As an artist, you’ll find countless discussions out there about “finding one’s voice”. In other industries, this is also referred to as “knowing your brand”, or “vision statement”.
Until some time ago I couldn't understand why people got caught up with this question.They would take hours, weeks, months, some even years to find the answer to this. They’d search through their work, read books and blogs and every available resource to find out how to put their brand into words.
For many years I stayed out of these types of conversations. Not only because I didn't have an answer, but also because I felt like I didn't need one. After all, all I wanted was to create and sell images, and I didn't think that a vision statement about our work would be the way to do this.
I was wrong.
When I finally sat down to write our vision statement, the first draft may very well have been something like “We like to make images”. Not very imaginative, but it was true and it seemed like it suited this most important requirement of a vision statement.
What I failed to realise at the time was that all business decisions could be based on that vision statement; once it became clear what that statement was, our baseline was set.
To give us an idea of the power of vision statements, take a look at some examples from a few Fortune 500 companies:
- Avon— “To be the company that best understands and satisfies the product, service, and self-fulfillment needs of women—globally.”
- Amazon— “To be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
- Harley Davidson— “To fulfill dreams through the experiences of motorcycling.”
- Starbucks— “To share great coffee with our friends and help make the world a little better.”
- Hilton— “To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality.”
- J.C. Penny— “To be America’s shopping destination for discovering great styles at compelling prices.”
- CVS Caremark— “To improve the quality of human life.”
- Johnson & Johnson (for a department that designs & manufactures orthopedic implants)— “Restoring the joy of motion”
- Kraft Foods— “To make today delicious.”
- Toys ‘R’ Us— “To put joy in kids’ hearts and a smile on parents’ faces.”
- Weyerhaeuser Company— “To release the potential in trees to solve important problems for people and the planet.”
Each one is succinct and summarises the core of each company. They show their clients what these companies are all about, and what they want to do or be — but above everything else, they are the guidelines against which these companies make their business decisions.
By simply putting every potential business decision through a “Does this do / allow us to / … <insert vision statement here>?” question, every decision becomes easier to make. The foundation is already set. Even if the answer isn’t a definite “yes / no”, the vision statement will give you a baseline against which to weigh the variables and guide you towards a decision.
I’m not saying knowing this helped write a vision statement . As a visual artist I have the advantage of having something tangible to look at, to see patterns in work and to decide what it is we create.
The brands mentioned above are competing in today’s marketplace, and they are all struggling to make themselves heard in the middle of all the noise, in much the same way as artists of the past have strived to stand out above their peers, or, in a business sense, their competition.
It’s often discussed that musicians have a voice of their own, a unique style that makes them recognizable. This is certainly true of composers: it’s very easy to distinguish between the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Some say that Beethoven was more in tune with his emotions, and composed far more intricate works — but whatever your opinion is, their works, although composed in the same classical period in history and having shared influences, possess strong unique features that make their sound very distinguishable.
Although there are no records of either of them ever writing a vision statement, their personal brand was guided by their work — the product, the control over where the music was going to be heard, by what sort of people, and who might commission them for further work. Once again, using business terms, this was their brand identity, and the very best composers — the ones we still listen to nowadays — had a very strong one.
In business terms we rely on the brand identity, as it tells everything about what you wish your product to be. Once this is established, the questions about how you wish your product to feel, taste, smell, look, and present itself (logo, wrapping, etc), are all answerable to that one vision statement.
On a wider business level, your vision statement allows you to make choices about the direction you wish to take your brand in — where you are going to market it, and who will buy it. This statement allows you to be free to say no to options that are not inline with it.
We can establish yet another comparison between business and arts in the marketing arena, as even actors strive to carve out their own brand identities:
Child TV and film stars — and this is really visible with the ones that started out tied to Disney in some way -, when they hit puberty or adulthood and their line of work changes, almost always feel the need to shake off their roots by showcasing a side that has never been seen before, breaking away from the mold they were cast in.
But when you’re connected to such a strong brand, you might find that breaking away is really hard to achieve, and there are those who take it to extremes to make a name for themselves, with varying degrees of success — and lots of “wrong” decisions. Of course there also those that have successfully reigned themselves back in artistically to channel their own careers. We could say they have found their baseline, their vision statement, that allows them to say no while at the same time ensuring their position as mature actors / musicians.
A very positive example, albeit not connected to Disney, comes from Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. In a recent interview to the Guardian, he openly admits to asking himself “Would Michael Fassbender do it?”. Whenever Daniel is offered a new job, he uses this simple question as a check whether he should accept it, considering if he would like to see his personal brand “in that position”.
It’s a valid test — Daniel Radcliffe obviously identifies himself with the highly acclaimed Irish-German actor / producer, and follows him as a guide for where he would like to see his own brand in the future. Whilst this isn’t a vision statement per se, it is an indication that he understands that he is a brand and needs to question every move against a solid foundation.
If a brand were to be a character in a story, it stands to reason that the writer should think about the character’s back story: what made them be the person they are now, what are their dreams and ambitions, who they are.
This, in essence, is how to build up to a vision statement: it doesn’t have to start out being a sentence. It can be a list — a list of what it is, and what it isn’t. As time goes on it will become easier to eliminate the superfluous from this list and write it down in a simple form.
Whatever business you are in, a brand vision statement clearly lays the foundation for important questions. It’s the backbone of a company, and although it may be difficult to come up with initially , once it’s in place all other questions are able to defer to it.
Here at McGunnMedia our vision statement is:
We create Elegance.
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