Repeat After Me: Your Company Needs A Mantra

Simple, possibly profane, and always memorable, a good mantra both guides your strategy and says everything about your culture. An overview of the best--and what's wrong with the rest.

At advertising agency 72andSunny's Los Angeles office, a giant wall covered in artwork beckons critiques.

Sixty feet long, the wall might one day host drafts of Kenny Powers hawking K-Swiss shoes and mockups of Call of Duty commercials the next. And if it's on the wall, anyone--from the receptionist to the creative director--is encouraged to weigh in.

72andSunny's mantra is "Be brave and generous." Since 2004, the company has embodied this message internally and externally--with edgy, award-winning advertisements featuring world leaders kissing, and employee collaboration processes that produce fun, buzz-worthy campaigns.

The best mantras are like that. They inform a company's everyday decisions, both behind the curtain and in front of the crowd.

"Mantra" is a Sanskrit term, meaning "sacred utterance" or "sacred thought," depending on the dictionary. Traditionally concentration aids given by Hindu gurus to devotees, mantras are words or phrases repeated to facilitate transformation. In business, a mantra is akin to a motto, albeit more fundamental to a company's internal purpose than simply a marketing slogan. It's concise, repeatable, and core to a company's existence.

"Think different." "Don't be evil." For some of the world's most innovative companies, mantras become a rallying point for employees and customers.

The key is simplicity. "Create a mantra of two or three words," author and former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki instructed at the most recent Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston. "Make it short, sweet, and swallowable."

Mantras are not mission statements, though they're often confused with the cumbersome paragraphs of platitudes generated at corporate retreats involving trust falls. When asked for their company mantras for this story, over 100 business owners, from startups to energy companies to retailers, submitted gobbledygook claiming to be mantras.

"Our collaborative ideology is our greatest differentiator," writes one firm. Another shares its "mantra": "[our company] exists to fuel our clients' growth while delivering maximum accountability through our performance-based financial models by leveraging the power of the search engines."

While these are both nice ideas, they're not mantras. How do you know? You've already forgotten them.

Contrast such corpspeak with Oneupweb's mantra, "Be relentless," or Nitro PDF's "No bullshit." Or digital agency Huge's mantra, "Make something you love," (fine, that one's four words, but still).

"'Make something you love' is the answer to every tough question," says Huge global creative director Joe Stewart. "If you love it, everyone else will love it, too."

None of these mantras takes a dictionary to decipher. All manage to align constituents in five syllables or less.

Great company mantras are not just simultaneously in- and outward-facing; they're actionable. They can be printed on a flag in size 200 font.

"We've learned from the companies that we look up to most like Nike, Apple, and Coca Cola, companies that have been around for decades. Their missions always remain the same," says Stylecaster founder Ari Goldberg, whose mantra is "Style to the People."

He continues, "We know who we are, so in every decision we make, we always map it back."

The muscle-for-hire company College Hunks Hauling Junk fosters teamwork and a unified front with its vision, "Moving the World." Communities in more than 40 locations in the U.S. rely on College Hunks to not only move heavy objects but employ local students and give back. Though perhaps the imperative form of the phrase--"Move the world"--would technically be a more purist mantra, it accomplishes the goal: inspire the troops as well as the kids back home.

Unlike mission statements, mantras are pivot-proof. They transcend current target markets and quarterly quotas. Google's "Don't be evil" says nothing about search, social, or self-driving cars. It's a banner under which augmented reality glasses and payment systems can thrive alongside pay-per-click ads, and it doesn't conflict with any particular product's mission of moment (say, organizing the world's information). The mantra is the guiding star, not the operating manual.

About the time we could no longer count our employees on our fingers at my own company, Contently, we established a mantra: "Be Awesome." Though we're currently working to empower and connect writers and publishers, a growing company means new products and opportunities are constantly in the pipeline.

Our mantra guides decisions and tells customers what to expect from us, regardless of pivots or product changes: "Is this feature awesome?" "Are our writers awesome?" "Does this help customers be more awesome?"

"Be Awesome" puts a smile on our faces and reminds us why we work at a startup and not some corporation with a 50-word slogan written by the Bobs from Office Space.

Cheesy? Who cares. Everyone remembers it. And in a startup where the soil of culture is fertile, a meaningful mantra can be one of the greatest seeds you plant.

[Image: Flickr user Mfcorwin]

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24 Comments

  • Dave Martin

    Kudos, well done piece. My fav of the moment comes from the cool kids at NASA's JPL (MSL). "Dare Mighty Things"

  • Innovaision, LLC

    For Innovaision's overarching consulting to non-profits, our mantra is a bit long "Changing the Way You Do Good", but for our most innovative product - virtual world creation for counseling and educational groups - it is "Be Everywhere". Maybe I can take an average?

  • Rudy Miick

    Yes, and a real alternative to "short" is to actually walk your talk, and talk every day about purpose... people have the capacity to KNOW and own, not just remember; ... more than short and sweet is real and constant engagement!

  • Carol

    Although our school had a detailed Mission, Vision and Values statement which guided our actions, our most powerful guide was our motto (mantra) "Refuse to Lose". Students, staff and parents alike knew that this meant we would not give up on any child nor would we allow any student to give up on themselves. 

  • Shep Hyken

    I love the idea of a short mantra. It should be a defining statement that ties
    in the vision, mission and brand promise of a company. It should help focus the
    employees and get them into alignment. Some of my favorite include the nine
    words that the Ritz Carlton uses to define who they are and what they will do
    for their guests. They refer to it as a credo, but it accomplishes the same
    thing: We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. How about
    Outback Steakhouse’s former brand promise, which is a great mantra: Great food,
    no rules. Our mantra at Shepard Presentations is three words long: Always be
    amazing! We want to be amazing to the people that work here, the clients we
    serve and we want to teach our clients how to be amazing to their customers. 

  • Jmcg02908

    I'm inspired, I just thought of a mantra. "End exploitation, end capitalism." Do you think some company will co-opt it?

  • Nancercize

    This is a great way to focus on the essentials. If your mantra is the same as the mantra you hope to instill in your customers, is that a plus?  So, for me, a fitness thought leader, the perfect mantra would be "Keep Moving." 

  • The Next Wave

    We've used "Create Lust • Evoke Trust" for years. We're in the same business as 72 and Sunny- but, "Be brave and generous" doesn't solve the customers problems.
    Makes me think of Spock- "go forth and prosper":-)

  • shanesnow

    Create Lust Evoke Trust is cool. I'd argue that being generous does help solve customer problems; it ideally empowers employees to know they can give customers generous solutions without having to ask permission. It's all about the context, though, and the leadership team helping people understand where the focus should go.

  • Solaris

     I think Being brave in a creative field definitely solves costumer problems.  Especially the way 72 is approaching their process.  They are brave enough to share their ideas before they deliver it.  Brave enough to have the honest eyes of a receptionist critiquing their work.  I also think generosity IS a form of trust.  Also I think you have GOD and Spock mixed up...  It is... Spock- "Live long and prosper" and GOD- "Go forth and multiply"

  • Mats

    Maybe I am pedantic, but what is the real difference between "Don't be evil", "Be awesome" and "Be brave and generous"? To me, they are all nice expressions, but not very different from each other (or any company with a decent interal culture). Rather than simplistic mantras like these, companies need to focus more on why they exist in the first place. And no, I don't mean corporate-speak mission statements, but the story behind the company. What do we (the company) believe in? What do we want to achieve? Why do we go to work each day? Not easy to do if it is to be meaningful, but worth it if you really want to make a difference.

  • Chadandy

    MATS, the point isn't to replace the vision, mission and values. Those are all important, and they are all different things. Mantra's mean something real to the people who live by them, and they live them within the context of their mission, vision and values. The bottom line though, is that employees may take away the meaning of the mission, vision and values, but they likely won't remember the words. The mantra is a daily reminder of the meat of it all, without having to remember every word. 

    My mantra, btw: Progress, not perfection. 

  • Solaris

     It does seem at first glance when taken out of context of the companies service a phrase like "Dont be evil" appears to be generic.  If you consider the fact that Google does have a lot of power over information, you may start to realize what it means to an employee and to a consumer.  To me it makes me feel like I can trust the company to provide technology that will not attempt to control my life or information.  When we analyze "Be Awesome" that is absolutely subjective and comes back to the question how do you rank "cool"?  what makes something cool?  If you have to ask what makes something cool you are not cool.  Back to the point, the fact that this company asks the question Does this product feature say awesome, is in fact awesome.  To hear a company use the word awesome when describing their products, employees, or customers tells you this organization is young, spirited and wants to makes the best out of every situation.

  • Jeff

    ... And then Google gets hit with millions in fines for their handling of data? A mantra is BS if you don't live by it.

  • Mats

    The point I was trying to make is that I worry a lot about companies that try to reduce their whole reason for being into a few words. The reason for this is best expressed in Dennis Potter's great comment "The problem with words is that they don't always say what they mean". Whenever we rely on a few simple words to tell a story or describe a company, we will most likely have different interpretations. For example, what is "awesome" is probably not the same for you or me. It is fine to summarize a story in a few words BUT you need to articulate the full story first before you can summarize. Organizational culture needs this attention to detail and discussion if it is to be meaningful and relevant over time. And no, I won't go into discussion about whether Google wants to control my information or not...

  • shanesnow

    Totally get your point. A mantra without context is as bad of a platitude as a goobery mission statement. Well, I guess it's better because it's shorter. 

    Mantras as words are not meant to embody every element of a company or explain the company's positioning, but like traditional mantras are meant to be repeated and therefore help focus and transform people on an ideal. A mantra, rather than being the employee handbook, becomes a principle to guide tough decisions that fall out of the scope of the handbook. And if customers can see that, they trust and know what to expect.

    "Be awesome" is simplistic and vague, but what it's really saying is "We care about quality. If it's not awesome, we're going back to the drawing board until we get it right. If we don't treat you well, our boss will fire us, dear customer."

  • Solaris

    If you dont think it is awesome than you are not their target consumer or employee.  The simple expression of the two words "Be Awesome" completely succeeded in its purpose.  It has weeded out the "not awesome".

  • vickytnz

    I *cannot* believe that an article like this missed the golden opportunity to reference Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall: "I forgot my mantra".