Vision statements – puffery or pointless

In the world of gutter journalism they say don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

I fear the same could be said for a few brand positioning statements and corporate vision screeds I’ve seen about the place.

The truth is that companies that settle for brand and vision statements that don’t match the facts aren’t just ripping off their customers, most of all they are ripping off themselves and, especially, their most critical brand ambassadors – their own employees.

A few years back I was asked to help a university revamp its brand – to help the institution get credit in the market place in order to attract students and research funding.

Prior to my arrival they’d had an external brand expert storm through, run a bunch of focus groups and then recommend that they use just one word as their positioning statement: Brilliant. They used it in radio jingles, in posters and on TV.

As I went around the campus I’d find myself sitting in a professor’s office here and there and towards the end of our meeting they’d lean over the desk and almost whisper words along these lines.

Professor:     John, of course you know what the problem is don’t you?

Me:               Umm, well…

Professor:     We’re NOT!

Me:               We’re not…what?

Professor:     We’re not brilliant. I know it, all our staff and students know it – the whole bloody
                    world knows it!

Here’s the thing: Just saying it doesn’t make it true. In fact saying something that clearly isn’t true in a vision or brand statement is going to do a lot more harm than good. It is especially damaging to the morale and belief of employees.

A year or so later after a lot of soul searching, talking to people inside and outside the university we agreed on a form of words that accurately summed up what WAS true of the university. It was inspirational and, most critically, it was credible. The people inside the university were proud to go out and talk about the organisation and what it stood for, they were proud when they saw the advertising on television and in the newspaper. Lawyers have a wonderful word to describe overstatement: Puffery. It is a fancy way of saying exaggerated praise especially common in advertising; It has been used as a defence by journalists facing prosecution in the courts. But there is puffery and then there is pointless. Brand and vision statements that don’t align with belief are the latter in my view.