Hang around with too many marketing types and you are sure to hear the terms “mission” and “vision” tossed around. They’re sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. A mission statement defines who you are and what you do. It’s about the value you bring to your customers. In contrast, a vision statement is more aspirational. It defines what you want to be known for. It’s more relevant and motivational to your employees and shareholders. Combined, these statements give clarity and focus to your organization as you set goals, objectives and action plans.

While both are important, it is a mission statement which will have more impact on your day-to-day operations. In the most basic terms, it should explain why someone would want to do business with you. Often elements of a good mission statement will influence a company tagline, but these statements do not have to be something you will share with customers.

The best mission statement answers four basic questions in clear, jargon-free language. As you answer these questions about your business, be specific and think about what sets you apart.

  • What do we do?
  • How do we do it?
  • Who do we do it for?
  • What value do we bring?

Here a few interesting examples of mission statements. All emphasis is added:

Aflac: Defines market strategy
“To combine aggressive strategic marketing with quality products and services at competitive prices to provide the best insurance value for consumers.”

Anyone who has dealt with an Aflac insurance agent has probably noticed their persistent sales approach and firm belief that they bring a valuable service. It’s clear the belief and behavior starts at the top of the organization.

 Bristol-Myers Squibb: Focuses research and development 

“To discover, develop and deliver innovative medicines that help patients prevail over serious diseases.”

Their mission statement clearly describes the kinds of medicine they focus on. They are not interested in simple aspirin or pain relief, they are focused on serious diseases. As a company, they walk the talk, selling their Excedrin brand so they could focus on more serious (and profitable) diseases.

Omnicare: Accountability for results

“Our business is pharmaceutical care. Our mission is positive outcomes.”

 What sets Omnicare apart is their focus on the results. Their mission statement gives you a clear, compelling reason to chose them.

ConocoPhillips: Opens the door for new products

“Use our pioneering spirit to responsibly deliver energy to the world.”

I love this because it conveys a sense of strength and innovation. While defining what they do, their mission does not limit them to natural gas or oil. They deliver energy, and so exploring alternative fuels is clearly a possibility.

Darden Restaurants: One message for all brands 

“To nourish and delight everyone we serve.”

 As a company with multiple brands which include Red Lobster, Oliver Garden, Bahama Breeze and a number of other chains, the single mission sets a standard for service and food quality.

Most companies don’t do a good job creating their mission statement. Where do they go wrong?

  • Creating broad, vague, and/or long mission statements which actually say very little, and certainly nothing original. The problem? Most employees can’t remember these long, irrelevant mission statements so they aren’t an effective tool for guiding company activities.
  • Confusing the mission and vision by talking about striving to be the  best, leading provider or dominant player in their market.
  • Focusing on everyone but the customer. Talking about creating shareholder value and a solid return for heir investors in their mission statement conjures up images of unscrupulous businessmen who will do anything for a buck.
  • Failing to give me a reason to want to buy from you. That was the case with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway: Our vision is to realize the tremendous potential of The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway by providing transportation services that consistently meet our customers’ expectations.” Nothing like setting the bar low. They think they have tremendous potential to meet customer expectations. Clearly, there is no above and beyond with this company. This mission doesn’t make me want to book a ticket anytime soon because it doesn’t encourage their employees to do more than the minimum.

What is your mission? If you don’t have one, use the questions above to start writing one. If you do, dust it off and ask yourself how it measures up. Does it still reflect what your company does? Missions change over time as your business evolves. Go forth and find yours.