The Purpose of a Mission Statement

We build brands and brands have a lot of components. Some are tangible and obvious: the logo, the website, the brochure. Some, though, are a little harder to grasp, and almost none are as difficult as the mission statement.

“This is all well and good, but where do we actually use this?”

Mission statements are what I would call a “soft” deliverable. They’re internally focused, meaning they won’t be directly used to court and convert customers. They’re abstract, usually centered around values and aspirations than any concrete efforts. They’re not something you can use; they’re something you live.

So I’m not surprised when people hold up their hands when we’re discussing their mission statement and say “This is all well and good, but where do we actually use this?”

It’s a fair question, but it can be difficult to answer. Mission statements are malleable little pieces of text – you can use them almost any way you choose. There are four basic uses of a mission statement that usually come to mind, however.

Uses of a Mission Statement

To Shape Your Organization (Without You)

It’s hard to measure, but hard to underestimate, how important it is for people within an organization to have a sense of meaning in their work.

Let’s imagine you’re the head of a 50-person organization. You’ve got a certain vision for your organization and you’d like your employees to share it. When your organization was smaller, everyone’s goals and attitudes were aligned as if through osmosis. Now, though, you can’t take the time to personally explain your mission, vision and company culture to each new employee.

A well-crafted mission statement, however, can pick up the slack. It turns the je ne sais quoi that makes your organization special into institutional knowledge which can be easily shared with others. If you were ever to leave your organization, or at least take a very long vacation, you could be certain that the spirit of the organization would remain intact because everyone would be able to reference what it was. Everyone would share the same goals, but more importantly, everyone would share the same sense of meaning.

It’s hard to measure, but hard to underestimate, how important it is for people within an organization to have a sense of meaning in their work. Finding meaning helps us to feel like we’re part of something bigger, which in turn helps us to thrive in the good times and carry on in the bad times.

This idea got reinforced to me when I was younger. I stumbled across Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in which Frankl discusses his approach to psychotherapy, which he called logotherapy.

Basically, he had found that a person’s primary drive was not towards power or pleasure but towards meaning. Give a person meaning and they can handle almost anything. Without meaning, though, they’ll crumble.

This is not to say that your mission statement is going to instill deep meaning in the lives of everyone within your organization, or that without a mission statement nothing will mean anything. This is just to say that a mission statement is a way of standardizing and institutionalizing meaning across an organization, and that the presence of that shared sense of meaning can help to give your organization the vision and the energy to do great things.

To Guide Decision Making

Good leaders… are the ones who can make these seemingly arbitrary decisions well.

Think back to the last time you were going to go grab lunch with other people. You’re on the phone, you’re texting, whatever, and someone brings up the dreaded question: “Where do you want to go?”

Stakes do not get much lower than this. Everyone will probably get a satisfactory meal pretty much anywhere. But if you’re anything like me and everyone I know, this is the hardest decision you’ll have to make all day.

Business decisions can be like this, but with much higher stakes. There’s not necessarily a right or a wrong way to go, but a decision has to be made. What do you do?

Good leaders, in my experience, are the ones who can make these seemingly arbitrary decisions well. The key to doing this is to have some sort of theoretical foundation for decision making. At that point, it’s almost like you’re role playing – if I hold this statement to be true, then what would follow?

That’s exactly what a mission statement can be. If you take the time to craft a mission statement that you’re invested in, then it becomes an articulation of who you want to become, and following it is your guide to getting there.

To Measure Progress

[Companies measure] their actions and outcomes against their missions.

Similarly to above, if a mission statement is an articulation of who you want to become, then it can also serve as a barometer of your progress. How closely have you adhered to your mission? How much closer have you gotten to achieving it?

It’s worth noting here that mission statements are, by and large, unachievable. They’re lofty goals that you’re meant to chase forever. For example:

Starbucks: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

Despite Starbucks’ efforts to invade every neighborhood in the entire world, chances are they’ll never do it. And the inspiration they provide for the human spirit will only last until someone turns on the news. But by claiming this mission, they’ve managed to mass produce a space that feels warm, inviting and nurturing all the same.

Soylent: “Expand access to quality nutrition through food system innovation.”

Soylent makes what my co-worker John Connelly calls “dog food for people.” It’s basically mush that you mix with water to replace a meal. Their mission statement, however, connects them to a higher, greater good that allows them to explore spaces with a sense of purpose, like post-colonialism  and the debate over GMOs. Of course, they’ll probably never actually solve the global nutrtition problem, but connecting with it makes them a much more interesting company.

These companies obviously chart their success by revenue and profits first. But they can chart their progress, and their social relevance, by measuring their actions and outcomes against their missions.

To Create a Culture

The more measured part of my brain… knows how effective something like this can be.

All of these goals serve a greater purpose: to create a unique, meaningful culture for your organization.

Your mission statement aligns the goals and perspectives of people within your organization with the organization’s greater culture. It helps you make decisions which preserve that culture. It allows you to measure progress in enacting your vision, which in turn reinforces that culture.

I think of this a lot when I’m at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, actually. They own a local Servpro franchise and they have magnets everywhere that they picked up at a Servpro conference. The magnets exclaim “Be the Brand!” in bright orange type.

On one hand, the skeptical side of me always thinks that’s a ludicrous demand. How can someone be a brand, exactly? People have their own ways of doing things and their own attitudes and it seems silly to ask them to subordinate that to the brand, whatever that means.

The more measured part of my brain, though, knows how effective something like this can be. “Being the brand” doesn’t mean being a company shill. It means understanding and aligning yourself with the overall company mission and culture. Doing so can help to create an organization that lasts longer, does more and feels like a genuine community.