Over the years, one of my favorite marketing tools has been the vision statement. As I was explaining my definition of a vision statement to fellow marketing strategist David Camp, he tells me, “Well, that’s great. But it’s not what most people call a vision statement.”
He’s exactly right. What I call vision, David calls market insight. It focuses on the future of the customer – what problems they’ll face and what heroic solutions the market will provide. For me, it’s a useful tool because it helps the client look into the future, and project how the customer will need to be served. It demonstrates the client’s industry expertise, understanding of customer needs, and understanding of trends and forces that, for all intents and purposes, are unstoppable. All our marketing efforts ought to have this kind of customer focus.
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(Note: The vision definition I prefer for “vision statement” that came from a brilliant former client, Grover Righter. A scary-smart engineer-turned-CMO, he taught me something on every project.)
But for many companies, especially start-ups, vision isn’t a marketing tool at all. It’s a chest-beating tool for boards of directors, venture capitalists, investors and analysts. This corporate version of vision usually goes something like this: “Acme Solutions is a leading provider of blah blah blah for companies of all sizes. With our breakthrough technology, strategic relationships and veteran management team, we will leverage our competitive advantage to provide an extensive list of proprietary back-end solutions for SMBs to Fortune 1000 companies. As we gain market share in our core competencies, we will leverage our client base and technology to attract new customers, achieve organic growth, set new standards in best practices and and establish Acme as an indispensable supplier and partner to businesses worldwide.”
That’s a huge burden on the firm’s 23 employees.
I’m sure this kind of thing has its uses, or it wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t call this a vision at all — it’s more of a market opportunity. What they’re really looking for is a set of goals for their fledgling operations. Maybe a scenario for investors. My advice in general would be threefold.
One, at the very least, add a little customer focus. What kind of organization will result if your vision doesn’t make room for your customer? Two, add a little humility. The odds of your startup becoming the next Facebook are rather slim. Your shattered vision will hardly be a bargaining chip when the funding runs out and you’re looking for an investor-savior. Three, hide these statements from the public. Since it talks about market opportunity, use it in high-level strategy sessions with prospective partners, investors, analysts or maybe even for evaluation account prospects if it seems appropriate.