Mission statements growing cloudier

While most of John Cougar Mellencamp's songs back in the day spun small town tales of life at the Tastee Freeze, there is a more prophetic lyric from his Scarecrow album that has always stuck with me: '...you gotta stand for something or you gonna fall for anything'. I had always thought the 'stand or fall' play on words was clever, but lately I have been pondering the deeper meaning of this lyrical passage.

While most of John Cougar Mellencamp’s songs back in the day spun small town tales of life at the Tastee Freeze, there is a more prophetic lyric from his Scarecrow album that has always stuck with me: ‘…you gotta stand for something or you gonna fall for anything’. I had always thought the ‘stand or fall’ play on words was clever, but lately I have been pondering the deeper meaning of this lyrical passage.

Standing for something. It’s a romantic turn of phrase that has always suggested better posture or more nobility. You ‘stand’ for civil rights or you ‘stand’ for academic excellence – you don’t usually ‘stand’ for, say, tabloid television at its lowest. Epitomize maybe, but not stand.

‘Stand’ is used almost exclusively for righteous causes, leaving more contentious causes to adopt verbs like ‘sit in’ or ‘walk out’. My point is that to stand for something is a very good thing indeed.

I say this because, unlike Jeopardy, our world does not reward the well rounded. Fireball pitchers are more coveted than utility infielders and specialists more wealthy than GPs. The world is full of successful people who stand for one singular thing.

While I have always proudly resided in the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ camp, I sometimes wonder if my wide array of interests has been a curse more than a blessing. I have also been wondering, if our world truly does reward the specialist, what effect (if any) do all these mega-corporation mergers we read about every day have on brands?

We have always had a pretty good idea what Disney stood for as a company and probably still do, but is it as clear and clean as it once was? There are presently divisions within the Disney Corporation that promote films and TV shows containing sexual and/or violent content that cannot qualify as hallmarks of family entertainment.

Does this take a little bit of saccharine out of the smiley little faces in the Disney Annual Report? I think it does. But it’s not the fault of a publicly traded company like Disney that must feed the machine or perish. There can be no debating that, as mega-conglomerates gobble up smaller companies and enter new businesses, the question ‘what do you stand for?’ is becoming tougher and tougher to answer.

These days, the creative for many companies reflects the ambiguous and ubiquitous copy of the average mission statement. (Raise your hands if you’ve heard the words ‘total quality management’ or ‘customer satisfaction’ almost as often as the letters SAP.)

As I watched TV the other night, Cisco told me that they ‘empower the internet generation’ and EDS that they ‘manage the complexities of the digital economy’ (apparently akin to herding cats and/or running with squirrels) but, as with the average politician, I have no idea what they stand for. Or against. What is their platform? Their cause? Tell me. (To paraphrase the UFO obsessives) I want to believe.

This reluctance or inability to ‘stand for something’ (note the singular form of the last word) is true not only for the commercial breaks but also the shows themselves. How many copycat sitcoms have you seen fail because they didn’t stand for anything but an homage to an existing popular show? Comedy series like Emeril are usually toasted quicker than you can say ‘BAM!’ (We know what Emeril’s cooking show stands for, what’s the sitcom’s deal again?)

On the contrary, consider The Man Show – a low-budget TV program that has won the hearts, brains and channel-flicking fingers of many a red-blooded male. Some would say The Man Show’s success is owed to the scantily clad women jumping on trampolines. I’d say that the success is more attributable to their defiant and insightful stance against male-bashing and political correctness. (Well, that and the fact that The Man’s Show’s studio audience drinks draught beer out of kegs.)

The point is that they stand for something. Connecting 100% with 10% of the audience will always be more favourable in the long run than connecting 10% with 100%.

I wasn’t surprised when Canadian Tire rolled out ‘Bike Story’ spot again. It has magic the company hasn’t been able to recreate since. Beyond the nice performances of the actors and Bill Irish’s direction, there is a really compelling mission statement that tells people that Canadian Tire money is the currency of Canada.

I have watched my local Canadian Tire store struggle to adapt and keep up with the orange aprons across the road and, for the most part, applaud the effort. However I see an opportunity for CTC to turn its microscope on itself and pound its own stake in the ground and tell me what it stands for besides Scrooge and a catchy piece of licensed music from 30 or 40 years ago.

For, as Mr. Mellencamp would surely attest, this world loves the man (or brand) with the conviction in his stroke to dig in, take the bat off his shoulder and swing for the fences.

Jeff Spriet is the founder of Wiretap, a guerrilla branding consultancy based in Toronto. He stands for the power of unconventional ideas and occasionally accepts Canadian Tire money at par. Reach him at 416-525-9038 or jeff@wiretap.ca.