Corporate copywriting, Maslen on Marketing

A doomed mission

Driving home from the country a few weeks ago, I overtook (at no more than the legal limit) a police car. Emblazoned along its dayglo-chequered flank was the following statement:

“Reducing fear…stopping crime…preventing disorder.”

And it made me think: why did they bother?

Now don’t get me wrong: I fully support the police in these laudable activities. But what, precisely, was the point of this statement?

Were we to think that, unless it was there, the Wiltshire constabulary might have been engaged in the reverse? “Increasing fear…encouraging crime…fomenting disorder.”

Mission or miasma?

In fact, using the Sunfish Sense Reverser (SSR) – (patent applied for) – on mission statements, and various other sales claims and slogans, will often show them up for the nebulous exercises in pointlessness they really are.

Let me give you a few more examples:

Mission statement
We aim to be the best offset litho printer in the North West.

SSR version
We aim to be the worst offset litho printer in the North West

Mission statement
We want to be the caterer of choice for office functions on the Bilbury Enterprise Park

SSR version
We don’t want any company on the Bilbury Enterprise Park to choose us as their office caterer

Mission statement
To be a creative, responsive, cost-effective advertising agency.

SSR version
To be a hackneyed, complacent, over-priced advertising agency.

See what I mean? If the reverse of the mission statement is ridiculous, then why bother stating that you want to be the opposite?

Is this the best use of time?

Whenever I am asked about mission statements, my eyes glaze over and a picture forms in my mind.

I see ten extremely important people in a room, the opportunity cost of which alone would make the shareholders blench, tossing around descriptive phrases ranging from the bland to the bombastic.

They worry about the legality of certain claims, the possible misinterpretation of others, the precision or brand-coherence of the whole.

Many hours and meetings later, they stop. The mission statement is finished.

Nine times out of ten, the result is a consensus-driven phrase combining shaky grammar, mind-numbing blandness and tenuous relevance to the commercial goals of the organisation.

And where are the customers in all this? Are they now getting better value for money? More innovative products? Better customer service? I doubt it.

And that’s why I recently turned down the opportunity to help a company rewrite its mission statement.

Calling back to suggest alternative uses of their time and copywriting budget, I had to wait for around two minutes before their clearly disenchanted receptionist picked up my call. Hmmm.

 And my point is?

Very few businesses have got into trouble because they didn’t have a mission statement.

Plenty have through ignoring customers, running poor quality marketing campaigns, recruiting ineffective sales people or failing to communicate the benefits of doing business with them.

Given the choice, I’d write a sales letter every time.

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