It’s Time for Mission Statements to Evolve

The era of the pretentious, overblown Mission Statement is over! Unfortunately, a lot of companies haven’t gotten the memo yet.

Take Starbucks, for example. Personally, I like Starbucks and I don’t find it to be pretentious as a rule. But it’s mission statement — oy vey! Here it is: “to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Uhhh, you are selling coffee, right guys? So why doesn’t the mission statement reflect that?

Very likely, a straightforward mission statement isn’t “clever” or “encompassing” enough for Starbucks. To be fair, I don’t put 100 percent of the blame on the coffee giant — or on any company with a puffed up mission statement. The so-called experts are to blame, as well. Just Google the term “mission statement” and take a look at some of the advice that professional mission statement writers are dishing out. Here are a few examples:

  • A mission statement should explain why your organization exists, what it hopes to achieve in the future, its essential nature, its values, and its work.
  • A Mission Statement should have a grand scale, be socially meaningful and be measurable.
  • At the very least, your organization’s mission statement should answer three key questions: 1) What are the opportunities or needs that we exist to address? 2) What are we doing to address these needs? 3) What principles or beliefs guide our work?
  • A mission statement embodies an entity’s philosophies, goals, ambitions and mores.
  • Your mission statement should be somewhere between a few paragraphs to a whole page.

No, no, no! Absolutely not.

Most of that stuff belongs in a Vision/Values statement. Much of it should be reserved for employee handbooks and internal team building events. And some of it is better suited to speeches and presentations made by company representatives awarding grants and making charitable donations. A modern mission statement should be a clearly worded and straightforward summary of an organization’s purpose. It should be concise. It should make equal sense to people inside and outside of the organization. And your employees should be able to state your mission pretty much word-for-word to friends and at dinner parties.

I’d remind Starbucks, for example, that it can’t “nurture the human spirit” if it doesn’t first maintain its success as a leading seller of coffee.

I’d tell Pepsi that its mission starts out well enough but loses the plot after the first line. Pepsi’s mission statement: “To be the world’s premier consumer products company focused on convenient foods and beverages. We seek to produce financial rewards to investors as we provide opportunities for growth and enrichment to our employees, our business partners and the communities in which we operate. And in everything we do, we strive for honesty, fairness and integrity.” If Pepsi were being graded on comprehensiveness, it would get an A. In terms of clarity and straightforwardness, it gets a D.

Toyota nearly got its statement right, except for the marketing-speak gibberish at the beginning. Toyota’s mission: “To attract and attain customers with high-valued products and services and the most satisfying ownership experience in America.” The better option: “To provide the most satisfying car-ownership experience in America.”

Google, I think, is spot on: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google even get points for being ambitious, if a little impractical.

Just to be clear, I’m not questioning the value of mission statements — when they’re done right. They help employees and other important audiences understand what a company is striving to achieve. As a result, employees can do their jobs more effectively and in line with the mission … customers can give their money and loyalty to the companies that best suit them … and investors can more easily determine whether or not the company is a good fit for them. But too many mission statements are NOT clear, concise or straightforward. They seem to be relics from corporate web sites of the 1990s — the kinds of sites designed to be all-encompassing information dumps.

The best corporate sites just aren’t like this anymore. They’re leaner and more to-the-point. They share critical information in easily digestible portions. They’re down to earth — which is not to say that they aren’t sophisticated.

Mission statements should be likewise.

If you’re interested in creating or improving your organization’s mission statement, take a look at the Harvard Business Review’s blog post, “The Eight-Word Mission Statement.” It offers keen advice from Kevin Starr, the executive director of the Mulago Foundation.

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