In 1519, Hernán Cortés and a small army of unarmored men set sail to conquer Mexico and take the world’s richest treasure. The odds were against them: no one in over 600 years had succeeded. The night before battle, Cortés rallied his men and delivered a soul-stirring speech that infused their spirits with clarity of purpose and unstoppable bravery.
That next night, Cortés made a fearless, strategic decision and ordered his men to “burn the boats.” With just three haunting words to guide them, the men set fire to the very ships they sailed in on. There would be no turning back, no exit strategy and no safe retreat. It was victory or defeat.
Great leaders like Cortés understand the power of sacrifice, commitment to a higher cause, and our human desire to want, need and be something more. By rousing our spirits with unshakable courage, they make us believe we can overcome insurmountable odds and achieve our greatest victories. How? They’ve mastered the art of the war cry.
A war cry, or motto, is a short, simple phrase, that encapsulates the beliefs and ambitions that guide an individual or organization. They first appeared centuries ago as sentiments of hope and purpose. Mottos were inscribed on coats of arms, etched over castle doorways, and are still revered by universities like Harvard, Yale and NYU.
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With the resurgence of purpose and values-driven companies, mottos are experiencing a resurrection — they have the potential to hold the same great significance in business today as they have throughout history. The power of these simple phrases, when embedded into the fabric of our cultures and brands, can inspire the same level of commitment, courageous action, and unwavering devotion that Cortés was able to evoke in his team.
Businesses large and small are fighting for attention, emotional connections, market share, and longevity. Having a motto anchors your company to a belief that can weather any storm, win any battle, and move a group to action. An inspiring motto can directly influence your company’s path to success. Our own passion for mottos inspired our company name when we started Motto in 2005 and is the linchpin of our brand consulting and design work. We’ve seen first hand the power of discovering your motto and how living it through the brand can have transformational results.
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Here’s why your company needs a motto or war cry:
A motto can give your team the internal bravery and ambition to persevere.
Business is full of risk and uncertainty. Mottos spark within us the internal fortitude to press forward through tough decisions and overwhelming opposition. When your company embraces a meaningful motto, you can access great courage, speak to your team’s ambitions and paint a picture of what victory looks like. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s motto — “We shall overcome” — was one of many expressions he used to mobilize his cause.
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A motto can grip minds and ignite hearts.
Cliche-ridden mission statements are a thing of the past. They are often inauthentic, mundane, and filled with words that have no meaning. Mottos aren’t just words — they should awaken images, sounds, feelings and emotions. They evoke powerful associations and tap into our deeper need for purpose in all that we do. Since 1866, the ASPCA has been the voice for neglected and abused animals. Their motto, “We are their voice” is a battle cry that stirs emotions and tugs on the heart-strings of supporters and advocates who devote their lives to helping animals in need.
A motto can rally the troops.
If soldiers become too spread out or disorganized in battle, “rallying the troops” means bringing everyone back together to fight as a unit. Study after study shows that employees are disengaged. Mottos have the potential to increase employee engagement by uniting the team around shared purpose, values and beliefs. There is strength in numbers, and teams that thrive together are more likely to actively champion a shared path to victory. When the city of Atlanta was burned to the ground toward the end of the Civil War, the community chose the motto “Resurgens” which is Latin for “Rising Again.” This courageous and empowering phrase communicated their desire to rebuild. The motto and image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes is a metaphor for the people’s will to overcome. To this day, the seal adorns many of the buildings and lamp posts in around the city.
A motto can guide strategic decision-making.
Like a compass, mottos can guide important decisions in all aspects of the business. From brand positioning and messaging, to growing your culture and building your brand, mottos help you stay authentic. Contently’s motto “Those who tell the stories, rule the world,” drives everything they do as an organization and filters into their messaging and brand position as a whole. It’s this motto that has carried them through multiple product iterations as they evolved from a content marketplace to software company.
Final thoughts: mottos forge human bonds.
When customer-facing, a motto focuses your audience’s attention on a meaningful goal or idea – one that transcends your product and service, tying back to the philosophy that underpins your company’s brand. With one phrase you can capture the essence of your message and help your audience remember everything that your brand stands for. Harley-Davidson’s motto “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” inspires cult-like loyalty among the world’s most beloved motorcycle enthusiasts. The bond they share as a community runs very deep, across religion, race, and age, who all come together and embody the meaning of this rebel call.
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