The effect of a business’s mission statement can be the opposite to that intended, creating cynicism and demotivation.
We have all been there: the company’s office with its brave new mission statement proudly displayed on the reception wall; the departments with posters on the pillars extolling the business’s values alongside stock photographs of happy, shiny customers or attractive business colleagues creatively and cooperatively brainstorming. How frighteningly familiar are the words we see: ‘commitment’, ‘individuals’, ‘listening’, ‘understanding our customers’, ‘delivering their needs’, ‘number 1 choice’. What does it all really mean… ?
Most businesses’ mission statements are as slack and glib as most brands’ positioning statements – controversial, maybe, but true nonetheless. It is entirely appropriate to link the two because they are, of course, really the same thing. Each aims to capture the distinctive benefit and character of an entity and express it in a way that people will find relevant. It is true that a mission statement is much more of an inward facing concept than a brand positioning and may never be communicated externally. But through acting as the guiding light for a business and its employees and as the banner they march behind, it should inform everything the company does and therefore become manifest in its behaviour in relation to the outside world.
This is what the best brand positionings do too. As an example, when Movement helped Time Out define a new brand positioning, we made it very clear that this had to be not just a marketing initiative. It needed the full commitment of the staff and the business at the most senior level, becoming the guide for developing the brand content in all its manifestations, including its NPD. ‘Know more, do more’ on the cover of the magazine was just the most visible expression of a unique brand benefit that Movement identified for the brand and which spread throughout the business.
But, to return to my theme: most company mission statements are, frankly, gibberish. For some reason, business people cease to be human beings when faced with the task of defining their company’s mission statement, becoming company clones with MBAs in Empty Platitudes. And it doesn’t matter how many staff consultation workshops they run: the result is still as meaningless.
Meaningless to the point that most staff at best ignore their company’s mission statement and, at worst, find it embarrassing and actively demotivating. Unlike senior business people, ordinary folk have well developed corporate bullshit detectors, and they know all this stuff is bland, without substance or differentiation, and bears little relationship to how the company actually behaves and what it can deliver.
However, surprising as it may seem, I am actually a great believer in mission statements – good, meaningful, distinctive mission statements. The process of defining one should be highly revealing, and present challenging but exciting opportunities to the business. It’s a process of self discovery, an opportunity for honesty, and can help create an active desire to change and improve. A well constructed, thoughtful mission statement can be a truly unifying and inspirational thing for the business.
There is a straightforward test to find out if a mission statement is meaningful rather than glib, empty and ambiguous: ask yourself, what does it actually mean? If that sounds simple, it’s because it is. Are you clear what every part means? Are there wasted words or tautologies? Does the language feel fresh. Are all of its elements internally consistent. Critically, if the business did this, how would you know, what would the signs be? Can it really deliver?
And there’s one more test that’s the killer: if I showed this to my mum (assuming she’s not the company’s Chief Executive), would she understand what it meant? Would she be able to infer a tangible business behaviour and attitude?
If your mum’s not available, why not do some research amongst your customers and stakeholders, even end user consumers? As I said earlier, in my experience, the man on the Clapham omnibus has an unerring ability to spot cant, inconsistency and blandness. What is more, just as ordinary consumers are becoming increasingly au fait with marketing concepts and terminology, they are also becoming very familiar with corporate mission statements. A large part of the population now works in organisations that trumpet their mission statements, whether they’re employed in the private or the public sector. So they know all about corporate gibberish and how it feels to be encumbered by a nonsense mission statement. When I have worked with consumers on developing mission statements I have found them invaluable in helping clarify the thinking, identifying what’s really important and finding distinctive ways of expressing it.
As in so many areas, consumers represent a fabulous resource to help sharpen thinking. They can help companies develop mission statements that work as they are supposed to: not to annoy, but to motivate and inspire.