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Marketing Lowdown: The Mission Statement

If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. That's why every company needs a mission statement—including yours.

A mission statement defines who you are as a company, sets the mood, articulates the corporate culture, and helps perpetuate favorable work methods. In short, it serves as a guide on the long road to success.

Externally, the mission statement provides management focus when faced with difficulties due to corporate expansion, competitive harassment, or industry deregulation. Internally, it demonstrates leadership and helps to inspire employees.

There are many benefits to having a written statement. If your employees live by your guiding principles, they don't have to run to some rulebook every time they make a decision. They can simply look at the mission statement to remind them what their boss would have them do. (This can avoid a lot of annoying meetings.)

Mission statements are popular among large companies. Boston-based consultants Bain & Co. recently surveyed the use of them, discovering more than nine out of 10 Fortune 500 firms use them. In fact, they are more widely used than any other management tool.

Why? Because the cost is small, and they work.

Companies use mission statements in different ways. Some are fanatic about spreading the missionary zeal. Bob Galvin, former chairman and CEO of Motorola Inc., required employees to carry a wallet-sized card of the company's mission statement, and occasionally asked them to show it.

At Leo Burnett Advertising Agency, we had to know both Leo's mission statement ("Our primary function in life is to produce the best advertising in the world, bar none.") and motto ("Reach for the stars. You may not always get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either.").

Granted, some mission statements are unrealistic. Boeing Company's fundamental goal of achieving 20 percent average annual return on stockholder's equity, or Earth Care Paper's mission to "improve the world" both seem a bit wishful.

Others are just unclear. General Electric's "Boundaryless…Speed…Stretch" or Ball Corporation's pledge to maintain high levels of social responsibility sound good, but leave the reader asking, "What does it mean?"

Dexter Corporation uses just one long, run-on sentence: "To be recognized as an important and environmentally responsive specialty materials company that derives superior growth and returns from quality products and responsive services based on proprietary technology and operating excellence that provides genuine benefit to customers worldwide, rewards talented and dedicated employees, and satisfies shareholder expectations."

Huh?

Some are as folksy as the founder. In 1926, I.J. Cooper expressed his Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. creed as "Good merchandise, fair play, and a square deal." Banc One Corp. uses the words of its former chairman, John B. McCoy: "We'll deal with you straight, no fluff and no excuses…"

The U.S. Air Force uses a mission statement as simple and direct as a B-52: "To defend the United States through control and exploitation of air and space."

Experts agree the most effective mission statements inspire. Many managers use the company creed when recruiting, to determine if a potential employee will "fit" with the corporate culture.

Others use mission statements in training. Arthur D. Little, Inc. uses its mission and guiding principles as an orientation guide for new employees. McDonald's Quality Service Cleanliness and Value (QSCV) is an integral part of the training of new hires.

For your organization to have a mission statement, it must first have a mission—one that you probably have buried in the back of your mind, and one that your employees may (or may not) share. Writing a formal statement doesn't just voice this unspoken mission, it endorses it as company policy.

If your mission statement is to inspire, it must speak to your employees in such a way to galvanize them. It must grab their attention, inspiring them to work harder, smarter, and in words that ring true for today and for tomorrow.

Eloquence is not essential. Any divorced person will tell you there is no mission statement more movingly phrased than the traditional wedding vows, or more difficult to live up to.

Avoid corporate-ese, too. A credo like Dexter's (above) won't galvanize anyone outside the legal department.

Keep it simple and direct. Phrase it just as if you were talking to a friend.

Here's a good way to start. Answer in 50 words or less: Why are you in business? Why these products? Why these customers?

Pick the principles you live by. Write them down. Then build your credo from the values you want your employees to emulate.

Once written, use your mission statement. Share it with employees. Post it around the office. Display it at meetings. Distribute it to customers and suppliers. Print it on your letterhead, purchase orders, and invoices.

Start a direct mail campaign to all your customers and prospects. Enclose a copy and a cover letter explaining how it was written, along with how you intend to live up to it today and in the future.

If the function of a leader is to advance a clear and shared vision of the organization, what better way than through the stated mission of your business?

Robert Grede, author of "Naked Marketing—The Bare Essentials," is president of The Grede Company, consultants in marketing and strategic planning, and is a frequent speaker at universities and corporate venues.