Vision, mission, values: the genius behind the branding cliché / by Anne Miltenburg

Six years ago, I was working as a strategist for a top Amsterdam branding agency. On of our designers, Menno, had a sign above his workstation: CORPORATE VALUES STILL SUCK (a reference to the photo of Kurt Cobain on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with a t-shirt that said, 'corporate magazines still suck'). Every time I came to his desk to discuss a project, the phrase would be staring right at me. To Menno, it was an act of professional defiance against a world of brand strategy blah blah blah. To me, it was the type of defiance a teenager might exhibit by dying his hair pink. I love people who defy the mainstream, but I find it rarely goes beyond the need of being perceived as defiant, rather than the wish to change anything. Today I would argue, be critical of the way vision, mission and values are applied, before discarding the tool. They can make your organisation more effective and efficient by driving choice, creating focus and guiding how things are done. 

Kurt Cobain: reluctant posterboy for 'corporate' Rolling Stone Magazine

Kurt Cobain: reluctant posterboy for 'corporate' Rolling Stone Magazine

Let me be clear, Menno had a point. The Vision, Mission, Values template was overdone, stale and complacent. We worked with a number of clients who had selected some values at boardroom level and who rarely lived by them, yet expected us to somehow make it shine through in a logo. Rarely did we come across a mission or vision that actually meant more than increasing shareholder value, if you peeled off the layers. 

It was not until I specialised in branding for social enterprise that the Vision, Mission and Values formula struck me as a genius. That genius lies in its ability to direct not just your brand, but every aspect of your business (be it a for profit, an NGO, a group of activists or techies).

1. Vision drives choice

Have you ever worked in a company that seemed to make decisions on opportunities in a random way? Chances are they did not have a strong vision.  

Space X, the space travel company by Elon Musk, wants to see 1 million people living on Mars. His other company, SolarCity, wants to see a world where renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels. In an entirely different sector, the Mustard Seeds Organisation which builds green communal spaces in the informal settlement of Dandora, Nairobi, is working to realise  a Dandora that is clean, green, healthy and safe for all its residents. Dandora is not a slum, it's an estate!

A good vision is articulated in such a way that it guides decisions. You can choose from many different ways of formulating yours, and it will define the future of your company.

Before starting The Brandling, I wrote down on a napkin that I wanted to see a family starting a fair trade lemonade company in sierra Leone have access to as much branding knowledge as Coca Cola. Brainstorming this vision, we developed the ideas for the brand strategy tools such as the Branding Toolkit for Changemakers, which opens up high quality branding knowledge, tools and resources to everyone. If I had chosen to define the vision as: we want to see a world where sustainable and social enterprises outperform traditional ventures, the result would probably have been that we focussed completely on custom brand development in the retail world or fast moving consumables, fighting to create a competitive brand for the lemonade produced by that family in Sierra Leone. 

Your vision is the outcome that you test any incoming opportunity against. Does this project help us to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels? Does this partnership align with our vision of Dandora as an estate? If it does not, chances are you should let it be. 

2. Mission makes effective

Have you ever worked in a company that seemed to create new products or services without ripening existing ones? That jumped on any bandwagon that drove past? Probably that company did not have a well articulated mission. 

A mission is the way in which you are working towards your vision.  What do you want to achieve, for whom, and by what means? Mission-driven organisations perform better because they know what they deliver and why.

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence, offering a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.

I’m sure the School of Life is overrun by people offering to develop workshops, create events and co-write books. Or their in-house team is bubbling with new ideas for next years program. How do you choose? They obviously know what they are trying to achieve for their students (emotional intelligence), they know in which shape it comes (educational programs, therapy and knowledge resources). Anything outside of that realm would be scrutinised before energy is spent on its pursuit. 

Get your mission right and see your entire organisations focus change. 

3. Values guide how it’s done

Values might be the most abstract of the set, but are actually intended to drive how you operate in a very practical way. They are the set of ethical or qualitative criteria that help you make choices. If it is clear how things are decided, you can work more efficiently towards results as well as your vision. 

Values fail when they do not drive the way you operate in every aspect of your organisation.

Example 1 : An NGO in economic development is passionate about economic empowerment. It needs photographic material for its communications portraying refugees in the Middle East. A photo agency that pays the people portrayed in their photos a royalty is slightly more expensive than a photo agency that only pays the photographer for the work.The NGO chooses the cheaper option.

Example 2: A leading bank says it’s main value is to be there for the community. However, it reviews its employees’ performance based only on financial targets, never motivating them to put the values into practice. Clearly, the bank does not put its money where it’s mouth is. 

On the contrary, a company like outdoor gear brand Patagonia thrives on its values. It’s environmental principles have inspired an anti-growth business strategy, that manifest itself in for instance, a buy less, buy used campaign for which the brand sells second hand Patagonia gear. 

You might think that values only drive ethical decisions that are only a cost and not a benefit. But the decisions that drive brand value by making values come alive to an audience, are ultimately what creates return on investment for your organisation, whether in the form of more loyalty or more revenue. 

Vision-Mission-Values rock

In short: VMV can be so much more than brand strategy jargon! But as with most tools, it is how you use them that makes the difference. A good vision, mission and values drive the WHY, WHAT and HOW of your organisation. Don't be afraid of making them tangible and understandable to all: that is where the true value lies. When someone wakes you up in the middle of the night, you should be able to easily reproduce them and go right back to sleep. When someone asks your receptionist, "What it is you do here?”, he should be able to do the same, in his own words. 

Having trouble defining your VMV's? Use our Branding Toolkit for Changemakers. Inside, you will find inspiring examples of vision and mission statements, values, a Mission Statement Composer, the Climb tool (which helps you understand the difference between mission and vision), and the Brand Thinking Canvas which helps you to brainstorm where the VMV's can take your organisation. Happy branding!