Think you have a great company? Do you know why it exists?

By David A. Frankel, managing partner, SLINGSTONE Group

Here is a fun challenge for you to try at your next executive roundtable, company social function, or weekly marketing meeting.  Ask everyone in attendance the following:
In one succinct sentence, can you tell me why our company exists? What do we do better than anyone else on the planet?

Seems like a very simple thing on the surface, but you will be surprised at the results.  My guess is that at least half of the people will not be able to answer it in one sentence.  Of the remaining, at least half of those asked will likely reply with a version of the tag line or catch phrase you have on your website or marketing materials.  In all instances, you will almost assuredly get a different answer from each participant.

In my experience, most companies do not understand the root of what they truly do better than everyone else. They invest significant time analyzing the competitive landscape and honing their messaging and talking points to take advantage of opportunities. They go to great lengths to develop descriptive content, slogans, and phrases that highlight the business in terms familiar to their target market or that improve SEO standing.  But seldom do executives take a step back and take a realistic look at why their company matters – their true “essence.”

I saw this firsthand a few years ago, when I was a chief marketing officer. The company I worked for had been around for more than 15 years and had great brand recognition, but members of the executive team and board of directors had a difficult time explaining what the company did better than anyone else. During my first few months on the job, I started every conversation with employees throughout the organization with the same question – What do we do better than anyone else? Predictably, I received a different version of the company line every time.

At great, sustainable companies, all stakeholders (board members, executives, employees, and even customers) understand why the company matters and what it does better than any other company on the planet.  This knowledge acts like a rudder on a ship, as it allows executives to make disciplined, strategic decisions; employees to serve clients more efficiently; customers to have their expectations always fulfilled; and investors and potential investors to understand what will drive the highest return on their investment.

One company that has always amazed me with how it achieves this is the Ritz-Carlton Hotels. At the Ritz-Carlton, employees must carry at all times a card with the company “Gold Standards” that they will either show or recite if asked.  The next time you are at a Ritz-Carlton ask a staff member to see it – their dedication is truly impressive, and their corporate motto, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen” tells you succinctly that the “anticipatory service provided by all staff members” is why the Ritz-Carlton exists.

While you don’t have to go through a big, elaborate exercise to develop and perfect a corporate mission statement, credo, motto, elevator pitch or anything you would include in external marketing, it does take some thought to get to the honest root of why your own company exists.  Here are a few things you can do to arrive at an answer:

  • Find an office or conference room with a whiteboard, and dedicate an uninterrupted afternoon with the executives and some of the most talented members of your team.
  • Leave egos at the door – this isn’t about sales team efficiency, product strengths and weaknesses, marketing program effectiveness or meeting your company’s plan.  It’s about taking a good hard look in the mirror.
  • Discuss all of the things that are “effortless” for your company to do (even the not so obvious ones) and the work your company does that delights both your most loyal customers and your employees.
  • Avoid projecting a vision or aspirations of what you want for the company.  The point is to understand what you currently do better than anyone else.
  • Force yourselves to abandon all past messaging, marketing speak and industry or insider jargon (including technical words and phrases).
  • Write down your sentences and keep iterating and simplifying as much as possible.  The end result should be easy to say and must be absolutely true. At any time the sentence is rendered untrue (i.e., due to changing or expanding focus, market conditions, growth) you need to revise it.
  • Test your final answer on people who know nothing about your business, such as family, friends and neighbors.  Take note of their reactions and iterate again if necessary.

In my last position as CMO, we performed an exercise like this and arrived at a statement that was different than what we all expected it to be at the outset.  The statement wasn’t big and it wasn’t terribly sexy (and was not something we would include in any of our marketing materials), but it accurately reflected our talent and why we had achieved past success. It also gave us a great starting point for our corporate executive decision-making moving forward, especially as it applied to our sales process and product road map. This exercise was a contributing reason to why we were able to start meeting our targets again and subsequently sell our company within a year after I started.

So do you still think you have a great company? If so, comment here with the one sentence answer to the question, “What does your company do better than anyone else on the planet?”

David A. Frankel is managing partner of executive advisory firm SLINGSTONE Group, and has more than 20 years executive leadership experience at startups and in the financial data and technology markets. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidAFrankel.