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July 7, 2022

What's the Difference Between a Brand's Purpose, Vision and Mission?

Leveraging the distinctions between these terms can build a stronger brand.

Logic and math tell us that purpose-driven brands earn more love from employees and customers—not to mention a higher share of wallet. Of course, making clear what you stand for in a way that people actually care about is much easier said than done. For VSA clients, defining—or redefining—who you are and what you stand for often begins with three definitions: purpose, vision and mission.

Why? And what are the differences? Fair questions. After all, a quick Google search shows you that many companies only have one or two, and “purpose” and “mission” are often used interchangeably. But we think the three work best together, setting the North Star and providing direction for those cloudy days when the path forward feels a little hazy. Think of it this way: purpose sets the course, vision acts as the map, and mission is Siri telling you where to turn (and when you’ve gone off course).

Definitions and Tips

As mentioned above, terminology is all over the place when it comes to purpose, vision and mission. So, it’s probably helpful to start with how we define the various pieces:

Purpose: Put simply, this is why the company exists. It’s a calling, meant to distill corporate aspiration into a memorable and actionable phrase. In a few words, these statements clarify criteria for success, drive understanding among external audiences and stakeholders, and inspire consistent action within the organization over the long term. They’re also the basis for brand development and for function as a business tool—guiding decisions in R&D, product development, market expansion and M&A, for starters.

Make it:

  • Big, bold, long term
  • Grounded in the human benefit
  • The why, not the how

Vision: A vision statement is an ideal end-state that the corporation and its work will make possible. By definition, it’s aspirational—a stretch goal, a guidepost for ongoing change and achievement over the medium term. The statement should be specific, and it should evolve as the company achieves its goals.

Make it:

  • Connected to—but more specific than—purpose
  • Open to evolution as business goals are achieved
  • Medium term

Mission: This is a statement of the actions needed to achieve the vision. These are specific, measurable, near-term goals. This statement is often fairly long, detailed and dry. That’s okay; in fact, that’s the point. Whereas a purpose statement is written to lift a company’s gaze, the mission statement is meant to keep its feet on solid ground.

Make it:

  • The how, not the why
  • Detailed and measurable
  • Short term

The Power of Purpose

Purpose statements are tough to crack. They just are. It might take dozens (maybe hundreds) of versions to get right. The good news is that once yours sings, vision and mission tend to come together a little more easily because they anchor off the purpose. With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite purpose statements:

Marvin: To imagine and create better ways of living.

This one is easy because VSA had a hand in its creation, and we witnessed up-close the impact it had on the organization. After more than 100 years of making high-quality windows and doors, Marvin saw a greater consumer need for light, air and connection to the outdoors, and needed to set a new agenda. The statement works so well because it challenges employees and—pun warning—opens the door to innovation (“imagine and create”) while landing on a human benefit (“better ways of living”). On the heels of its introduction, Marvin launched a new modern product line and two new innovations, Skycove and the Awaken skylight—all inspired and influenced by the company’s bold purpose. See our work with Marvin.

Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.

*If you have a body, you are an athlete.

In one of those little terminology quirks, Nike calls this its mission. But it functions like our definition of a purpose statement, so that’s how I’m cataloging it here. I love this one because it’s big and ambitious, leaning into Nike’s design heritage while stretching the company toward future innovation. It’s also inclusive. We sometimes think of athletes as the ones with multimillion-dollar shoe contracts. Here, Nike invites us all into its sports community. Lastly, the asterisk is a great little tone setter—a fun wink from a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously, even in a corporate statement.

State Street: We help create better outcomes for the world’s investors and the people they serve.

We’ve worked with many financial institutions, from century-old stalwarts to today’s disruptors, so we know well the joy and pain of carving out a distinct point of view in this space. State Street’s purpose works because “better outcomes” is about going beyond monetary success, suggesting that the value of money is in what it enables. The last part of the sentence also serves as a reminder of investors’ role in the financial success of others.

Great. But How?

Definitions? Check. Examples? Check. But how should you go about writing purposeful purpose statements? It’s helpful to get outside perspective (VSA can help, of course), but here are a few tips if you decide to go it alone:

Be bold but grounded in real value. That’s the trick, isn’t it? A good purpose statement is big, daring, maybe even a little out of reach. But it can get unwieldy very quickly if you’re not focused on what you do for people. If you run a local organic ice cream shop in Boise, Idaho, your purpose can’t be to “to nourish the world’s spirit,” because, well, you’re only in one city, and no matter how good it is, ice cream isn’t going to change the world.

Leadership must participate. Agenda-setting language needs agenda-setter involvement. Bringing in the C-suite at the last minute is a recipe for getting nowhere. Instead, set up a working session with the CEO or other leaders to make sure you understand their aspirations and maybe even road-test language together.

Words are hollow without action. Marvin’s promise of “better ways of living” isn’t just talk. It’s investing in innovation, making employees part of a profit-sharing program and spending significant time and dollars in its communities. It’s important that people feel your purpose in ways big and small. When writing, think through the tangible ways you’re going to make real for employees, customers and communities.

A strong purpose, vision and mission can help guide your organization in a rapidly changing consumer and technology landscape. Getting there will be tough, frustrating and you’ll likely want to give up a time or two. But in the end, these statements provide a framework to guide big and small decisions and to create stronger relationships with employees and customers.

Bill Maday

Associate Partner, Executive Creative Director

Bill is an ECD, Writing at VSA Partners. His expertise extends across verbal identity and narrative, advertising, messaging programs, digital, content marketing, employee activation and more. In his role, he has led writing initiatives for startups and established brands, including Sappi, IBM, Northern Trust, Arity and Marvin. Prior joining VSA Partners, Bill worked at Razorfish, leading content on various digital initiatives for a Fortune 50 financial services company.