• Date

The essence blog - university mission statements

The Essence


What is at the heart of your university? How do the mission statement and language of your organisation impact upon your experience of what you do, let alone the experiences of your students, stakeholders and the wider public?

Taking lessons learnt from corporate companies, tone of voice expert John Simmons explores what it means for universities to find the essence behind their words.


I’ve worked with commercial organisations for most of my career. And I’ve criticised their language for much of that time. Just the deadness, the blandness, the mediocrity of corporate language, its failure to connect with people on a sufficiently human level.

Companies are often reluctant to stand out from the crowd – strange, as that is the basis of all marketing – and they easily retreat into safe forms of language that they hope will not get them noticed too much. Big companies like to be seen as big companies – to stress the similarities rather than the differences that might make them truly distinctive.

So in that business environment it’s common to claim, with great corporate pride, ‘we aim to be the best’ – as if they are up against others who ‘aim to be the worst’. They will hold this statement up as their ‘Mission’ and surround it with ‘Values’. Like the Mission the Values can be grandiose yet bland – ‘integrity’, ‘responsibility’, and let’s show a little ‘passion’ to prove we’re not boring.

To be the best is an aim but how will you achieve that? Only by being different from the others. What makes you you?

Which company proclaims itself with these words? “To make tomorrow a better place”. You won’t see them around much longer because Carillion (yes, it’s them) has famously gone into administration. But its strapline is an example of the inanity that corporate mission statements veer towards, perhaps showing a vacuum of thought, integrity, honesty at the heart of the company.

Universities on the other hand are different. Or they should be. Universities should be better than that, needing words that are meaningful not vacuous. They should be true to themselves and their social mission, honest, clear and able to convey genuine emotion.

Is this so in your case, in your own higher education institution? To succeed you need an attitude that makes you different, and the words to express that difference.

Here’s what you can do.

Ask hard questions, think deeply, use words that stretch you, capture the essence of your organisation.

Go deeper. Really probe what lies behind your organisation, what makes it succeed, what makes you who you are. Ask hard questions, think deeply, use words that stretch you, capture the essence of your organisation. This essence, these few carefully crafted, hard-won words will then guide all the words you use to describe your institution.



A blog by John Simmons, a brand and tone of voice expert, and a leading exponent of more expressive words as an essential element of communication for brands and organisations.

John is a Programme Facilitator at Invisible Grail, and author of the organisation’s namesake, The Invisible Grail.


If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like:


The Strategic Tale

“Shall we strategise or shall we tell a story?” How the BBC began to distill the meaning of their strategy and what higher education could learn from this.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.