What do companies like Apple, Zappos.com, and Southwest airlines have in common?

For one thing, they are all competitors in crowded markets – Apple in consumer electronics, Zappos.com in footwear, and Southwest in the airline industry. Yet despite the intense competition, each of them has been able to achieve noteworthy success compared to others in their market.

What allows these three companies to outperform their competition? Interestingly, it’s not what they sell. Apple sells smart phones, computers, and other electronics. Zappos.com sells shoes. And Southwest operates the same types of airplanes as every other airline in the country.

What sets these companies apart is not what they sell… it’s why they sell. Each has a powerful vision and a strong company culture which backs it up.

Apple believes in innovation and in making the world a better, simpler, and more convenient place. Zappos.com is focused on the singular mission of “surprising and delighting” their customers through exceptional service. And Southwest stands in stark contrast to most of their competitors by dedicating themselves to ensuring a pleasant and fun experience for their passengers.

Now, many companies would claim to have similar goals. The difference is that each of these three businesses has built their company culture around their mission. From their retail employees to their engineers, Apple employees are passionate about their products and passionate about the impact they have on the lives of consumers. Zappos.com’s entire business model, from their website to their shipping procedure to their 24/7 customer support, is built around customer service. And Southwest, with its comical flight attendants and their refusal (at least up to now)to embrace the excessive fees ($50 to check a bag!) that most airlines charge, offers a different flying experience than anyone else offers.

So answer this question for yourself: Why do you sell the products and services that you offer? What is the mission of your business, beyond making money? Have you oriented your business model to better support this mission? Have you built a company culture that embraces and advances it? Do your customers understand why you are in business?

At the end of the day, it’s not what you sell… it’s why you sell it. Your customers will recognize the difference.