This is a perennial question in marketing and business that I think is essential for every entrepreneur to understand. So let’s start off with being clear: this is where I’ve landed on these ideas. It’s taken years of conversations with clients and colleagues, so consider it an educated point of view. That being said, other people are going to define these things differently. Which is why, more than the definitions themselves, what matters most when developing these essential elements of your business and potentially sharing them with the world (I have some pretty hard rules against sharing your word for word Purpose, but that’s another post) is being clear on how YOU define them and making sure the people in your organization understand it as well.
I have a document I share with colleagues and clients to help create some consistency and clarity around brand strategy in general. In it I also very succinctly (if I do say so myself) outline the differences between these three things. I’m working on a way to share this document more widely, so keep an eye out for it.
Here’s how I untangle these three often confused business and marketing concepts:
Mission vs. Vision vs. Purpose
A mission is a company’s big, hairy, audacious goal; the summary of the business’s philosophy and overall goal. A purpose is why the company exists and how it will build a brand that will support that mission. Vision is the highest-level ambition a company can have--it’s what they want the world to look like as a result of the work they do, work that is propelled by mission and purpose. The three work together. Purpose supports mission, which supports vision and vice versa.
In one of my client-side roles I had to do a lot of education to help folks understand the difference between a mission and a purpose. I distilled it down to your purpose being your “Why?” and your mission you “What?” As in what you do and why you exist. Your purpose guides you, your mission grounds you. Your vision (my secret favourite of the three despite where much of my work is focused) is the end state—something you’re working toward but shifts as you get closer.
For folks who understand never being satisfied or content (see my story share last week), the concept of a vision is simple to understand. For those less neurotic readers, think of your vision as something you’re building towards but the closer you get to it the greater the possibilities that you see. The ultimate vision of a world leader for example could be world peace. If you look around at the world, you know that’s something that’s going to take time, effort, and purpose. But, something even greater exists beyond world peace, we need to get a little closer to it in order to see it though.
I’m not a fan of hierarchies, but if you put my life on the line and I had to choose, this is how’d I’d line these three things up in a business and how I think you should with yours:
There’s an interplay among them . Each supports the other in different ways. What lives below all of these as a foundation are values. But that’s a post for another day.
Marketers are bad at defining things (don’t get me started on the made up words), but this is an important place to start and understand for non-marketers working to tell a story. I hope you use it to start defining your story.
Nothing gives me more joy than a story well told. Except maybe a deep dive and breakdown of how exactly that story well told was told well. Which is why I am obsessed with Binge Mode, which is a podcast that is all about exploring great stories. In what might be their last season, they’re exploring the Marvel universe. It is a delight. As has been all their other seasons (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Game of Thrones). It’s funny, it’s smart, and it teaches you so much about story structure. You will not regret downloading any season and diving in.
Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’m here to help.
Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need telling. I’ll be here to help you tell them.