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It’s Not Just Semantics: How a Preposition Made Millions

When people argue over word choice, they often compromise, telling each other, “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 why 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.

In the HBR piece authors Malnight, Buche and Dhanaraj say, “the companies have defined a very similar purpose for themselves.”

Similar? I beg to differ. The nuance comes in the form of a preposition and one very important now.

These two purpose statements are not similar; they are dramatically different. I’ll go one step further; the difference in purpose statements is directly connected to Mars outperforming Purina.

Purina’s “better with pets” is a mantra, it does not inspire action. It just 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, I love every other aspect of this article. It’s insightful and actionable; every leader should read it. But on this point, the authors missed a nuanced and crucial difference.

To illustrate the dramatic impact of the differences are in these two statements, 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 the 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 could 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 HBR piece says, Mars “was able to pull off a transformation because it ensured that every move it made was aligned with the same core purpose.” Mars Petcare became Mar’s Inc. largest and faster 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. As the Mars vs. Purina competition reveals, it’s not just semantics.