There’s something about certain companies that makes them shine like a beacon on a foggy night. Some kind of ‘it’ thing, as in they have ‘it’ and the rest don’t. It’s not necessarily that they lead their categories in sales or market-share, or even that they have mega-wattage bosses. They just have….something. Something that engenders a kind of fierce love, worship and devotion among not just customers but the media and often the stockmarket too.
The poster child for this effect of course is Apple. Sit for more than a few minutes with a bunch of marketers or agency folks and sooner or later Apple will come up. “We want to be like Apple”, “How would Apple do it?’ or my personal favorite “Well of course it would be great if we could be like Apple but we can’t because (insert reason here)”.
If it was only Apple that had this ‘it’ thing one might pass it off as a fluke. But it isn’t just Apple, and it isn’t just companies in industries with inherently sexy product lines either. USAA has it but Progressive doesn’t. So do Southwest and Virgin but not Continental or Delta. Kaiser Permanente has it now but didn’t use to and United Healthcare definitely doesn’t. Toyota has it (still, just), and so does BMW. Mercedes used to have it but doesn’t anymore and GM lost it around 1972. You know what I’m talking about. ‘It’.
But what is ‘it’? Why do some companies have it and some don’t? And how can those companies that don’t have it go about getting some?
What is ‘it’?
I think ‘it’ is a perception, based on reality, that some companies are driven by a powerful sense of mission. A mission that comes from the heart and the head of the CEO and that is so strong, so clearly articulated and so passionately believed that it positively impacts the self-image of everyone who touches the company – employees, partners, vendors, customers, wanna-be customers, the media…everyone.
But we’re not just talking any old mission here. First of all it has to be authentic to be believable. In other words a company must demonstrably act in accordance with the mission. Which is why Exxon Mobil and BP can talk the ‘green’ talk until they turn blue but until the reality on the ground changes nobody will ever believe they’re anything other than old-school, dirty oil companies.
It also needs to be customer-centric. That is, the mission needs to clearly have the best interests, values and worldview of a company’s customers at its core.
Apple’s authentic, customer-centric mission – conceived and nurtured in the incandescent persona of Steve Jobs, is to create beautifully designed, incredibly useful, user-centric technology hardware that works flawlessly and that you never knew you needed until you turn it on for the first time and then can’t live without. That’s a mission. People believe it. Why? Because Apple delivers on it time after time after time.
There are things about Apple of course even some of their biggest fans don’t like. The way that the iTunes/iPod vertical axis holds you prisoner, their choice of wireless partner, the appointment process for the genius bar, the quixotic process of approving apps. But none of that matters because the authentic, delivered-upon mission transcends it all. And in any case, whether you’re interfacing with Apple online, on the phone or in-store, you’ll more than likely enjoy a solid, consistent consumer experience.
USAA’s mission is “to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do”. They stand for the United States military. Employees at USAA consider the insurance, banking and investment products they provide and the customer service they deliver (largely to the military) to be a key reason that service men and women are able to go off to war feeling that at least their finances are secure, that USAA has their back and the backs of their families. USAA’s people share the sense of honor inherent to the military and they act accordingly.
This sense of mission pervades the USAA campus in San Antonio. It influences every single aspect of the business – the way products are designed (to serve the best interests of the customer), the language, tone and attitude of the CSR’s, the simplicity and intuitiveness of the website and not least the low-key but substantial charitable work the company engages in. No wonder USAA has the highest Net Promoter score of any company in the US.
Every company I mentioned earlier has a similar story to tell. They exude the sense that for them the mission is why they’re in business and that profit is a bi-product, not the core rationale.
I believe that every company should be assessed through the same prism. How does the company you work for, or the companies your agency represents stack up? Do they have a mission? Is that mission clear? Is it authentic? Is it passionately followed? Does it start at the top and pervade the organization? Does it offer a clear benefit to the consumer? Is there sufficient reason why they should buy-in? Another way of putting it is: when you go to work in the morning, are you clear about your purpose beyond making a little money for yourself and a bunch for the C-suite?
I think the vast majority of companies lack a clear mission. And that’s a big problem for them. As consumers gain access to greater and more accurate product and service information and opinion via the web, and as entire product categories are commoditized, so the ability to articulate and demonstrate a clear business-driving mission that employees, customers and other stakeholders can really believe in will become just about the only genuine differentiator left.
“But how do we even start to do something like that”? Well, start by asking your CEO what he believes in. If the answer’s golf and stock-grants go get another job.