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Identity Imperatives for the Information Age


Image The way a company is perceived
Identity The way a company really is
Identity Expression How a company communicates its identity

Imperative #1—Rule breaking

The business environment, in which corporate identities are being created and communicated, is undergoing unprecedented change. We must aggressively question all that we know about identity, and be prepared to break old identity rules, no matter how tried and true in the past, if we are going to develop and communicate identities in a way that is relevant and effective in the changing environment.

The only thing we know about the future, for sure, is that it will be different than today. Companies will face new types of investors, employees, customers, alliances, competitors, products, services and media. CEOs must lead their companies forward in the face of increasingly swift, massive and unpredictable changes in geopolitics, economics, technology and regulatory or deregulatory climates.

How, then, can we continue, as we have in the past, to insist that companies express their identity “in one consistent way, without change or modification, as stipulated in the corporate identity guidelines”? On the other hand, if we allow a company’s identity expression to vary, or morph, to accommodate changes in the business environment, how can we build awareness and image over time? This will require new, thoughtful and creative kinds of identity communication systems that test the familiar identity rules.

Imperative #2—Strategic ambiguity

Over the past 40 years, among Fortune 100 companies, there has been a 70% decline in corporate names based on a specific location or product (U.S. Steel) and a 450% increase in abstract corporate names (USX). This is largely because it is hard to grow big enough to be on the Fortune 100, if a company is restricted to one location or one product.

In today’s globally-competitive environment, identities must stand for something relevant if they are to hold a place in people’s minds. Identities must be expressed in a way that seems understandable and is appealing without being so specific that the company’s business opportunities are restricted.

This is called “strategic ambiguity.” For example, the company named Oracle (a person of great knowledge), that produces databases, is committed to “enabling the information age.” The name and tagline give one the sense of Oracle’s reason-for-being, in a way that is suitable for its existing business, yet that doesn’t restrict its ability to grow and change.

Imperative #3—Visibility and audibility

Unseen is unsold. Most people assume, if they have never seen a company, nor heard of it, that it must not matter. People are most enthusiastic about the companies they understand best, and they can not understand a company they have never seen or heard.

It is not enough to create compelling identity expressions. We must find new ways to assure that a company’s identity expressions are encountered by key audiences. Identity expressions must still be designed to work on stationery, signage and vehicles, but new media provide opportunities to gain visibility and to imbue identity expressions with additional elements of visibility and audibility, such as dimension, movement and sound.

Imperative #4—Integrated media

The U.S. television audience can no longer “be delivered,” as in the past, by three major television networks. Today, the U.S. market is watching over 50 (soon to be 500) television channels, and eventually we will have television programming on demand. Companies must create “virtual” mass audiences by developing identity systems that integrate the visibility and audibility of traditional and new media.

In our overly communicated environment, people have developed ways to screen out messages. They can choose to not see or hear a TV commercial by surfing channels or by leaving the room. They can choose to not pay attention to a TV commercial by talking or reading. And, even if they saw and heard a TV commercial, they can choose to not remember it. Integrated media can help penetrate these barriers.

There is evidence suggesting that people who receive the same message five times in the same medium are less influenced than people who receive similar messages in five different mediums. For instance, one is less likely to be influenced by seeing the same ad five times in the same newspaper than if one sees a newspaper ad, a Web banner, a company truck and hears a radio commercial and a word-of-mouth endorsement. The cross-referenced messages seem to validate each other, resulting in greater overall impact and persuasiveness.

To be effective in integrated media, identity expressions must be designed to work in traditional and new media. Integrated media does not require that all identity expressions look or sound exactly alike, but all identity expressions should be driven by the same strategy, and each identity expression should resonate with its audience and maximize the potential of its medium.

Imperative #5—Identity arsenals

Companies are proliferating themselves. To get closer to customers and to increase their relevance, companies are dividing into multiple entities focused on target markets. To extend their competitive capabilities, companies are creating joint ventures, strategic alliances, international partnerships, technical consortiums, wholly or partially-owned subsidiaries and spin-offs.

Logos aren’t enough. New identity systems must have an arsenal of graphic and policy tools for appropriately communicating the company’s involvement in these initiatives, without diluting, distorting or losing control of its image. Such tools must also anticipate the identity needs of the partners involved. This requires serious thinking and creative innovation.

Additionally, the new forms of media, which technology is creating, such as e-mail, faxes, interactive audio/video and Web banners, make different demands on identity expressions. Different demands require different expressions. New media is digital, flexible, non-linear, random accessed, interactive, audible, animated, deep and rich. Today, companies need a range of identity expressions to convey a range of qualities and to come alive with the power of new media.

Imperative #6—Entertainment values

We are in an “entertainment era.” This is a time in which the themes and production values of movies, television, music and sports are permeating business, marketing, the economy, culture, education, religion and politics. The best communicators are not on Madison Avenue. They are in Hollywood. We willingly pay to see their stories.

“Larry King Live” has become the critical forum for national political campaigns. Jay Leno’s jokes are carefully analyzed to seek clues to changes in the nation’s mindset. Country music is recognized as another key indicator of mainstream opinion. Coca-Cola® switched from an advertising agency to a theatrical agency to develop its advertising. Microsoft® has acquired 11.5% of Comcast, the nation’s fourth largest cable TV company. The Secretary of Defense was recently asked, by a member of the press, if our attack on Sudan was a Wag the Dog strategy. Entertainment has replaced defense as the driving force for new technology.

Why is all this happening? Because people are drawn to entertainment media that has been created to attract them, hook them, stimulate them and reward them. Our institutions are learning that it is no longer enough to simply communicate. Educational institutions, religions, political parties and businesses must compete for their audiences against powerfully appealing competitors. Annual reports must compete with People magazine. TV commercials must compete with HBO’s uninterrupted Saturday night movie.

The communication of identity in this arena presents new challenges. Identities must have relevance to the audience. They must be less rigid, singular and structured and more interesting and thematic, with variations in imagery and qualities conveyed. Look at the wonderful ways that MTV keeps its identity fresh and appealing. Entertain them and they will respond.

Imperative #7—Sympathy

Think about the people you know who are overwhelmed, overloaded, multitasking and buried under e-mail, direct mail, voice mail, newspapers, magazines, memos and meetings. People are having to “grab” information, assimilate “factoids” and “sound-bites,” “surf” media, “scan” messages and “scroll” text or “drill down” in hypertext. These are new ways of getting, and delivering, information. Work with them, not against them.

Have some sympathy in your identity communications. Explore ways to creatively help people deal with identity expressions and messages in the context of the world they live in.

Imperative #8—Leadership

There are three reasons, related to corporate identity, that Winston Churchill was such a compelling leader. First, he was born with a speech impediment, so he had to work hard to develop his voice, with the result that he developed a more powerful voice than those of us who have never worked at it. Second, he wrote all his own speeches, and there are preserved examples showing the pains he took to get just the right phrase. Third, he had certain things he believed in, and those things didn’t change throughout his lifetime.

As a result, when Churchill spoke, you had a man with a powerful voice, speaking in his own words, about things he truly believed in. This was a powerful identity.

By comparison today, our politicians hire researchers to find out what people want to hear, have speeches written for them, with hot buttons for different audiences, and deliver their speeches with so little credibility, we wonder, “who are these guys?,” “what do they stand for other than getting elected?”

It is disconcerting to see identity professionals leading corporate CEOs down a similar path, saying their identity must be responsive to huge research projects exploring key audience attitudes, needs and perceptions and future trends. It is as though these corporations, like today’s politicians, are running around saying “Who do you want us to be? We’ll be whatever you want; just tell us what we should be.”

If all the companies in an industry poll the same audiences, they will get the same answers and come to the same conclusions, resulting in responsive but boringly similar and unmotivating identities and messages. This is called “the iron law of emulation” which states that companies that compete with each other become more and more like each other (i.e., United and American, Hertz and Avis, Exxon and Shell, AT&T and Sprint, Compaq and Dell).

The role of identity, in this new era, is to find core beliefs that are powerfully motivating and differentiating, and to convey this character with clarity and conviction. The real power of identity comes from within. It comes from being and doing what you believe in. It does not come from being what others want you to be.

We should help leaders to lead, to develop a vision, and to inspire others to pursue that vision, to invest in that vision and to buy that vision. Certainly, companies can’t alienate their key audiences and ignore future trends, but their key audiences don’t have the perspective and the responsiblity that the leadership of a company has. Through identity expression and communication, companies must make their vision clear and appealing to key audiences. It must be based on things the leadership believes in, and it must be delivered—as did Winston Churchill—in a powerful voice and in their own words.

Rule breakingIdentity arsenals
Strategic ambiguityEntertainment values
Visibility & audibilitySympathy
Integrated mediaLeadership

These identity imperatives are meant to remind us that the world is changing, and the way we think about developing identities and communicating them also must change. There is an opportunity now for a quantum leap in the art and science of corporate identity. Those who are prepared to observe carefully, to think deeply and to innovate creatively, will have stimulating and satisfying professional relationships and careers.

Originally published in Communication Arts December Advertising Annual 1998.

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