Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #300: On a Mission

There’s an old story about a man watching workers build a church. He goes up to each of the workers to ask what they are doing.

The first worker says he is laying bricks. The second worker says he is laying panels for the floor. The third worker says he is building a place to worship and glorify God.

Guess which worker is probably doing the best quality of work.

All three workers were doing a small part to help build a church. But they viewed the nature of their work differently. Two defined their work by the particular task they were doing—laying bricks or laying a floor. One, however, saw the big picture and defined his work a being part of what he viewed as a noble cause—building a place to glorify God. And of course, the one with the nobler definition of his work is the one who will tend to produce the greatest outcome, because he sees a deeper importance/significance to his performance.

Businesses have the strategic option of defining themselves just like these workers. They can define the work as being a mundane task—like manufacturing widgets—or as part of a larger, more noble task—like making the world a better place.

And the more you imbue a task with a noble purpose, the better off you tend to be. Strategic planning has an important roll in helping to frame a company’s mission so that it imbues the business with a noble purpose.

The principle here is that companies with a noble business mission can tap into benefits than mundane missions cannot.

1) Additional Sources of Revenue
Noble companies have three additional sources of revenue. First, they can typically charge more for their products. According to the 2009 Corporate Citizenship Study, people are willing to pay more for products from socially responsible companies. Forty percent said they would spend between 1% and 10% more for a product from a socially responsible company.

Consider TOMS Shoes. TOMS Shoes was founded on a simple, noble premise: With every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need—one for one. To this, they also add the idea of having vegan shoes—no leather (save a cow).

TOMS’ shoes are not cheap. Their simple canvas shoes are about $50. I can go to Wal-Mart or Target and get a simple canvas shoe for half that price (or even less). Yet people are willing to pay a premium for a TOMS shoe. Why? They like the noble idea that whenever they buy a shoe, a person in need gets a free shoe. That is worth a premium price.

Second, a noble cause provides new sources of revenue. Who says you have to earn all of your income from your purchase price? That purchase price can be subsidized with additional income from other sources.

Consider many cause-related media companies. It is getting harder to be profitable in the magazine business these days. Many publications are calling it quits and shutting down because subscription and ad revenues are not enough to remain profitable. However, one cause-related magazine I subscribe to has started a new campaign with its subscribers. It is touting the noble purpose of the publication and asking for additional donations beyond the regular subscription price. It says that it is worth giving extra to keep the noble magazine and its important message in business. I’m sure that extra money is coming in. This is something that a mundane magazine cannot tap into.

If your cause is really noble, there are opportunities to tap into government funds, charitable funds/endowments, or sponsorship ties with other companies that will pay you in order to associate themselves with your noble endeavor.

An example would be St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. In many ways, it is a hospital just like any other hospital. Yet, on top of this, they have imbued a greater sense of nobility to the hospital business. It does more cutting edge research and never turns away a child due to an inability to pay.

As a result, St. Jude’s taps into a lot of additional revenue sources more successfully than many other hospitals. It is strongly promoted by many in the acting community. It has a nationwide charitable program. It has a partnership program with many retailers, including Target, Kmart, CVS, Williams-Sonoma, Dollar General, Brooks Brothers and others.

The third revenue benefit of a noble mission is that there are the added revenues which come from having loyal customers who volunteer to be an advocate for your company. TOMS, for example, has a DVD describing their noble cause and encourages customers to hold DVD parties at their homes to spread the word. TOMS also encourages and helps customers set up parties in their homes to customize and decorate TOMS shoes. On April 8, 2010, they are encouraging customers to bring attention to the noble cause by going a day barefoot. And of course, there are all the web 2.0 opportunities with Twitter, Facebook and the like to build a strong, loyal TOMS community.

Loyal customers will buy more from you and act as evangelists to get others to buy from you as well. And this loyalty is stronger, the more noble the mission of the company.

2) Additional Ways to Lower Costs
Not only does increased nobility improve the top line. It can also reduce costs, further improving the bottom line.

Going back to the 2009 Corporate Citizenship Study, they found that people highly value the idea of working for a socially responsible company. Fifty-six percent said that it would make a positive difference for them. Even more telling, 40% said they would be willing to take a small pay cut to work for a socially responsible company.

For years, private schools with noble causes (principally religion-based) have traditionally paid their teachers less than those working for public schools. This idea does not have to be limited to just schools. Bring a greater nobility to the cause at your business. Not only are the employees who desire to work at noble companies more motivated, you do not have to pay top dollar to get them. The privilege of spending the day feeling a part of a larger, more noble purpose is worth sacrificing for.

This idea can also be used as leverage with your suppliers to negotiate lower costs. They may give you a break if they realize that their lower price to you is contributing to a greater noble cause.

Finding Your Nobility
Perhaps your sense of nobility is not as great as what was seen in some of these examples. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot change your business model to become more noble. St. Jude could have used a more conventional hospital business model, but they chose not to. You can change your business model to become more noble as well.

You could perhaps do a one for one program like TOMS on your product/service. You could be like Target, who gives 5% of its income to charities in the markets where it has stores. Best Buy is getting more involved in sustainability issues with the products it sells, accepting returns of old electronics items and working with its suppliers to help design more sustainable products. Wal-Mart is getting ever more active in environmental causes. The change in Wal-Mart’s reputation has improved significantly once they took a more noble approach and I believe it has helped them in many ways. The list goes on.

The way you define your strategic mission has a lot to do with how your employees, customers and other stakeholders view the company. It can not only change the perception, but also the reality of how noble a company you really are.

Consider these mission statements:

Google: To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Proctor & Gamble: Provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world's consumers, now and for generations to come.

Johnson & Johnson: To provide scientifically sound, high quality products and services to help heal, cure disease and improve the quality of life

Herman Miller: Herman Miller, Inc., works for a better world around you. We do this by designing furnishings and related services that improve the human experience wherever people work, heal, learn, and live.

And it cannot just be hollow lip service. The mission needs to be more than just words on paper. It has to be lived every day by senior management, supported by where the capital is spent, evidenced in how employees and customers are treated, and a key element of the discussion on all major decisions. In other words, it must be fundamental to the strategy. If done properly, not only will you do well (quality of social responsibility), but you should also do well (enduring, profitable company).

Companies with noble missions have access to many advantages. Customers are more loyal and act as advocates for your company. You can get away from competing only on price (and perhaps raise prices a little). You can tap into more sources of revenue. You can attract highly motivated workers who do not necessarily need to be paid top dollar. And you can feel good about not only building a strong business, but also a better world.

Now you may be saying to yourself that your business really is rather mundane and that there is not a lot of nobility in what goes on. Yet consider the investment banking industry. Currently, many see investment bankers as the scum of the earth. Large sectors of the population see nothing noble in the way they operate.

However, listen to the way Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein defines his work (from The Sunday Times, November 8, 2009). “We’re very important. We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle. We have a social purpose.” He is, he says, just a banker “doing God’s work.” (something like the attitude of the church builder in our story?)

I’m not saying that you need to agree with Blankfein’s assessment. However, if he can find a way to put such a noble spin on what he does, I would think that you can do the same for your business.

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