Why Mission and Vision Statements Can’t Be Passé (Even if You Hate Them.)


There’s been a lot of hating on mission statements and vision statements over the last decade. And some of it’s warranted. However, the idea that you can create a successful brand, or a successful business, without knowing some semblance of these “ugly step children” is a bit ridiculous. Trying to construct a brand while saying mission and vision statements are inconsequential is a bit like saying you’re constructing a building and have decided to ignore those out-moded laws of gravity and mass. Whether you’d prefer to ignore they exist or not, they will still play into or against your plan at every level.

Mission and vision, whether in their traditional forms, reinvented and relabeled as “purpose statements,” or encapsulated in other broader, strategic statements like a brand manifesto, are fundamental forces of your business and your brand. Ignore them at your peril. Harness them and build a stronger brand.

What’s so significant about them? And why should you care?

Ignore for a minute all the countless sucky mission and vision statements you’ve read that basically say…well…nothing.

“We continually pursue mission-critical
catalysts for change 
while continuing to
completely operationalize emerging content.”*

Ignore the formal dictionary and business book definitions and all the prescribed, formulaic formats. Let’s break it down and look at what questions these strategic statements are supposed to answer and what they can really “do” for you. (And then you can tell me whether they still seem unnecessary and pointless.)

A Mission:

  • Answers the questions: What is our purpose today? Why do we exist?
  • What is it used for? It guides our actions and defines the organization’s ultimate goal.
  • Think of it as: Your core purpose and daily charter. It ensures everyone is on the same page.

A Vision:

  • Answers the questions: Where are we going? What do we want to achieve or accomplish?
  • What is it used for? To unify everyone in the organization around “the call;” to guide longer-term strategic direction and management’s direction.
  • Think of it as: The target, or picture, of what you want to become; the ultimate goal; what you want your work to lead to.

These things are optional or disposable? They sound like fundamental data points to me. And honestly, it’s the clarity that most businesses yearn for, even when they don’t know what they’re yearning for. So, call them anything you want. Adopt them in any format that inspires you and holds meaning. But don’t say what you are here for and where you are going are irrelevant. That’s a good way for you and your business model to be irrelevant. And fast.

It’s The Kind of Thing We Have Learned to Love to Hate.

If they are so essential then, why do we hate them so damn much? I attribute a lot of it to baggage, abuse, and ambiguity, but likely the biggest thing working against mission and vision is that there’s typically no clear connection between these statements, the overall strategy, and putting them into action. Why?

  • Most are stand-alone exercises rather than the product of integrated brand strategy and articulation. (Where does this fit in the larger scheme of things and why is it important?)
  • They have been the go-to darlings of off-site retreats when management and consultants don’t have a clue what work they really should be doing, or are solving the wrong problem. (“I know, we need a new mission statement!”)
  • They say nothing relevant, clear, compelling, or understandable, thus make no impression, no difference, and aren’t acted on. So why care?

It’s more that there’s been a perfect storm of misunderstanding, misuse, and meaninglessness. As a result, mission and vision statements truly are mostly irrelevant. Not the essential role and necessity of the statements, mind you. It’s the pablum that most companies have drafted.

Reasons Most Mission and Vision Statements are Engineered for Failure from the Get-Go:

  • There’s a lack of clarity about what they are or represent. (In fact, many people reverse the meanings of the two.)
  • They exist in a vacuum, when in fact they are only two components of a larger brand platform. So, there’s no place for them to “live” or have meaning after development…other than a binder or a boardroom plaque.
  • Most are formulaic, meaningless, and chock full of buzzwords and industry jargon. (You know what I’m talking about. For a little fun diversion, visit this automated “online mission statement generator” and bypass all the work!)
  • Many are irrelevant not just to employees but also the target market.
  • When you get down to it, there’s really no core idea there.
  • They are completely interchangeable with other companies, including competitors.
  • Most are “white screen” exercises tackled with no context, no defined purpose, process, or fuel.
  • Most are scotch-taped “camels,” designed by committee. (That’s always a good product!)
  • They are designed to be so generic, far-reaching, inclusive, and inoffensive to the point of essentially saying nothing and speaking to, or inspiring, no one.
  • Most are finally adopted out of sheer exhaustion and boredom with the process. (“I don’t care, already! Number 32!”)
  • They aren’t short enough to be either memorable or motivational.
  • There’s frankly nothing interesting or motivational about them.
  • They are not internalized by the team, so no one remembers them or uses them as a compass point.
  • They were lip service and nothing more.

It’s no wonder people want to jettison the whole concept. They don’t have to be meaningless and developing them doesn’t have to be a special form of torture. They do take a bit of thinking, though.

9 Tips for Developing Mission and Vision Statements That Aren’t Dumb.

  1. Keep in mind that however you tackle them and choose to word them, at the most basic level you are trying to dig out and articulate your: (a) compelling reason for being and (b) clear vision for success. If you can get that out, in any form, you’re well on your way.
  2. Do some research and reading on how these two basic strategic statements fit into brand strategy as a whole. Be thinking about your brand and strategy as a system and substructure supporting your daily work, where mission and vision are just two of the pillars. (Alone, two pillars are rarely a solid foundation.)
  3. Even though mission and vision statements are frequently seen as “internal” strategic statements, think of everything from the customer’s perspective and your relationship to them: Who are they? What are their needs? What emotions drive them? What benefits or positive outcomes come from your products or services? (That’s mission fuel.) Also: Why do you go to work every day? What motivates you? What difference do you want to make? (That’s vision fuel.)
  4. Expand that thinking to your employees’ perspective. Mission and vision statements are meant to unite, give purpose, give direction, and inspire. If your mission and vision statement are meaningless beyond the boardroom, you should be concerned.
  5. Rather than relying on Mad Lib, fill-in-the-blank statement formulas (yes, we’re always looking for the easy way out) immerse yourself in good, inspiring brand statements. Google great brands you admire, both in your category, but even just the consumer brands you love. Look at their mission and vision statements. What format are they in? Do they use traditional statements, mash-ups, manifestos, narratives? What’s compelling about them? Why do they resonate with you (their customer?) How are theirs different from their competitors’?
  6. With all the fuel from the prior five steps in mind, draw a line down the center of a sheet of paper and simply start writing down phrases that come to mind. Don’t worry about complete sentences just complete thoughts (and don’t get into serial comma list making!) Label your left-hand column: “What is our purpose today? Why do we exist?” And your right-hand column: “Where are we going? What do we want to achieve or accomplish?”
  7. Once you’ve got your two columns filled, begin looking at which thoughts are most important and compelling. Which are important, but not essential. Which relate to one another. Start trying to summarize the essential item or two from each column into a short, distinctive statement each. Be sure that you include language that reflects your passion or is motivating. Use your Google research and examples to help shape and refine it.
  8. Look critically at your two statements. Is there jargon and corporate-speak? Ambiguous or extraneous words? Edit them out. How about abstract language and vague, conceptual terms? Look for ways to be more clear and concrete. Can you get specific about your purpose (mission?) Can you quantify your goals (vision?) Your objective here is to distill; clarifying and concentrating.
  9. Test your two draft statements with people outside your organization. Do they understand them? Do they sound important? Meaningful? Generic and interchangeable? Walk away from your work for a few days or a week and then revisit the statements for some further refinement before testing and discussing them internally with your team.

I highly recommend the gelling time of #9, and the outside perspective. Brand statements are almost always iterative processes, where nuances and “tuning” actually have a lot of power. And ultimately, your mission and vision have to have some context and meaning outside the walls of your business if they’re going to do you any good. Give the nine steps a whirl and I think you’ll find yourself miles away from the typical hated mission and vision statements.

*By the way that totally ambiguous mission statement example early in the article was from another online mission statement generator. This one doesn’t even require that you make any selections, just press a button for another random jumble…that looks suspiciously familiar.