Step forward the dynamic duo: ‘Vision statement’ and ‘Mission statement’. Often touted and occasionally ignored, these two terms deserve more than to be treated as buzzwords. In this short piece, we explore the difference between those wonderful terms banded about in everyday brand and strategy conversations.
But why tackle these? Simply, it’s because though both co-exist in many (most?) organisations, there seems to be some confusion as to the real value each one brings.
In the worst-case scenario, when implemented poorly these statements can hinder faith in the organisation, rather than create a unified sentiment that everyone can get behind. If you are in a role that requires a strategic experience mindset, then understanding the role and value of these two statements is vital.
I’m therefore going to touch on what this pair really need to mean to be useful, the thinking on each and why one is perhaps more critical to strategic thinking than the other.
First, let’s agree on definitions. What is the difference between a mission and vision statement? Google will provide a zillion options for us all, but for the moment, we’ll go with these:
Mission statement: A single sentence or very short paragraph that is used by an organisation to explain its existence, what it does and for whom.
Vision statement: A single sentence that defines the desired image or legacy of an organisation at a point, far into the future.
Yes, there is far more detail behind each of how they come about but for the purposes of this piece, we’ll leave that to one side.
So, what do these actually mean in practice? Why and how can they be useful? We first need to see that these are two distinct terms with different, yet complementary roles.
Your mission, should you wish to accept it…
Mission statements explain why a brand, a proposition or a product exists and what its relatable role is in the here and now. Although, quite rightly that ‘here and now’ can be seen as not vanishing anytime soon.
As artefacts, they are used to curate a level of engagement and awareness for both employees and end-users of what an organisation does. Here are some examples:
All these are relatable, to a greater or lesser extent, to what these brands do in the here and now. If you agree with the statement, then they’ve written a good mission statement.
I don’t have to be a Ferrari fan to know that their cars are seen as symbols of Italian excellence. I don’t even need to like using PayPal to know it’s one of the most popular payment solutions in the world.
You can see how these statements might be used as the basis for setting overarching goals and objectives. E.g., for PayPal, ‘secure’ will no doubt relate to aspects like money-laundering compliance, up-time, measures against crime or GDPR.
Mission statements are often also easily found on a brand’s website. It’s because they are relatable and therefore more visceral. A user stumbling on it while browsing should be able to read it/see it and connect to its meaning in a moment.
They often appear as a salient piece of content in the classic ‘About us’ or ‘Our history’ pages. Vision statements do not have such a high profile – but more on that later.
Well-written mission statements are shaped so that they are easy to recall, particularly by internal teams. This is most likely so that the CEO can spring the challenge to recite it on an unsuspecting member of staff.
Mission statements are sometimes seen as less scary than their vision counterpart. Perhaps it is because the legacy to which a vision is attached is harder to monetise and/or measure. This is likely as ‘Mission’ is seen as below the horizon.
It’s often shorter in term (not short term) and easily covered by Marketable actions and operational intent. ‘Vision’ can be often seen as over the horizon and therefore more spiritual, less certain…
But in terms of mission statements, the key driver is this the construct of a mission statement is ‘Why we exist and what we are here to do is’ (and occasionally, where).
Vision needs visionaries
I’ll start off this section by making a bold statement. If an organisation has a vision statement, they are either serious about sticking around or are thinking bigger – and therefore farther – about how their brand might operate beyond any roadmap or annual performance.
A vision statement is not just a strapline. It can be “a vision of the experience ‘you’ (the brand) want to be known for, beyond a tagline, framed by the values the brand should seek to project at each and every user interaction.”
And, if you’ve done some time in UX Strategy, you’ll know that a core ingredient to its success is having a defined, aligned vision that everyone (and I mean everyone within an organisation) can rally around, draw on, be reminded of and pivot from. Whether it’s in a sole statement form or augmented by creative artefacts – it’s no good having a vision if it’s not understood by those that need to lean on it.
Indeed, a certain Robert Hoekman Jr. wrote seminally that UX was a strategic lever because “It is driven by a vision that guides and justifies every design decision…”. Vision statements are actually the synthesis of what a Brand’s legacy will be.
But the difference between mission vision? Let’s review the same brands’ vision statements:
Mission: ‘…to democratize financial services to ensure that everyone, regardless of background or economic standing, has access to affordable, convenient, and secure products and services to take control of their financial lives.’
Vision: To be the operating system for commerce.
Mission: ‘…to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.’
Vision: To be the most creative organisation in the world
Mission: ‘We build cars, symbols of Italian excellence the world over, and we do so to win on both road and track. Unique creations that fuel the Prancing Horse legend and generate a ‘World of Dreams and Emotions’.’
Vision: Ferrari, Italian Excellence that makes the world dream
Read those twice. Let them sink in. Which is the more inspiring or flexible? The Mission they have or the vision they hold? If it’s not the vision, then I’d wager you’re not being truthful. Let’s postulate on these trio of statements.
Their statement makes it clear about their legacy; ‘to make the movement and management of money as simple, secure, and affordable as possible.’ Their vision statement was more tech explicit before this stating that they would be ‘the’ operating system for commerce, moving beyond payments and just web/app, perhaps. So, strategically, they have gone for a statement that caters for any future regarding the movement of capital. It makes you sit up and think… if you’re a competitor, say a ‘high-street’ bank or international payment service, this statement makes you wonder if you’re looking at the right fight.
BBC’s vision statement (originates from c.2013) is free of reference to how their brand will be consumed. It just talks about being a creative apex. The freedom that arises from this statement for a brand to pivot or alter their offering within that framing is a bold check and balance to many conversations. You can easily imagine the execs in their offices checking the mission boxes of ‘educational’ and ‘entertaining’ and then posing the challenge: ‘But are we being world leaders in creativity?’
It is unsurprisingly passionate. It doesn’t mention cars. It doesn’t mention vehicles of any sort. It doesn’t mention propulsion or physical products. Distant from its mission statement, it states what stands for – and what it will always stand for – wrapping in a larger ethos of how Italian Excellence should be seen. This will allow whatever Ferrari makes or serves as a brand in future to flex into that remit.
The work that goes into developing a vision statement doesn’t have to be exhausting, but it does have to be similarly exhaustive in its development as a mission statement. Specifically, it ensures that all the voices that need to be heard on what it might be are captured, synthesised and distilled.
After all, it will have to stand a test of a decent length of time. As a strategic artefact, it has to be able to provide the vision of a brand but also know that if the brand desisted at any moment, the vision statement would be in the executive summary of its eulogy.
Winning the Vision
Vision statements are, perhaps, a slightly harder sell than mission statements. This is because of the prevalent expectation that they are ethereal or even fluffy artefacts – and therefore they have no value.
But in my experience, work this through using the right experience design lens, and this mindset vanishes. If you ask a stakeholder what their personal legacy at this brand might be, and you will invariably get quite the ‘pitch’, a passionate response full of opinions and, indeed, vision.
Three things to think about here:
- It is key to leverage these molten, subjective opinions into one iron-clad and unifying statement that not only c-suite roles can rally behind, but one that all employees and outside observers understand and resonate with.
- You’ll usually find that if a vision statement doesn’t yet exist, simply asking senior stakeholders what it should look like will lead to pages and pages of notes. This doesn’t always mean they aren’t aligned (although sometimes that’s absolutely true) but this lack of a strategic reference means there is room for interpretation around a core set of principles. Alignment through discussion and open discourse is vital and often the toughest nut to crack.
- Finally, when defining the vision statement, accompanying it with tangible artefacts such as Design Principles or Customer Service Principles (more on those another time) can really get the juices flowing. They can also help everyone in the room to get creative while explaining their personal perspective on the legacy of the brand.
So, what’s the value of a unifying vision statement? Without one, you put your mission (that can only flex so far) at risk.
Think strategically, think sustainably, think vision
If you’re interested in realigning or reinvigorating your vision with key stakeholders, contact us. We’ve helped countless organisations to reimagine and rebuild their brands. And if you’re just getting started, we can help you create your brand, too. Get in touch with our dedicated team today to begin defining a vision and mission that will stand the test of time.
If reading this post has inspired you to improve the experience you deliver to users, we’d love to hear from you!