Or your manifesto.

There was a time when you couldn't put up your website without having a mission statement. Something along the lines of, “We aim to become the the best provider of X in the whole world.” 

About a decade later we needed a “purpose.” Some kind of aspiration that was intended to inspire people and engage them in this bigger … mission. 

That was progress. But not nearly enough.

I walked into the new salad place down the road from me that recently opened. Its manifesto is painted on the wall. So, please, let me say what needs to be said: 

We don’t care about your manifesto. 

We don’t care about you. 

We care about ourselves. 

My loyalty would be more easily won if your counter staff were friendlier and more courteous. The manifesto is a nice touch, but it’s more window dressing than substance.

The Problem With Manifestos

What’s wrong with our most earnest purposes and manifestos? Five things.

First. Your mission and your manifesto are about you. Topics that are only of passing interest to us once we’re already sold. They may or may not make us feel better about you. If they are unique enough, they may garner you some media attention. But after you’ve seen a hundred manifestos, they lose their ability to pique our interest.

Second. Your manifesto and your purpose are too shallow. Yes, even if they are about world peace, self-actualization, and/or a rabid obsession with customer happiness. 

What do I mean by shallow? I mean this: 

Third. Your manifesto more likely resembles a stream of consciousness rant, than a thoughtful approach to serving our needs. 

Fourth: Your manifesto, or prior to that your “company values,” that talked about how you were committed to collaboration, innovation and customer satisfaction, impressed no one with either its sincerity or its ability to differentiate you from the companies that make word processing or accounting software. Or frozen dinners, for that matter.

Fifth. Most importantly, your mission, manifesto and value statements do not create a strong enough framework for helping your customers understand why they should do business with you. Neither do they help your executives and employees understand and examine their path forward. What questions should they be asking? What principles guide decision-making? How do they know if they are making decisions that support that mission? 

It's Nice to Feel Good, But ...

To wit: Sweetgreen (whose product I do eat) is the aforementioned salad place in my neighborhood. You can see its manifesto below. 

It is a nice list of nice things. It’s a nice fight song, or ballad, perhaps, but not exactly a narrative. (And I’m not really as cynical that I did not notice that it really is a good list of values and ideas. And that perhaps employees would be proud to own it.) 

Why not? It does not help anyone make decisions. It is not memorable. It is not something you can explain to any stakeholders in a meaningful way that they can internalize. Your employees, investors and customers may relate to your manifesto, it may make them feel good. 

Feeling good is a necessary but insufficient outcome for the narrative at the core of your business.

sweetgreen manifesto

Customers may (or may not) be warmed by your commitment to world peace, but how does that translate to how well your hiking boots will support them on their big backpacking trip? Will your commitment to social causes secure their confidence in your expense management app?

Telling the Whole Story

A corporate narrative is a framework that encompasses more than just your vision. It explains not only what you hope to achieve, but how you approach achieving that ideal. It explains your unique perspective or worldview, methodology or process.  It needs to explain what you’re actually offering (and you’d be amazed how many companies totally flub this step). It needs to back you up with proof – testimonials, data, third party analyst opinions. The stuff that gives you credibility.

Ben and Jerry’s does an interesting job here. Shut out of skiing in Vermont one afternoon by unseasonably warm weather, we visited its factory. It has a three-part mission statement on its walls, which, to my children’s discomfort, and my husband’s amusement, I photographed:

Ben and Jerry Economic

Ben and Jerry's Product 

Ben and Jerry's Social

These three missions — speaking to the financial, labor and community aspirations and stakeholders which comprise the ecosystem of Ben and Jerry's dairy delights — create a more complete story than most. I would summarize it thus:  

Why: Euphoric treats, prosperous stakeholders

How: Best quality ingredients, imaginative flavors

How: Respect for the community, employees and the earth

Proof: Taste it. See the many contributions to the community, environment and happy employees

This is the narrative hierarchy. I respect the recognition that knew that no one of those missions were adequate to describe what the company was trying to achieve, why and for whom. 

Not Just Marketing

A narrative is — yes — a core part of marketing. A clear, structured, documented narrative will make every single campaign, web page, blog post, ad banner and content piece a little easier to create. The value of each of these little (and large) efforts is maximized as it becomes a part of a greater whole rather than a tiny seed scattered on the wind.

A structured narrative, however, is much more than marketing. It has as big an impact internally as externally. If a purposeful mission statement inspires, a purposeful narrative inspires and aligns. It helps bridge the gap between marketing and sales, R&D and customer service. It makes sense to investors and engineering both — though perhaps different aspects of it resonate more strongly. 

The story you tell each constituent may be different, but the core elements remain the same.

It enables cross-disciplinary conversations. It guides a product roadmap and facilitates customer conversations. It is a framework of beliefs that enable conversations at the most visionary and the most practical levels. 

Not About You

The best, most powerful narratives are not about you. John Hagel is thoughtful and articulate on this topic and the value of the long-term investment here. Great narratives are about me (that’s the general consumer me, not Deb, per se). 

Sports brands are particularly good at this. Nike’s “Just Do It” is the best known and most enduring example. Under Armour’s “Rule Yourself” is also great (its recent Michael Phelps video is stunning). 

But Apple’s “Think Different” and Salesforce’s “Make your customers love you” are also highly emotive statements that get you excited about being “more better.” 

A narrative must first and foremost make an emotional connection — and the best make you believe you can be better. Fail to connect emotionally and all the intellectual and factual arguments in the world will never find their way past the mental doorstep.

The Only Long-Term Competitive Advantage

You can have great products and talented people. But there are lots of great people, and it is relatively easy to copy products and features. They will not distinguish you for long. They will not help you turn the slog of corporate competition into a font of value and a force for good. You can Start With Why, but you can’t end there.

It is your beliefs and your approach — the way you interpret and respond to the world that is your company, your culture, your only real competitive advantage. It is worth investing in figuring out what it is, formalizing and evolving it as you learn. 

Do not accept the vague and incomplete. Accept neither “maximizing shareholder returns” nor “world peace” as complete or valuable for succeeding in aligning and strengthening your workforce or your market-force. 

Invest in your narrative. Make crystal-clear the dream that captures hearts, the intelligence that drives progress, and the details that describe the fruits of your labors. Just do it.

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Title image "Undewater" (CC BY 2.0) by  David Hurt