When people debate over word choice for an important document or edict, they often settle for something benign. They tell themselves, “It’s just semantics.”
Try telling that to Mars Petcare. Mar’s strategic choice of a preposition propelled a strategy that generated millions in revenue and enabled them to beat rival Nestle Purina in multiple markets.
Look at each firm’s purpose statement.
Purina: Better with Pets
Mars: A better world for pets.
In the Harvard Business Review piece, “Put Purpose at the Core of Your Strategy” reveals how Mars had foresight to go into the lucrative pet health market, while rival Purina stuck with battling it out in the lower margin price sensitive pet food market. The authors Malnight, Buche and Dhanaraj write, “the companies defined a very similar purposes for themselves.”
Similar? I beg to differ.
These two purpose statements are not similar; they are dramatically different. The seemingly nuanced shift of a preposition and one very important noun changes everything. I’ll go one step further; the difference in purpose statements is what drove Mars to outperform Purina.
Purina’s “better with pets” is a mantra, it does not inspire action. It simply tells people, we like pets. When Mars tell you they are committed to “a better world for pets, it galvanizes action and drives strategy.
To be clear, the article is excellent. It’s insightful and actionable; every leader should read it. But on this point, when the authors suggest the two purposes are similar, they miss a nuanced yet crucial difference.
To illustrate the dramatic different these two statements are and how it plays out strategically, let’s substitute children for pets.
Imagine one organization proclaims their purpose is: better with children.
That’s nice; we’re all in the club. We believe the world is better with children. Perhaps we believe we’re the company who is better with children compared to our competition. We can rally around it and feel good about ourselves. This no-action statement is certainly better than no shared belief. But, if I work here, what am I supposed to do as a result of this statement? Put it on the website and have T-shirts made?
Now imagine another company says, our purpose is: A better world for children.
Whoa, this is some serious stuff. This is big. We have to do something. Where do we start?
We should probably identify all the things making the world bad for children. We can look at places where children are thriving for models we can scale. We’re going to have to make choices, where do we focus, how do we measure our impact? Which markets should we pursue? Which ones should we avoid?
In short, we’re going to have to create a strategy.
Therein lies the difference. The semantics are everything. Pursuing those five words — a better world for pets — drove Mars into new products and markets. The article says, Mars “was able to pull off a transformation because it ensured that every move it made was aligned with the same core purpose.”
With that kind of focus, it’s not surprising Mars Petcare became Mars' largest and fastest growth division.
When we work with organizations to create purpose statements and formulate strategy, we tell leaders up front, every word matters. Your purpose drives every aspect of your business, from big strategic decisions to daily behavior.
And as the Mars vs. Purina rivalry reveals, it’s not just semantics.