Mission statement definition is a critical – and often botched – job in many businesses. One of the reasons it’s so hard is that defining a useful, yet inspiring mission statement requires flying at the right ‘mission altitude.’ Low altitude mission statements tend to focus on customer benefits and be more literal and narrow in scope, while high altitude mission statements are more global, and offer a more sweeping and inspiring vision of why the company exists.
Simply put, customer missions fulfill a promise to a customer, while social missions aim to make the world a better place. Some examples might help illustrate the difference:
Google’s Mission Statement:
“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Adobe’s Mission Statement:
“To build the best tools and services in the world for web designers and developers to create beautiful mobile-ready content and apps.”
Twitter’s Mission Statement:
“To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve–and do not detract from–a free and global conversation.”
Amazon’s Mission Statement:
“To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.”
I’ll let you determine which of the above are strictly customer missions and which are also social missions. What I will say – and it’s really the focus of this post – is that the most powerful missions create synergy between customer mission and social mission. They do that through products and services that create positive social impact as they are made and used by the organization’s key stakeholders.
In other words, the most powerful missions motivate customers to willingly pay to partner with the company in making the world a better place.
Why Does Business Exist?
Why does a business exist? When companies really answer this question, they don’t generate mealymouthed mission statements. They also become less susceptible to the fallacy that their primary mission is simply to maximize returns for shareholders.
When it comes to mission statement definition, money is important, but not as an end in itself, so much as a means to some greater purpose.
Peter Drucker framed it well when once he wrote:
“No financial man will ever understand business because financial people think a company makes money. A company makes shoes, and no financial man understands that. They think money is real. Shoes are real. Money is an end result.”
Competition and Customer Expectations
Before getting into the challenges of defining a social mission, it’s important to be clear about one thing: the customer has to be the primary focus of any business. Without customers, there’s no cash flow, and without that it’s not possible to sustain and scale a mission.
But a customer mission isn’t just about money.
Customer expectations grow over time, and as they do, it transforms the way businesses compete. Things that once differentiated a firm from competitors eventually get copied and become the new norm for customer expectations.
Sometimes, shifts in customer expectation go beyond this or that feature and span industries. These meta-shifts in customer expectations can be watershed moments for a business that when mishandled, can lead to its demise. A few decades ago leading firms pioneered the focus on quality assurance and customer satisfaction. Today, if you’re not good at quality assurance and customer satisfaction, your business is as good as dead. We’re now in the early stages of another meta-shift in customer expectations, one centered on “customer success.”
Customer Success and Customer Mission
Companies can’t create real customer success without customers because it depends upon how successful customers are in using their products and services to achieve their own objectives. This sounds obvious, but clarity on this point will deepen one’s understanding of the customer mission.
When a drill manufacturer sees its goal as helping customers “fasten materials together” rather than simply selling drills, the company aligns its goals with those of its customer. The company’s customer mission isn’t to sell drills, make money, or even to create holes. It’s to help customers fasten materials as part of their still broader goals, such as fixing up their home.
In this way, the company’s mission becomes the customer’s mission. This shift in perspective helps the drill maker see that there’s no way it can achieve its mission without helping its customers to simultaneously achieve theirs.
When customers, in turn, see the company’s drill as their best way to create the holes they need as part of their own broader goals, they experience a subtle, yet powerful sense of partnership – a shared mission with the company around that drill.
The customer can’t fulfill her mission without the company’s drill and the company can’t fill its mission without the customer’s drilling.
Deeper partnering with endusers is quite advanced at companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google, where the services are actually created as they are used by people. Without our tweeting, there is no Twitter. Yes, these are ad-funded services, where the endusers aren’t paying customers. But these companies treat them as if they were because they know enduser success is the goose to their golden egg. I like to describe what these companies do as building “contribution platforms” that attract and coordinate stakeholder contributions.
While the tech sector is furthest along in building contribution platforms, you see similar values expressed in the way a company like Whole Foods describes its relationships with customers (“Customers are the lifeblood of our business and we are interdependent on each other.”).
Once you learn to see customer partnerships in this way, you’ll start to see products and services as a kind of medium for serving the customer mission and for facilitating customer success. And once you do that, you start to see the impact that customers have on the world from the way they use a company’s products and services.
Incorporating a Social Mission
Social entrepreneurs know how to work with customers to make the world a better place. They design products and services to solve pressing societal and ecological challenges as they are used by customers.
A businesses doesn’t have to be social enterprises to have a social mission though. Twitter is not a social enterprise, yet it does “improve a free and global conversation,” just as Google does “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Both companies partner with endusers in ways that extend their “contribution platforms” beyond just economic value to include social value as well. It’s this take on mission statement definition that helps these firms stand out. They strive to mean something more.
Engage with Meaning
It’s one thing when a company shares a purpose with people that is based on their own personal goals. It’s quite another when that purpose transcends self interest and connects us to something bigger.
Social missions move people beyond a purely rational, economic stake in a company. They help build a sense of shared meaning, and as Daniel Pink explored in his excellent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, this quest for meaning can be quite powerful.
Roughly one-in-three people self-report weighing a company’s values in their purchasing decisions, even though actual purchase behavior is more complex and influenced by a mix of factors, including price, brand, quality and attributes like sustainability (PDF). Yes, customer purchasing behavior is a reason for a social mission, but it’s not the reason.
The real reason companies adopt social missions is that the people behind them are driven to do so. A 2002 survey of seven hundred corporate executives asked why their firms engaged in social initiatives. Twelve percent cited business strategy, 3 percent customer attraction and retention, and 1 percent public expectations. -but a whopping 84 percent said they were motivated by improving society, company traditions, or their personal values (page xxii of Firms of Endearment).
As individuals, we hold the door for someone ultimately because of how we’re wired on the inside. Businesses adopt social missions because they too are driven internally to do so by the people who are key to their success. In a world where a growing portion of those people are customers and other stakeholders who aren’t on the payroll, the engagement power of meaning becomes all the more important.
Connecting Customer and Social Missions
The best way to sustain a social mission is to fuel it with a revenue-generating customer mission. When a customer buys a pair of Levi’s jeans made out of recycled plastic bottles, they need to look good, be comfortable, and not being too expensive. When that happens, the customer recycles plastic bottles – by buying pants.
To use an image from pool, serving a social mission through a customer mission is like hitting the stripes and solids by first hitting the white cue ball. Nonprofit organizations use philanthropy to directly shoot at the stripes and solids. Their philanthropic funding can bring laser-like focus on a social mission. But that philanthropy also builds financial dependence and makes it harder to scale successful solutions than those paid for by customers.
Social Mission Partnerships
I started this article by talking about mission statement definition. Companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook are fortunate in that their customer missions nicely support a certain type of social mission related to the societal impact of connection and knowledge. They aspired to a bigger purpose that neatly dovetails with their customer mission.
The challenge ahead of us now is to build a new set of contribution platforms that engage customers and other stakeholders in solving the next set of massive societal and ecological challenges – problems like climate disruption, poverty and the planetary collapse of biodiversity. Figuring out how to profitably serve customers in ways that both fuel and support these kinds of social missions will require a whole new level of ingenuity and entrepreneurial savvy, mixed with a strong internal drive to serve.
It won’t be easy, but this is the challenge now before our next generation of business leaders.