Purpose vs. Mission: What’s the Difference?



We recently helped a large company with its strategic planning process. Faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic world, the company’s senior leadership needed a strategy framework for future growth. Before our work began, executives had already decided to develop new business, mission, brand, value prop, and purpose strategies. Even the most experienced business leaders can be left scratching their heads as to which element means what, and which they out to prioritize. In a world of uncertainty, the greatest challenge is cutting through complexity to get to better, more effective strategy as Felix Oberholzer-Gee Professor at Harvard Business School writes in his recent book Better, Simpler Strategy.

We wanted to look at two of the biggest offenders: “brand purpose” and “brand mission.”  Often considered the foundation of a company’s brand strategy,” purpose and mission are hard to solve for to begin with. But this is only made more challenging by the fact that there isn’t widespread agreement as to how each is defined, the role of each, and how they are similar or different. At StrawberryFrog, we’ve defined and activated purpose strategy among employees and consumers for over 20 years, so we thought it would be helpful to try and sort through these two concepts and offer some clarity. 

There are two broad schools of thought we’ve encountered in thinking about brand purpose and brand mission. Let’s have a look at each:

1.      Purpose and Mission as Two Competing Kinds of “Why”

This POV view holds that Purpose and Mission are fundamentally different approaches to defining why a company exists. Under this view, purpose is a broader idea and more high-minded form of why, the company’s reason for being beyond profit, while mission is narrower and more practical form of ‘why,’  tied to benefiting its stakeholders.

By this line of thinking,  purpose-driven businesses are those committed to making a positive impact on society and creating a better world. This would include companies like Unilever, with its purpose ‘To make sustainable living commonplace,” Patagonia whose purpose is “To save our home planet,” and Truist, whose purpose is “To inspire and build better lives and communities.”

Mission-driven businesses, on the other hand, focus on delivering impact for customers, employees and shareholders. Examples include Google’s mission, “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible,” Starbuck’s mission, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time,” and Peloton: “Using technology and design to connect the world through fitness, empowering people to be the best version of themselves anywhere, anytime.”

There are a couple of big problems with this way of thinking. First, it seems to be making arbitrary judgments about what is helping the world vs. simply being useful. Who is to say Starbuck’s desire to “Uplift the Human Spirit,” or Google’s aim “to organize the world’s information,” aren’t also making the world a better place? Second, this view implies that the two are incompatible, that you have to choose between one or the other – being the lofty purpose driven business or the more focused mission driven one. And that simply isn’t the case.  Which brings us to our second school of thought.   

2.      Purpose and Mission as Complementary Parts of Your Brand Story

A different way to think about Mission vs. Purpose is that both are necessary and that they in fact do two different and important things. Under this view, mission is what drives you, while purpose is why you’re driven. Your company’s purpose is about why you exist beyond making money, and its mission describes what your company does to realize its purpose.

This way of thinking about purpose and mission makes them not only compatible but synergistic ideas. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ mission is “To build trust in society and solve important problems.” And the way it does this is through its Mission: “To help organizations and individuals create the value they’re looking for, by delivering quality in assurance, tax and advisory services.” Both are important aspects of its company strategy, and both play different and important roles. PwC may lean into one more than another in different situations and at different times.

PwC competitor McKinsey & Company’s purpose is “To help create positive, enduring change in the world,” which it delivers via its mission: “To help our clients make distinctive, lasting, and substantial improvements in their performance and to build a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people.” Accenture makes good on its purpose — “To deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity” via its mission: “To solve our clients’ toughest challenges by providing unmatched services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations.”

So, should you be a purpose driven company or a mission driven company? In our view, the answer is yes and yes. You can only deliver greater good in the world – higher purpose — if you have a mission capable of enabling you to realize it. That’s why purpose and mission are inextricably linked in great companies. The world needs more companies that are both purpose and mission driven. It’s the surest way to create positive change for your stakeholders and for society at large.

Having said this, purpose should be your higher order strategy, it sits above mission. It has the potential to galvanize the people who matter to your organization inside and out. Once you land on the purpose however, the biggest challenge remains how to activate it, which is something we’ve seen over and over when activating purpose for hundreds of different companies. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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