The hell with mission statements
What you need to look for is a company with a battle cry
By Marshall Loeb, CBS.MarketWatch.com
December 21, 2003
NEW YORK (CBS.MW) — If you're looking for companies that stand to score well in the future, you could do worse than to find those few that define their strategies, inspire their employees and attract hordes of new customers with a few punchy words that constitute the "Battle Cry."
So says John Emmerling, an author, marketing guru and advertising veteran who heads a consulting firm in Manhattan that bears his name.
He preaches that every enterprise needs a battle cry—a short, motivating statement that tells employees how to act and tells customers and prospects what to expect. The battle cry, he advises, should be drilled into the skull of every employee, from top to bottom, an inspiring corporate mantra. But don't confuse a crisp, focused battle cry, almost always ten words or less, with a windy, cliché-ridden corporate mission statement.
Consider these examples:
• In barely 25 years, Home Depot has risen from nowhere to No. 13 on the Fortune 500 list of America's biggest corporations (as measured by sales), the fastest growing retailer in U.S. history. Surely the company had more going for it than its memorable battle cry, but can anyone envision Home Depot having soared so far so fast without it, which did so much to inspire confidence in the multitude of all-thumbs customers and to build a nation of do-it-yourselfers? The short, sticky, believable battle cry, now plastered all over Home Depot's Web site, its TV and radio spots, its print ads and newspaper inserts: "You can do it. We can help."
• In 1990, Microsoft's Bill Gates was asked how he inspired code writers to create the kind of innovative software that computer users craved. Gates quickly answered with a four-word battle cry: "Information at your fingertips." Emmerling says that these were four clear, motivating words—a battle cry that gave staffers their marching orders for creating revolutionary software and told customers what they could look forward to.
• And like most other explosively growing companies, Wal-Mart has a battle cry with a bang: "Always low prices. ALWAYS!”
Of course, many celebrated military, political and social leaders showed what a battle cry could do to rally their troops and succeed, often against impossible odds. "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!" roared Col. William Prescott at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. "I have not yet begun to fight," echoed Commander John Paul Jones in the North Sea off Britain in 1779. And, overwhelmed by heavier British naval forces in Lake Erie in the War of 1812, 27-year-old Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry sailed his gunships directly toward the British and turned the tide of battle by unfurling a banner inscribed, "Don't give up the ship!"
"Remember the Alamo," cried Sam Houston's men in 1836; moved to avenge the loss at the Alamo, the forces of Texas went on to win freedom from Mexico. And when facing Confederate forces in 1864, Admiral David Farragut prevailed after he ordered, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead."
During the bleak years of World War II, battle cries brought resolve and hope to the Allied forces. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," growled Winston Churchill in 1940. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur's cause seemed hopeless as he fled the giant-killing Japanese forces in the Philippines in 1942, he pledged, "I shall return."
Years later, in 1963, another history-shaping leader promised another victory when, in 1963, Martin Luther King intoned, "I have a dream.”
The heroes of American business history also had memorable battle cries. "Always try just one more time," counseled Thomas Edison in 1879. When Thomas J. Watson Sr., in 1911 was searching for a battle cry to motivate his employees at the company that became IBM, he needed just one word: "Think."
And in 1929, Henry Ford with just 10 words described the mass-production automobile industry that he envisioned: "I will build a car that my workers can afford."
Over the years there were others. "Q.S.C.V. Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value," said Ray Kroc of McDonalds in 1955.
"Give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people," said Sam Walton in one of several enormously successful Wal-Mart battle cries.
"When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight," said Fred Smith of Federal Express in 1973.
"Let chaos reign," said Andy Grove of Intel in 1979.
"When banks compete, you win," said Doug Lebda of Lending Tree.com in 1998.
And, said David Neeleman of JetBlue Airways in 1999, "Bring humanity back to air travel."
Among the other companies that Emmerling thinks have the most effective battle cries now are State Farm ("Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there"), Allstate ("You're in good hands with Allstate") and Freddie Mac ("Creating a nation of homeowners.")
Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has no overall, company-wide battle cry. But there's a warm, effective, believable, four-star battle cry at one of the 39 companies that Berkshire Hathway owns, Borsheim's Fine Jewelry and Gifts: "If you don't know jewelry, know the jeweler." This battle cry, says Emmerling, is a straight talker that understands the concerns of the jewelry-buying public. Who isn't afraid of being talked into spending too much on the wrong bauble? And this line tells Borsheim employees the way they should treat each and every customer—as a friend to whom they're giving reliable advice. And who wrote that battle cry?
It was multibillionaire Warren Buffett himself.
Marshall Loeb, former editor of Fortune, Money, and The Columbia Journalism Review, writes "Your Dollars" exclusively for CBS.MarketWatch.com.
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