Verbal Identity

The Power of Vision, Mission, Values, and Manifestos

8 min read

Pmvp manifesto

eople get off course in life all the time; it’s nothing new. Typically, we get back on track with a bit of effort and humility. We pause and reread a map or stop and ask for directions. But there are times when we haven’t simply made a wrong turn, we’ve completely lost our way.

Brands get off course too. An off-color campaign. A lackluster product. Bad strategy or decision making. Like people, they can lose their sense of direction -- they can lose themselves. What then?

When Howard Schultz returned (for the second time) as CEO of Starbucks, he found the company had “lost its way” amidst employees' push to unionize.

Yahoo! missed major opportunities to buy Google, acquire Facebook, and more — some said the brand lacked visionary leadership and clarity “regarding the overall purpose of the company.”

At Basecamp (known for “improving cohesion”) employees created an insensitive list of customer names they found funny. The B2B software company had to take a hard look at itself from a bias and DEI perspective.

And then there's Volkswagen, the “people's car,” who tampered with emissions testing and drew public backlash for “dieselgate.” “It was clear to VW’s new leadership that the company had to break away from the past and its diesel-centric strategy, embrace zero emission vehicles, and enshrine ethical practices across its workforce to restore its brand.”

In a small raft it’s easy to change direction at a moment’s notice. But course-correcting a brand is like trying to steer a cargo ship — slow. Luckily, like freighters, brands have rudders in the form of their vision, mission, and values.

What are vision, mission, and values anyway?

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times — or maybe you haven’t. You need vision, mission, and values as a brand. These words sound like jargon if not defined well. Here’s our take on each of these.

A mission statement explains who you serve, what you do, and how you do it every single day. Mission statements can help promote an attitude and culture that advances business goals. They can also be a useful internal tool, ensuring that companies’ decisions align with desired outcomes and keeping everyone focused on the right goals. A mission statement differs from the vision statement in that it’s more practical because it’s rooted in the present.

A brand’s vision is an internal-facing, aspirational key message for the organization. If everything goes well — if you achieve your mission — this is how your company will have changed the world. An accurate vision statement should offer hope for a better future, motivate and move customers, and inspire employees.

Core Values
Core values are principles that already exist within your organization. They are sentiments — sometimes unwritten, sometimes unvoiced — that have guided your decisions over and over again. Your job is simply to uncover them.

Bonus: Purpose
We understand all companies exist to make money. But the days of “we make shit, we sell shit, and everything else is bullshit” are long gone. People demand companies have a vested interest in the well-being of their customers and the communities they live in. Your purpose is at the heart of why you do business. It’s giving your customers and partners an emotional reason to work with you. But remember: Purpose statements and other core messages must be authentic, and they should never be forced. Brands that try too hard or get too deep risk awkward public reception — see Stephen Colbert's take on Wheat Thins.

Are vision, mission, and values dead?

Imagine your friend starts a new job. On the first day, full of excitement and vigor, they read the company’s vision statement: “To be the most successful computer company in the world at delivering the best customer experience in markets we serve.” Inspiring, right?! Hardly.

For quite some time, many of us in the brand community have accepted that sentiments like the one above — akin, perhaps, to Peter Drucker-style statements — are acceptable. Yet, statements like these can be confusing. Many are general, ambiguous, and filled with meaningless words (synergy, anyone?). Management expert Dr. Peter Senge describes a vision statement as “a shared picture of the future of the company.” Nice thought. But shared with whom? As the role of brands continues to evolve, it’s increasingly important that your audience share in the creation of it.

Some argue that the traditional approach is outdated. We believe it’s more about how these statements are formed. Generalized, jargon-filled messages simply sit on the shelf, and people wonder why they’re rarely used as the brand’s rudder in tough times. As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” Jargon-filled statements waste valuable time by saying nothing and miss a valuable opportunity to activate people.

What’s the alternative?

We’ve seen others opt for shortened versions of vision, mission, and values that are then rolled into one succinct expression. Manifestos, mantras, guiding principles, or what/how/why messages are all examples of sidestepping the trap of corporate speak. But do these abbreviated frameworks deliver?

Manifestos intend to answer the question, What do I believe? They’re statements — often paragraphs — declaring intentions, motives, or points of view. So, in that sense, they sound quite similar to the traditional approach. But context is everything. A manifesto’s power is in its ability to be public-facing and inspiring to a specific group of people — those ready to join the fight. Isn’t this what advertising is?

Mantras are statements or slogans repeated frequently. They tend to reflect the brand’s essence (I know, more terminology) or become a sort of tagline. Asana’s “do great things together” became a litmus test to assess their design and writing assets. IBM’s "Eliminate. Simplify. Automate." is a response to the economic downturn. Nike’s mantra, “authentic athletic performance,” is not something we hear in their ads, but Apple’s “Think Different” became a whole brand campaign.

Both manifestos and mantras have the potential (and flexibility) to become bigger than themselves, spurring campaigns or other marketing efforts. But those items are designed to persuade, advertise, and sell, which is not the intent of mission, vision, and values. We don’t see manifestos and mantras as 1:1 replacements for mission, vision, and values. We see the two approaches as complementary — if you do them well.

To us, both mission, vision, and values and manifestos have distinct value. One aligns everyone inside the brand and the other tells the world about it.

So, what’s the answer? In short, both.

Doing them well starts by acknowledging that both formats have a lot to offer. The next step is treating them as such, which means scoping them on a project as separate line items and paying attention to the order in which they are created.

At Focus Lab, our first verbal identity deliverable is the Core Messaging Framework. That includes purpose, mission, vision, and values. We design these according to the definitions provided earlier and frame them as foundational assertions about who the brand is and what it stands for. We don’t abide by the Drucker model per se in creating these; instead, we have our own set of standards that guide their creation — and empty jargon ain’t a part of it. These are focused statements that make a brand’s beliefs, goals, and direction clear in short, memorable fashion. We present these core messages to our clients as critical pieces of mostly internal-facing messaging. The parts that build the rudder.

The more messaging you have in your arsenal, the better. To us, both mission, vision, and values and manifestos have distinct value. One aligns everyone inside the brand and the other tells the world about it.

When your brand heads into rough seas (and trust us, it will), you may find yourself off course. But don’t fret! Your mission, vision, and values will steer you on the right path.

Photos by Jan Antonin Kolar and Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

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