One of the first steps in building a brand is often one of the hardest: defining the brand mission. This is a strategic brand step that, frankly, can make or break a brand. It involves much more than deciding “who we are” and “what we stand for,” and it certainly demands much more than lofty phrases about brand identity, brand promise and keeping customers happy.
A brand mission is also a far cry from a papered-up “mission statement.” Gaze for a moment at those stalwart fellows in the picture above. Are they reading a mission statement? No, they are on a mission. That’s where your brand belongs.
Most brand missions don’t go far enough
Most brands have a defined “mission.” The problem is that most brand missions don’t go far enough. In broad brush strokes, we can identify three main areas where brand missions often fall short:
- They don’t provide strategic direction to the business
- They’re not primary tools to create customers, and customer value
- They’re framed as corporate communications rather than action steps to drive the company (and its customers) forward
We’ll discuss these elements in the following sections, after we first define the purpose of the brand mission itself.
The purpose of the brand mission: create the customers that will drive the business forward
In general terms, a company’s brand mission is to create the customers that will drive the business forward. Yes, the brand mission is all about creating customers. Defining the brand mission in this context means that the brand team has to set up shop at the core of business. Creating the brand mission involves pulling together a company’s vision, strategic direction, intended product development, and marketing and operations priorities. From these, we then map out the platform strategies for creating brand value and creating customers.
How to approach the brand mission
Defining the brand mission is never an exercise in wordsmithing, although that’s often as far as it gets for many brands. In our approach, here are three new ways to think about the brand mission.
- In the brand mission process, you dial into yourself so that you and your customers can dial out to a bigger and better universe—and then go there.
- Brands are company potential X customer potential. That X right there in the middle is the brand mission. (And that’s why brand builders are essential.)
- The brand mission is a Harley, not a hymnal.
The brand mission pushes the limits of the company
A brand mission should push the limits of the company, because the goal of the brand mission is to take the company (and its customers) into new market spaces where competitors can’t follow. That calls for a strong sense of market direction, opportunity development, value innovation, and customer collaboration.
Effectively, the brand mission combines: company mission + customer mission + business mission. It does so using all the weapons in a company’s strategic, creative, expressive and innovative arsenal.
The brand mission sets the company’s future in motion
Defining the brand mission sets the company’s future in motion. It is casting the die: alea iacta est. In many ways, it’s the defining act of corporate vision, and courage.
Brands need a mission, not a “mission statement”
Companies may be tempted to bypass the brand mission and instead settle for a nice-sounding “mission statement” that’s formally approved then stuck in a drawer. Such brand mission statements can be dangerous, for two reasons. First, they can lull a company into believing that it’s brand mission is solid, when actually it’s vulnerable. Second, making the brand mission a “statement” can reduce the brand to a “paper brand” of words, rather than an active brand of deeds. A paper brand can regress to superficial styling, symbols, slogans and puffed up “personality” attributes. These can give a brand the strategic clout of window dressing, and place it at a competitive disadvantage.
Short and sweet, vital and visceral
The brand mission should be short and sweet, vital and visceral. It’s a way to focus energy, action and innovation within a company, and between a company and its customers.
- A brand mission doesn’t describe; it activates.
- It is direct, never delegated.
- It leads by example.
- It works as a force from within, not doctrine from above.
Employees and customers should see evidence of the brand mission everywhere. And they should feel it. It’s the shared pulse that carries everyone forward.
A framework for action
What the brand mission delivers to customers is more important than what it says in gold-lettered parchment on the wall. Your brand is what you deliver, not what you promise. The brand mission is a framework for action; it is not meant to be framed.
Generally, the less said, the better.
Test your brand mission
Your brand mission is a live mission, of many steps. To run a quick, conceptual test of a candidate brand mission, ask yourself these questions:
Can our employees and customers run with this?
Will it take them where our competitors can’t follow?
If your brand mission is spread out over six paragraphs of your virtues and sixteen subsections of your good intentions, it’s probably not strategic, and it’s certainly too diffuse.
The context of the brand mission
As noted above, the brand mission is to create the customers that will drive the business forward. Products may satisfy customer needs, but brands have the power to create new classes of customers who can add value back to the business. Within this brand context, here are some questions that can help focus the brand mission:
- What is currently holding our customers back?
- How can our customers be “unpackaged” from current constraints?
- What are their missed opportunities?
- How (and where) can we lead our customers toward more proactive lives?
- How can our brand become a platform for continuous customer growth?
A context for the brand team
In my view, the brand team should be the most creative and the most strategic group within a company, since their job is to grow the business by growing the customers. Through the brand team, customers become a competitive weapon, making the brand a potent force multiplier. Thus, the brand team must be graced with brand vision: the ability to see the future through customer eyes—which is no small task.
The brand team’s general marching orders, at least as I see them, are as follows:
Open eyes, open minds, open markets. Create freedoms. Create customers. Advance customers beyond the reach of competitors.
A brand team that operates within this context should have little difficulty developing a suitable brand mission for the business. This also means that the brand team operates at the company edge, where company innovation, customers, culture and value interact to make new markets.
What these brand team marching orders mean
Open eyes: The best brands are a continuous surprise, by their art, their sheer presence, or their force of character. They reinvent life, and cannot be ignored.
Open minds: Brands are company potential X customer potential. They enable customers to think in new contexts—of value, being, and action. A brand that doesn’t change its customers isn’t doing its job.
Open markets: Brands create opportunities for customers to grow, and then nurture customers as they grow. The brand mission ensures that all this growth and nurturing will take the form of strategic new markets.
Create freedoms: Brands create more business when they liberate customers from stifling conventions and oppressions of incumbent brands and markets.
Create customers: The core goal.
Advance customers beyond the reach of competitors: The strategic goal.
Elements of the brand mission
While the purpose of the brand mission is to connect the company, customers and markets, the brand mission itself should not try to connect all the dots that exist in its brand universe. That’s too complicated, and ultimately leads to stasis. The brand mission should lasso those elements and transform them into the crack of a whip.
That said, here are some basic questions to help in your rope throwing:
- Where can we lead our customers (so that our competitors can’t follow)?
- How can our brand help customers help themselves?
- What new forms of value can we deliver?
- How can our brand become a platform for creating customer opportunities?
- How can our brand become a richer context of living?
- How can our brand pave the way for our planned product innovations?
- How can our brand mission place employees, customers and other stakeholders on a shared path toward mutual goals?
Brand Mission: Google vs. Microsoft
In a future post I’ll analyze the brand missions of Google and Microsoft using the criteria set forward here. These are two highly technical companies who are visibly uncomfortable with brand realities. What makes the comparison interesting is that Microsoft, by design, doesn’t have a brand mission for customers. This has created a huge opening for Google.