WHAT You Do Is Unimportant. WHY You Do It Is All That Matters.
Working with companies of all sizes and all markets - from bleeding edge technology to women's fashion - you start to see certain patterns in how business leaders think about and approach branding. In my case, I've always felt there is a very natural tendency for a business leader to present the identity of their business in terms of WHAT their business does. We even do this in our personal lives. Think about the last cocktail party you were at. When meeting someone new the first question is almost inevitably "What do you do for a living"? We're conditioned to filter and categorize people by WHAT they do, and it's no surprise we apply the same approach to introducing a business. "I'm a lawyer". or "I build websites." It's is a completely natural thing - I know how to categorize you now. It's just terribly ineffective from a branding standpoint - I'm not likely to remember much else about you.
Not only does focusing on the WHAT just drop you into the mill of categorization with everyone else - but it oftentimes paints you into a corner - especially if you operate in a crowded, commodity market. Take technology for instance. All technology companies are essentially working with the same components - so to focus on them leaves no room for differentiation.
A better approach is to focus on WHY you do something. Because WHY is inspiring and leads people and prospects to connect on an emotional level. It's also more memorable and transferable to other product and service areas. So for instance, if you are Apple the core of your identity is thinking differently and challenging assumptions to make the world a better place. You just happen to do that by making computers. That identity however, also allowed them to enter new markets such as MP3 players and Phones far more effectively than Dell and other competitors who are still just seen as computer companies.
Now imagine yourself at that cocktail party talking to that lawyer:
You: "What do you do for a living?" Lawyer: "I use words, logic and persuasion to remedy people from injustice and create more equality in the world."
That's likely to lead to a more memorable conversation.
For a great read on this whole approach check out Simon Sinek's book Start With Why Or for an even briefer intro check out his incredibly captivating TED conference presentation. And start asking yourself WHY.