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Leadership

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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