show progress.

So what’s the trick to finding a purpose that resonates? While the temptation is to try to align to the purposes your customers want you to fulfill, it is foolhardy to ignore where you’ve been as a brand or organization. Often the simplest answer is found in the most obscure places, buried in an archive (or in a broomcloset in the chairman’s office). Need help? Our team of strategists, archivists, curators, researchers and creatives knows just how to find, get and bring to life your purpose. Let’s talk.

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