Brand is an unexpected idea

Sense Perspective

Your Company’s Identity Crisis

by Lippincott

Consider these three hypothetical business communications challenges involving a company's identity. Unless carefully addressed, they clearly will send the chief communications executive right around the bend.

1. As the company's vice president of corporate communications, you receive a frantic weekend call from your CEO. A merger of your outfit and another of similar size is in the works. "Do we combine the two companies' names or think up something new?" By Monday, he wants a plan on his desk that addresses the name question, the new company's positioning and a host of related communications issues.

2. Your new CEO has just returned from a whirlwind worldwide tour of all company plants and offices. He is outraged because he's just seen a disorganized presentation of the corporation's identity. Signs are inconsistent, marketing materials are a mess and each of the seven division heads' business cards are completely different. He wants you to get right on the job—and please let him know how quickly you can pull it all together!

3. You are the director of marketing for a major airline that, over the past two years, has lost significant market share to several aggressive competitors. Current research suggests your carrier is being ignored by the business traveler. You also observed that the plane's orange and brown markings are a little dated, check-in counters seem run-down, aircraft interiors look shabby and morale is plummeting. Your CEO wants a new program put into effect ASAP—refurbished planes and check-in counters in three months and definitive results by the end of the year.

As these hypothetical, but not unrealistic, challenges suggest, managing an identity program is very different from running a business day to day, even though it affects all of the organization. Why is managing a company's identity program so challenging? Identity is the key stone for all communications; depending on the size of the program, there can be thousands of details involved.

Corporate identity is an interrelated and comprehensive network of customer perceptions and corporate management of visibility and invisible elements. Savvy managers understand that identity is a significant corporate asset.

Identity includes:

  • the image and reputation of a corporation or brand in the public mind;
  • how a company maintains its mission and position to produce a unified, positive perception now and in the future; and
  • how a company differentiates itself from competitors, including logos, packaging, letterheads and business cards.

A logical planning process will allow a company or a brand to clearly differentiate itself from the competition by projecting the appropriate attributes and providing a framework for accurately monitoring the status of the identity over a period of time. The most effective process creates a system in which future acquisitions, new products and services, promotions, advertising and facilities can be effectively integrated under one cohesive identity. A successful program increases employee pride and internal focus by emphasizing the company's personality and culture.

Media guidelines allow for consistent, positive presentation. The proper management of standards can create economies of time and money by simplifying the decision-making process. The results should be a sizable impact on advertising and promotion budgets, with greater bang for the buck. IBM, for instance—a company that produces more than 15,000 different pieces of sales promotional literature annually—addressed this issue by putting all their design standards, system templates and an interactive user's guide for its entire identity system on a CD-ROM and distributed it globally.

Making change

What should a company consider before changing its identity? Obviously, there must be sound business reasons for considering any modifications to the existing identity. The following procedures may help avoid monumental mistakes.

1. Compare the present identity and company name with the company's actual line of business. Do they adequately convey the range of products and services offered? Are they unique; do they indicate a specific focus or a diffuse, vague one? Determine the needs and expectations of the multiple audiences to which the business appeals. McGraw-Hill revamped its identity program a few years ago because it was not effectively communicating its position as a leading, technologically sophisticated information enterprise serving global markets. The financial community, a critical audience, looked upon the company as a domestic, print publisher, with weak investment appeal.

2. Interview representatives of each major audience and speak with the people the organization deals with, including customers, stockholders, bankers, employees. How does each group view the business? Conduct surveys to secure an understanding of the firm's general public image. How do customers, employees and financial analysts perceive the organization? What about the financial analysts? What impressions or reactions does the present name or identity evoke?

3. Investigate the business's operating goals and the image attributes the company wants to express in its name and identity. This can be a difficult task because there are as many divergent views on the subject as there are people involved in the project. When Primerica acquired the Travelers Corp. in 1993, it decided to reposition itself using both the Travelers name and the Travelers symbol—the widely recognized umbrella. Primerica renamed itself the Travelers Group, deciding that, going forward, the attributes associated with the Travelers name and recognition of their corporate icon would benefit the parent company and its other businesses.

Before changing a name and identity, it is essential for companies to gain an overview of their future. Is the company expanding? Is it planning to sell off a subsidiary? Is it aiming for a more targeted or expansive audience? Analyze the business mix and management style. Is the company highly centralized, or do subsidiaries run their own shows? Is it a one-product or a multiproduct business? Is it selling products or services, or both? Study the relationships of the parts of the company and how they communicate to different audiences. What qualities, what desired character, does the company want to project? What is the business becoming and in what direction is it headed?

4. Compare external views of the company with the interview findings from internal sources. A sharp disparity between the two bodies of evidence signals trouble. If management has high regard for a particular business segment, but customer attitudes are negative, the firm's communications strategy should be explored. A similar problem arises when a strong external image—among customers, for instance—conflicts with a weak internal image, the company's recognition of inherent weaknesses or surfacing problems.

A few years back, Continental Airlines redesigned its identity to present an image of a world-class airline. It did so, however, only after research confirmed that employees, customers and travel agents all believed that Continental was changing for the better, but was not yet world-class. Comparing external vs. internal perception about an organization not only can highlight what vulnerabilities or opportunities exist for it, but also lay the groundwork for a communications strategy that clearly parallels business strategy.

5. Examine the relationship between management or the owners of the business and employees. Is morale sagging even though management believes that employees are proud to be a part of the organization? Is high productivity masking an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with upper-level policy-making? Employees may benefit from a name that they are valuable contributors to the whole rather than mere ciphers. In some cases, employee identification with a corporate symbol can support the overall projection of the company's identity. For example, Humana, one of the nation's largest providers of managed healthcare plans, repositioned itself and adopted a new symbol with an expressive winged figure, conveying a “human-ness” with which employees and customers can readily identify.

How do you decide if it's time to change a corporate, brand or retail identity? Mergers, acquisitions, a change in business focus, aggressive competition, growth, or poor maintenance of the current identity, are all reasons. Generally, there are a number of checkpoints to measure the effectiveness of your current identity. A good example from the retail sector is the Red Lobster chain of restaurants, which originally featured a rather plain generic presentation. At age 25, Red Lobster needed to revitalize its role as a “seafood specialist,” and adopted a thematic approach to dining as the center of its new positioning. So successful was the undertaking that customers entering a newly designed Red Lobster soon felt as if they were dining pierside, even though the nearest coastline was a thousand miles away.

There are other issues to be considered:

  • Does the current personality accurately and favorably represent the true nature and scope of the corporation, brand or retail entity—now and for the immediate future?
  • Is it distinctive enough to make an impact on audiences? Is the identity memorable?
  • Are the visual characteristics clearly separate and unique from competition in a positive way? Are they modern and memorable or are they a bit dated or poorly maintained?
  • Does the identity fit well with division or brand names so that all elements support one another? If the current effect is haphazard and fragmented, then you're not getting the maximum benefit from your identity.

Conduct the simple exercise: Collect a cross-section of business cards from every department, division and subsidiary. If the overall presentation is fragmented, it is usually a tell-tale sign that serious communication problems exist. If the business cards don't represent a clear message, then it's a safe bet that all other forms of communication lack cohesiveness.

Companies embark on a major identity program roughly once every 20 years or so. When analyzed strategically, the long-tern benefit of projecting an accurate identity far outweighs short-term costs. That said, costs for identity firms are determined by several factors:

  • The complexity of the task. The identity for a small regional bank will be easier to determine that of a global financial institution.
  • The number of people needed to participate in the assignment.
  • The amount of time to solve the problem and implement the solution. A small regional bank program may involve three or four people over four to six months. But a project for a multinational company with a broad mix of products and services may involve five to seven people over at least 12 months. Depending on the complexity, budgets can range from as little as $75,000 to $1 million and more.

Who's in charge?

Most CEOs today understand the importance of corporate identity as a valuable business asset. Since it is central to any company's communications, identity management is the responsibility of the chief communications officer. For larger companies, specialists (managers of corporate or brand identity) help ensure a successful effort. Their responsibility is to establish identity policy, maintain standards, set priorities, look for opportunities for enhancement, coordinate the details and act as champions for the program. Those with the responsibility of managing a company's identity must be very likable, great communicators and at ease with the officers of the company and the workforce. They must also be excellent sales people, discreet, diplomatic and tactful. Most important, they must have the confidence and full backing of the CEO.

People who manage corporate identity come from various fields. They must have excellent communication skills and be able to convince marketers, managers, and all levels of employees of the communication and economic benefits of identity. A good communications background combined with a strong understanding of design is mandatory. Training can be formal or informal: a marketing and communications program at the college level or the school of hard knocks—a few years with a major corporation or with a top identity consultant. Identity management is essentially integrating thousands of details so that the end result appears as one perfectly synchronized and memorable expression.

If your company embarks on an identity program, how do you evaluate identity firms so that you can select the most appropriate expert help? Look for firms that have a strong portfolio of case histories with demonstrated results. How did the consultant contribute to the betterment of its clients' business? Are communications improved? Have clients gained customers? Is Wall Street following them more closely? If their projects are retail- and brand-related, are more products and services being sold? Is the public perception of the company consistent with the image the identity consultant wanted to project? Again, we can look to Continental Airlines as a good example. Several months after Continental re-energized its identity, service improved markedly throughout the airline's entire organization. It improved so much that J.D. Powers rated Continental one of the top companies in customer responsiveness and on-time arrival two years' running. That kind of documented result is a good indication of good advice and great execution.

When evaluating an identity firm, look to its people. The project managers and designers should have solid experience, with demonstrable problem-solving skills and design capabilities. Are they responsive? Did they get out to meet with you quickly and supply a proposal in a timely fashion? Are they quick studies? Do they grasp your problems? Do past clients give them high marks for their availability, promptness and creativity? Do they anticipate your needs? Many firms fail at one or more of these points.

Consider a firm's international capability. An identity project may need an integrated approach. If the assignment is complex, the challenge may require research, customer franchise management, or growth initiatives worldwide. Moreover, if the project is an international assignment, it may require a global network to facilitate the management and service aspects.

The case of Samsung illustrates this. This huge Korean company underwent radical change to position itself as a global player. At the time of its transformation, its presentation was that of a parochial Korean firm. As part of its new identity, the Samsung name was presented in English, while descriptions of particular product lines, businesses or services appeared in appropriate local languages. Only a consultant with international capabilities could help Samsung accomplish this transformation to become a major global brand.

Today, a majority of the work for identity consultants demands that they maintain a global presence. Consultants with multifaceted international capabilities are able to market themselves to a much broader spectrum of clients.

So, managing identity programs is not for the faint of heart. The details are monumental, and the risks and rewards can be great. But managers who do their homework and choose an effective consulting firm to provide consistent support throughout the lifecycle of an identity management program will find their work a lot easier and a lot more rewarding. And when they get that weekend call from the CEO about the impending merger, they'll know exactly what to do.

Reprinted from: Management Review, October 1997.