Why are brand identity statements so generic?

In his latest cartoon, Tom Fishburne of Marketoonist expertly skewered those “brand promise” statements you often read (and retch at). He’s completely right that corporate values and “reasons to believe” are filled with cliches and buzzwords. But why? Why is so hard for brands to differentiate?

Having helped several companies write these sorts of statements, I think I have a clue about what’s going wrong.

Please note for what follows: I’m intentionally blurring the distinction between vision, mission, purpose, values, and so on. It’s not that I don’t understand the difference. It’s that the reader — whether that’s an employee, a customer, or an investor — doesn’t understand the difference. If it’s all a mixed-up hash to them, then a mixed-up hash is what you have created.

Let’s take a look at a few corporate “who we are” statements

I swear, I have chosen these completely at random. I’m sure you’d get the same results with your random search.

Here’s the purpose statement for a large, well-known company. Can you guess who it is?

We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come. As a result, consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit and value creation, allowing our people, our shareholders and the communities in which we live and work to prosper.

Not sure who that describes? Here are their key values:

We always try to do the right thing.
We are honest and straightforward with each other.
We operate within the letter and spirit of the law.
We uphold the values and principles of [Company] in every action and decision.
We are data-based and intellectually honest in advocating proposals, including recognizing risks

We are all leaders in our area of responsibility, with a deep commitment to delivering leadership results.
We have a clear vision of where we are going.
We focus our resources to achieve leadership objectives and strategies.
We develop the capability to deliver our strategies and eliminate organizational barriers.

We accept personal accountability to meet our business needs, improve our systems and help others improve their effectiveness.
We all act like owners, treating the Company’s assets as our own and behaving with the Company’s long-term success in mind.

Passion for Winning
We are determined to be the best at doing what matters most.
We have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo.
We have a compelling desire to improve and to win in the marketplace.

We respect our … colleagues, customers and consumers, and treat them as we want to be treated.
We have confidence in each other’s capabilities and intentions.
We believe that people work best when there is a foundation of trust.

Hmm. Integrity, trust, and a passion for winning. That must be . . . every company on the planet!

If you’re still stumped, here’s the answer. It’s Procter & Gamble, the second-largest maker of consumer packaged goods on the planet.

P&G is a great company. How did it get such a lame and generic set of statements?

This is what happens when a large company attempts to create agreement with what was almost certainly a committee of at least a dozen people. Everyone adds, no one has the guts to subtract. What remains is a set of statements everyone can agree with. And not surprisingly, those are the same statements that every other company can make.

Do you think such statements inspire people?

Let’s do another one. Here’s a purpose statement. Who does it belong to?

We are here for one purpose, to help build a better world, where every person is free to move and pursue their dreams.

Hmm. Is that Lululemon, United Van Lines, or Amtrak?

There’s more on the same page. Maybe that will narrow it down:

We believe in the power of creating a world with fewer obstacles and limits, where people have the freedom to build a better life and pursue their dreams.

To shorten the distance between where you are and where you want to go.

To connect people down the road and over the horizon — to discover possibilities, and enjoy the thrill, adventure and pride of moving freely.

From day one, we’ve provided people with tools to help them move forward and upward.

We’ve innovated to expand their opportunities. And we’ve worked to earn their trust, every single day.

We honor our legacy as we build the future – a better world for generations to come. Because when everyone is free to move, and free to dream, we do what we do best: we change the world.

Still guessing? Well, here’s the kicker: a statement from the CEO about who the company is and what is stands for.

What makes this company different is that [Company] has a higher purpose. We serve others and improve lives . . . We try to make the world a better place.

That is what makes the company different? You mean different from all the other thousands of companies that think they have a higher purpose and are trying to make the world better?

Come to think of it, what large company would admit that it does not have a higher purpose, that it does not serve others and improve lives, and it is not trying to make the world better?

A more honest statement would start with “What makes this company exactly the same as every other company is . . . ”

These statements are from the 118-year-old Ford Motor Company, in case you were still wondering.

Differentiating your company: some examples

If a company is the competing in the same categories with the same types of products as its competitors, it’s going to be very difficult to come up with a differentiated statement of who they are. If there is a cultural difference, it’s worth emphasizing. But you still have to wonder if employees read this pablum and feel anything at all.

Here are a few differentiating statements that I helped come up with, working with people within the company, typically the CMO.

Technology Changes Everything

— Forrester Research

I was on the team, led by then research director Mary Modahl, that came up with this. We boiled things down to the essence. Forrester was a company about technology change, providing advice about what to do about it. It was a forward-leaning perspective, and we wanted to communicate that. It’s three words, and it is a differentiating statement. McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group would never say “Technology Changes Everything,” and Forrester’s larger competitor Gartner wouldn’t have the guts to say that (Gartner’s equivalent is “Gartner equips executives across the enterprise to make the right decisions and stay ahead of change,” which is curiously void of the word “technology”).

Forrester has gone through plenty of change and growth since we came up with this, and here’s its current statement. Notice the shift from technology to customer-centricity.

Forrester helps business and technology leaders use customer obsession to accelerate growth. That means empowering you to put the customer at the center of everything you do: your leadership, strategy, and operations. Becoming a customer-obsessed organization requires change — it requires being bold. We give business and technology leaders the confidence to put bold into action, shaping and guiding how to navigate today’s unprecedented change in order to succeed.

Here’s a short description I helped come up with for iZotope, which make audio tools for professional creators:

At iZotope, we’re obsessed with great sound. Our intelligent audio technology helps musicians, music producers, and audio post engineers focus on their craft rather than the tech behind it. We design award-winning software, plug-ins, hardware, and mobile apps powered by the highest quality audio processing, machine learning, and strikingly intuitive interfaces. iZotope: the shortest path from sound to emotion.

What sets iZotope apart is not just what its tools do, but the incredible work that goes into creating interfaces that delight audio professionals and make them highly productive. The customer is the audio engineer, but the customer’s goal is to create an emotional response. I was pleased to get that into the description.

I also worked with IANS, a collective of information security professionals providing advice to CISOs (Chief Information Security Officers). Here’s a version of the description we worked on together, which they’ve improved since our work together.

Your trusted partner.

For the security practitioner caught between rapidly evolving threats and demanding executives, IANS is a clear-headed resource for decision making and articulating risk. Grounded in real-world experience, we help CISOs and their teams by delivering unbiased, practical advice and the ability to speak with IANS Faculty practitioners who understand your challenges.

You can palpably feel the anxiety and the way IANS helps with it. That emotion is what takes a dry and technical field — information security — and makes it relevant to a specific group of people — CISOs.

A few tips for missions, visions, purposes, brand statements, and other bits of pointed prose

Writing short descriptions like this is much harder than it looks. The difficulty is proportional to the number of people working on the project — the more eyes and voices, the more generic the result.

If your company is ordinary, no ad agency can fix that. They can make stuff up, but it may not fit you.

My only advice is to focus on your customers and their goals as well as your culture. I’m hoping that your approach to either the customers and their goals, or your culture, are unique. Then just talk about what your unique capabilities do for that customer.

If your approach is not unique — if you’re not the best, the fastest, the cheapest, the smartest, or the most creative — then the statements you make about your company will sound generic. That’s ok, because they accurately describe your generic company.

Just don’t expect to inspire anyone with those statements.

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  1. In the 1990s, my resume and online profiles began with this goal:
    “To create technical reports, white papers, articles, and presentations that kick ass.”
    It worked fairly well. Recruiters who “got it,” called me. Recruiters who didn’t—well, I wouldn’t have been a good fit, anyway.

  2. I once talked to the leadership team of a company, and to prove a point, I cited some web site quotes. I asked them if these accurately expressed their differentiators and competitive advantages. They said, “Of course, why are you wasting our time talking about what we already know?” That’s when I told them the quotes came for their competitors’ web sites.

  3. My least favorite statement is “We exceed your expectation.” ‘Quality’ is actually doing what you promised, how you promised, when you promised. So if I order 50 pounds of mulch delivered on Tuesday, I am NOT going to be happy if you deliver 100 pounds on Monday, because my car might still be in my garage when you plop the mulch down on my driveway and I’m going to have to figure out some way to dispose of the extra 50 pounds of mulch.