Breaking Through with Brand Purpose

Evolving the corporate mission statement
multicolored circle with arrows

Mission, vision, values: if you’re of a certain age, when you hear these terms you might feel transported back to the 80s or 90s, to the height of the “planning school” and corporate jargon. In 1984, one influential business writer proclaimed, “everyone agrees they are necessary” — and the stats back this up. In 1991, 70 percent of respondents to a survey of top companies reported crafting a mission statement in the past four years. Using Google’s Ngram viewer, we tracked the term “mission statement” in books and found it increased over 285 percent between 1980 and 1990.

graph showing mission statement mentions in books

However, sometime in the late 90s/early 2000s, the popularity of corporate mission statements began to plummet. Research from Bain shows that from its peak in 1993 at 85 percent, the percentage of companies using mission statements dropped to 30 percent by 2017.

mission charts satisfaction graph

So, why the change?

Organizational results were mixed. Research showed that the mere existence of a mission statement does not have a strong correlation with improved financial performance. Rather, studies showed that good mission statements do have such a correlation. Companies were quick to create corporate mission documents — perhaps so quickly that the statements were less effective.

These rushed company mission statements often shared at least one of three fatal issues, as outlined by Inés Alegre in the Journal of Management and Organization:

1. They were delegated to subordinates by disinterested executives.

Alegre notes that in the 80s and 90s, the common approach to mission statement formulation was for top management to delegate the initial drafting to their subordinates and then review subsequent drafts until the CEO was satisfied. This method was time-consuming and did not provide the involvement necessary to permeate the mission throughout the organization.

Successful mission statement development requires enthusiastic, committed executives — as well as input from across the entire organization. We’ll talk more about that later. But for now, also note that in an attempt to work more efficiently through delegation, these companies often spent more time revising drafts than they would have creating a proper, collaborative mission statement from the get-go.

2. They were the only documents summarizing organizational strategy for employees.

Without enriching materials, programs, and events, and without complementary initiatives like the development of purpose, vision, and values, mission statements don’t pack much of a punch. To create value, they must be frequently and consistently reiterated, exemplified, and modeled for employees. Offering employees only one way to consider your “why” is likely to be ineffective — particularly when such a statement is packed with buzzwords and “corporate-speak,” as the first mission statements were inclined to do. Think of how we all have unique learning styles. While a formal mission statement may “click” for some employees, others may have their aha-moment relating to corporate values or a set of shared behaviors, a CEO speech, or an employee engagement film.

3. They were static documents that didn’t reflect their company’s changing world.

We’ve heard it trumpeted again and again: our world is moving fast. So it’s difficult to write a mission statement that feels relevant for 10, or even five, years. While specific performance goals may date a statement too quickly, erring on the side of vagueness may also abstract the statement from employees’ everyday worlds.

It’s a tricky balance between static and soft. But it’s vital that companies try to find it.

Bain’s research supports the idea that those who thoughtfully planned their purpose, mission, vision, and values (PMVV) work saw results. Although the early 2000s saw a steep drop-off in companies using mission statements, satisfaction rates remained high. Extrapolating, one can posit that those who didn’t see results simply abandoned their projects, while those whose good work produced results persisted with their PMVV initiatives.

However, it seems like the PMVV bloodletting has finally stopped. What’s old is new again. Recently, branding professionals have been fielding more and more requests for PMVV deliverables. While brand and purpose are different concepts, companies recognize that by linking them closely, one can more effectively cascade purpose through strategy, HR, operations, and marketing. We’ll talk more later about the relationship between brand and PMVV.

Why the shift back toward PMVV? Context and cohorts. First the context. In many ways, our socioeconomic climate is similar to that of the early 80s, when the mission statement hit the market. We’re rebounding from an economic crash, like we were after the gas crises of the 1970s. We have significant political insecurity both at home and abroad, like that faced during the Cold War. Our population is remarkably divided, like we were during the “culture wars” of the 80s and 90s. The idea of an initiative that promotes workplace unity and prosperity is appealing.

This context has produced a cohort, a generation, that is strongly driven by mission and purpose — in both its professional and private lives. Of course, we’re talking about the much-examined millennials. In a recent survey by American Express, 81 percent of American millennials said that a successful business needs to have a genuine purpose, and 78 percent said the values of their employer should match their own.

Agreement with statement chart

So, the time is right to take a second look at mission and purpose statements, corporate visions and values, and the like. But it’s critical not to repeat the mistakes of prior decades. PMVV work needs to be carefully planned, collaborative, and consistently reemphasized to ensure success.

Purpose, Mission, Vision, Values 101

A lot of terms get thrown around in discussions of corporate mission statements, brand purpose, and core brand values. Too often these terms are used interchangeably — or, worse, to refer to brand strategy deliverables such as positioning or brand essence. Here’s a brief primer of terms you need to know.

BHAG: A “big, hairy, audacious goal.” This is a far-in-the-future goal that may change the very nature of a company’s business. Here’s GE’s version:

  • “To become #1 or #2 in every market we serve and revolutionize this company to have the speed and agility of a small enterprise.” 

Brand mission: A statement that describes the company’s business and operations now and in the near-term, and is designed to focus leadership and employees. A clear-cut explanation of what the business is and isn’t:

  • “Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.”

Brand purpose: Why a company exists for customers or society; this should be written with a customer-centric perspective, placing employees in their clients’ shoes. And example from EY:

  • “Building a better working world.” 

Brand behaviors: Operationalize mission, vision, values, and purpose for employees by giving them clear directions on how to implement them in their day-to-day work. Sometimes called called brand principles. A well-known example is from pre-2014 Facebook:

  • Move fast and break things
  • Do not let a competitor get ahead of you
  • Adhere to the process
  • Create an exciting workplace

Brand promise: An experience or value that a customer can expect to have at each of a brand’s touchpoints; this term is more closely related to customer experience design. REI’s brand promise is a good example:

  •  “Bringing the outdoors into the retail experience.”

Brand vision: Usually articulated by company leadership, this expresses where the company wants to be several years down the road. EY has a nice example of brand vision:

  • “By 2020 we will be a US$50 billion distinctive professional services organization.” 

Brand values: Describes the company’s desired culture, the beliefs that unite employees. Here’s Swedish shipping line Maersk’s values statement, focussed on“Humbleness” 

  • Listen, learn, share and give space to others
  • Showing trust and giving empowerment
  • Having an attitude of continuous learning
  • Never underestimating our competitors or other stakeholders
  • Acknowledging our limits and mistakes

Focus on Brand Purpose

If you take anything from this list of terms and examples, let it be this: purpose and mission are different. Mission is what you come to work every day to achieve. But purpose is why what you do matters for the world. This means that in terms of your brand, purpose is where your attention should be focused. Here’s a great example of this from Disney:

Disney purpose versus mission schema

This isn’t to say that internal perspectives aren’t important; they are. However, in the Harvard Business Review, Graham Kenny writes that not only are customer-centric purpose statements more resonant with customers, they are also more effective in rallying employees, as they “connect with the heart as well as the head.”

Focusing on purpose doesn’t mean ignoring other traditional brand mission, vision, and values initiatives. It just means understanding that all of these ladder up to purpose. Values enrich the brand mission and vision, which in turn support and operationalize brand purpose.

Brand Purpose: How to Succeed, Not Stagnate

Purpose — not mission — should be the heart of your PMVV project. But how should its process unfold? How can we learn from the mistakes of the first wave of mission, vision, values work?  While every project will have its nuances, here are four general tenets of a good brand purpose initiative:

1. Invest in employee engagement.

Creating your brand’s purpose, mission, vision, and values in a vacuum drastically increases the chances they will fall flat and fail to resonate. Unfortunately, this process was de rigeur in the 80s and 90s, and is still far too common today.

Andrew Marty, a psychologist turned human resources consultant, points to research that shows that in corporations, 85 percent of an individual employee’s sense of well-being comes from their local teams and day-to-day experiences, while only 15 percent comes from organization-wide policies. This suggests that for an organizational brand purpose to resonate with employees, they must see their team’s roles reflected in it. They need to be able to envision how purpose, mission, vision, and values apply to their day-to-day lives. Ideally, they will have a part in the PMVV process, but if not, they need to understand and buy into the PMVV process.

A true bottom-up approach to brand purpose may not feasible for larger organizations, but the input and feedback loop needs to include employees. This could take the form of company-wide surveys, departmental workshops, or town halls. Employee involvement shouldn’t stop when the document is created, either. Ongoing employee engagement programs are necessary to spread and maintain awareness of how purpose is relevant to individuals, as well as to gauge whether refinements are needed as contexts shift. Employee engagement can and should take multiple forms: environmental branding, training, ambassador programs, and awards programs are just a few tactics.

2. Show enthusiastic executive modeling.

Employee involvement is vital, but it’s hard to secure it without a visible and compelling commitment from executives. Brand purpose work can’t look like it is the purview of HR or marketing; it needs to be clear it is an organization-wide initiative, dependent on everyone’s participation.

One of the most powerful symbols of change is a CEO who champions it. The CEO, and other executives, should make a point of introducing and endorsing the initiative, its day-to-day project leaders, and its results. This will help assuage concerns that brand purpose is an empty promise and it will encourage active participation across the organization. In addition to being active in the project’s roll out, leadership needs to show how it affects even boardroom behavior. This modeling could take the form of more regular communications, leadership blogging, purpose roadshows, or even operational changes such as updated compensation schemes or reporting structures.

Maersk does a great job emphasizing its leadership’s stalwart belief in its corporate values. The company prominently displays richly produced videos of the Möller-Maersk family musing on the importance of its uniquely Scandinavian values — and enriches leadership’s stories with videos of everyday employees speaking about the same corporate beliefs.

3. Strive to stand out.

One of the reasons that brand purpose, mission, vision, and values get a bad rap is because too many companies have used them as corporate hygiene instead of as a differentiator. Marty’s informal study of brand values in a group of 40 companies shows that, for example, 62.5 percent of companies include integrity and 57.5 percent include performance.

Common corporate values chart

This is no place to affirm table stakes. Ideally, customers and stakeholders expect your company to be responsible, collaborative, and profitable. Instead, this is an opportunity to highlight what differentiates your culture and strategy. Not only should your high-level concepts be unique, you also should express them using clear and “human” language. Nothing sparks skepticism like words such as “synergies” or “disruption.”

SquareSpace’s values are a good example of values that deviate from the norm — in a good way. With just a few words, they give the reader an impression of what it’s like to work with or for the organization:

  • Be your own customer
  • Empower individuals
  • Design is not a luxury
  • Good work takes time
  • Optimize towards ideals
  • Simplify

4. Build your brand purpose, mission, vision, and values to flex.

Academic research on mission statements of the 80s and 90s found that many were too static — leading to them quickly feeling stale and irrelevant to employees and customers. By making purpose the hero, rather than mission or vision, a company can mitigate some of the risk that comes from focusing too heavily on of-the-moment metrics or processes. Nonetheless, a conscious effort should be made to “future proof” visioning documents so they can continue to guide and inspire for many years to come.

“Future proofing” means both careful consideration and pragmatic iteration. Of course, efforts should be made to write something that is simultaneously timely and timeless. But since this is all but an impossibility, resources should be created and shared in ways that allow for, and encourage, incremental change. This means both their structure and their medium should be built to flex, something that might be necessary after M&A, market changes, divestment, employee feedback, or (with luck) after goals have been achieved! Consider: How can documents be formatted for seamless editing? How can they be disseminated and promoted in adaptable ways? In our digital world, writing and designing for change is easier and more important than ever.

Let Purpose Lead the Way

While in the past, companies relied on the drier, more descriptive mission statement, today customer-centric, higher-order brand purpose should be the star — and the starting point — of any brand planning initiative. Think of it this way: purpose is why you exist. Vision is how that purpose compels you to evolve. Mission is how you realize your purpose and will realize your vision.

A company’s brand purpose, mission, vision, and values play an increasingly vital role engaging employees and building brand esteem and equity in the market. With both the workforce and the pool of potential customers becoming more saturated with purpose-driven millennials (and with Gen Z on the horizon), a concise and compelling “why,” created in collaboration with employees, is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have.


Hannah-Foltz

About the author
Hannah Foltz is a Strategist at DeSantis Breindel. When she isn’t stuck on the L train, she is diving into research and helping develop positioning and messaging platforms for B2B companies.

 

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