On a Mission?

Most books on strategy and developing business plans will tell you that your mission statement is key to your company’s future. Yet most mission statements are so lofty and vague that they are frequently interchangeable and often completely useless. Here we discuss the basics of mission statements, give some examples of good ones and bad ones, and offer a few other thoughts.

They Have a Mission Statement
They’re On a Mission

First of all, what is a mission statement? There does not seem to be any consensus from management consultants on what a mission statement actually is.

One writer says a mission statement should reflect the range and nature of products, pricing, quality, service, marketplace position, growth potential, use of technology, as well as relationships with customers, employees, suppliers, competitors and the community.

Another says a mission statement should include a summary of

  • Opportunities or needs the business addresses
  • A description of how these needs are being addressed
  • The level of service provided by the company
  • Principles or beliefs that guide the organization

A third, simpler version, is given by Rhonda Abrams, author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies, is “Mission statements help clarify what business you are in, your goals and your objectives.” Or even more simply, “a mission statement tells people what business you are in”.

Some Good Mission Statements

  • Provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything.” (eBay)

This is simple, clean and crisp. It tells you what eBay does, who its customers are, and how they are different. It doesn’t apply to hundreds or thousands of other companies, but it is broad enough that eBay can adapt to marketplace changes without completely redoing their mission statement.

  • To offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.” (Warby Parker)

The Warby Parker mission statement tells you who they are, what they do, and how they are different. It also expresses their strong commitment to society.

 “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” (Patagonia)

 Another mission statement with an actual mission. Patagonia is all about doing good for the environment. This comes across in their stores, their marketing, and their products.

  • To strengthen Chicago’s neighborhood economies by promoting the benefits of locally owned, independent businesses.” (Local First Chicago)

On a much smaller scale, the Local First Chicago mission statement clearly states the organization’s purpose and relationships with stakeholders. The Local First Chicago mission statement has some elements in common with other BALLE organizations, but it is also unique. (Full disclosure — I am on the Board of Local First Chicago).

Some “Not So Good” Mission Statements

  • To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” (Starbucks)

The idea here is that Starbucks is not just about coffee; it is about relationships and community and comfort. In one sense, Starbucks wildly succeeds at its mission, since many people feel a strong sense of attachment to Starbucks, and the company treats their workers much better than most large food service corporations. However, from another point of view, Starbucks has failed at its mission, since it takes money out of local communities around the world and sends it to corporate shareholders.

  • To be the global energy company most admired for its people, partnership and performance.” (Chevron)

This is so generic it could apply to any global energy company. It is also complete hogwash, since Chevron has one of the worst environmental records of any of the multinational oil companies.  The only thing most people admire them for is their profits.

  • McDonald’s brand mission is to be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat and drink. Our worldwide operations are aligned around a global strategy called the Plan to Win, which center on an exceptional customer experience – People, Products, Place, Price and Promotion.” (McDonald’s)

This mission statement (from a few years ago) was not just ungrammatical; it was also vague, uninspiring, and hokey. McDonald’s has eliminated their mission statement and replaced it with a much better “ambition statement” which starts with “Our purpose goes beyond what we sell. We’re using our reach to be a positive force. For our customers. Our people. Our communities. Our world.

Is a Mission Statement Necessary?

An organization without a mission is like a plane without a flight plan. It might go somewhere, but who knows where. A mission is absolutely required. It is not optional. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend months coming up with concise, elegant prose to state it, especially early on when you are just gaining traction in the marketplace. There may come a time when a clear and compelling mission statement will be important, but that time is not necessarily “right now”.

But even if you don’t necessarily need a beautiful statement of your mission right away, you do need a clear sense of purpose. And if your management, employees, partners, customers or clients seem confused about what you do, then this might be a good time to sit down and work on your mission, and mission statement.

Finally, while I am a business consultant, I have never invested much time in developing mission statements for clients. It might be a lucrative revenue stream, but few businesses consider it a high priority. Many extremely successful businesses do not have a formal mission statement, and the trend seems to be moving away from developing them. My favorite business planning book, “Business Plans that Win $$$” by Stanley R. Rich and David E. Gumpert, does not even mention the words “mission statement”.

If you decide to invest in developing a mission statement, keep in mind that the pace of change is faster today than ever before. So even if you have a “great” mission statement that everybody seems to love today, you should probably review it again in a few years.