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Marketers’ New Mission: Corporate Vision Statements

Attention, CMOs of the Future… Here’s a quiz to test your current skills. From the options that follow, identify which words are wiser to weave into in your company’s vision statement: 1) customers and enjoy; or 2) parents and laugh?

First, if you have no problem treating the articulation of corporate missions and values as a marketing responsibility, give yourself an “A.” Second, “2” is the right answer, according to some compelling research.

The “vivid detail gleaned from image-based rhetoric about the future (e.g., ‘to one day see a city full of hybrid cars’) leads employees to share a similar mental image, and the limited amount of conceptual detail gained from a focused value system (e.g., ‘our core value is environmental sustainability’) provides meaning that is construed in a consistent way by different employees,” according to the study “A (Blurry) Vision of the Future: How Leader Rhetoric about Ultimate Goals Influences Performance,” by Andrew M. Carton of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Chad Murphy of Oregon State University, and Jonathan R. Clark of Pennsylvania State University, which appears in the December/January issue of the Academy of Management Journal (here’s the abstract).

The research shows that “image-based words,” which “include nouns with recognizable physical attributes versus nouns with uncertain physical attributes” (parents or Texans versus customers or stakeholders) are more effective in organizational vision statements. So, too, are verbs that refer to observable actions (e.g., “smile,” “purchase,” or “eat”) compared to verbs that do not (e.g., “enjoy,” “appreciate,” or “value”).

According to the study, “Increases in performance gained from a shared purpose are most likely to occur when leaders simultaneously communicate a large amount of vision imagery (e.g., words that describe people, colors, and actions…. Image-based words are needed to bring these values to life by leading organizational members to reach the same understanding of how abstract concepts can be realized.”

The research unearthed another prevalent vision-statement flaw: too many values. Four or fewer values are better than five or more.

These findings point to a golden opportunity for marketing leaders who invest care and skill in crafting external marketing messages. This competency describes a healthy majority of the 15 marketing executives I’ve interviewed for our CMO Confidential series in the past two years. Capital One brand marketing executive Peter Horst describes himself as “obsessive” about language. “Language is a huge part of the medium we work in as marketers, Horst asserts. “Have we found the most powerful expression? Have we put too much in there? Have we gotten sloppy with how we express it?” Rick Jackson, who now serves as CMO of analytics solutions provider Qlik, describes his guiding philosophy as “straight-talk marketing.” 

That said many marketing organizations could use a sustained dose of straight talk. And I’m not referring about outlandish B2C brand claims or the functionality filibusters that B2B software firms routinely engage in. Even many of the most customer-centric marketers still use language that reflects a company-centric perspective: How many customers routinely use the word “channel” to describe where they buy your product or the word “touchpoint” to describe where they interact with you?

Horst, Jackson, and other “chief language officers” who helm marketing teams may be just the type of wordsmiths that CEOs need to edit their corporate vision statements. Of the 30 randomly chosen Fortune 500 vision statements the researchers examined, only three depicted observable behaviors.

Here’s one from Toys R Us that aced the test: “To put joy in kids’ hearts and a smile on parents’ faces.” More CMOs should consider helping CEOs play with the right combination of concepts, values, nouns, and verbs so that vision statements establish a shared purpose and contribute to improved performance.

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