Branding and Organizational Identity

Branding and organizational identity refer to a process through which a pattern or a structure is ascribed to a group of individuals and recognized  as  unique,  autonomous, and  relatively stable in space and time. There are two components  to  this:  the  organizational identity, which  is  a  concern  with  what and  who the organization is, and branding, which is primarily  concerned  with  how  the  organization is represented  to  key stakeholders. In  part, the development of the body of work relating to branding  and  organizational identity  can  be summarized as the story of how writers and practitioners have sought to clarify the relationship  between these components and increasingly of late to see how branding and identity can be treated holistically through multidisciplinary perspectives.

Organizational  identity   is   conventionally concerned with how an organization’s members conceptualize who ‘‘we’’ are and  what ‘‘we’’ stand for. A relatively recent field of study, it is largely informed by social identity  theory, examining how identity is formed through social interaction and how individuals identify with  the  organization. Within  the  literature, organizational identity is often contrasted with corporate identity, the latter being a concern with how the organization expresses itself, or brands itself. Issues of branding and organizational identity have traditionally straddled the business disciplines and have received increasing attention since World War II. Scholars in strategy,  organizational  studies,   accounting, and marketing have adopted approaches to the subject that  reflect the  primary interests and motivations of their respective disciplines. This is evidenced with the myriad of differing terms through which to explore branding and organizational identity.  Thus,  we see contributions on corporate image, corporate reputation, corporate   branding,   corporate   communication, corporate personality, and  corporate identity.

Each of these terms draws from a particular intellectual and cultural background and pro vides a distinct focus on the subject. The term of preference is largely at the whim of fashion, each term’s popularity ebbing and flowing as preferences change.

Each perspective usually privileges certain aspects of branding and organizational identity, whether it be examining who the organization is and what the organization stands for, or how, what, and to whom the organization communicates. For  example, strategists employ the term organizational identity to refer to a concern with an organization’s competitive position  and  reputation  within  the  marketplace.

This  provokes a perspective that incorporates representations of the internal and external environment, with a focus upon what the organization is and how it is presently positioned and how it would ideally be positioned. The audience for the output of this examination is primarily internal  (e.g., managers within  the organization). These themes are developed with a marketing perspective that is often focused on the interconnections between image and product propositions, stretching this idea to emphasize the need for coherence in the image between  the   producer   and   the   produced.

Accordingly, strategic marketers have offered a view of organizational identity that is seen as both an analytical tool for examining strategic positioning within the environment, while also being a means of defining parameters of the organization and establishing distinctiveness within a competitive marketplace. This is often complemented by marketing communication that is concerned with the manner through which the  organization communicates to  the external stakeholders and the content and design of that message. In contrast, accountants have  sought  to  measure  the  financial value accrued through the organization’s identity by examining the strength  of the identity across key stakeholders, appreciating the  distinctive qualities of that identity within a given context, and using this information to attach a financial value to the organization’s brand – more commonly referred to as brand equity. The significance of a financial value being attached to the strength of brand identity has encouraged many organizations to strengthen their image and to move away from  representing  themselves as simply  ‘‘producers’’ to  organizations with  a sense of ‘‘being’’ or personality. Thus, accountants  are  primarily concerned with  how the organization is presented to an external audience and how that presentation is perceived.

These  externally focused perspectives have often received the label corporate identity, while studies that looked inward at the way in which identity was formed have employed the term organizational identity. This latter term is often the preferred expression for scholars in organizational studies, who explore perspectives on organizational structure, and examine the inter action between culture, the self, identity, and image within an organization. Within organizational studies, organizational identity is a field of study that  traces its origins to Albert and Whetton’s (1985) influential article on the organization’s central character, distinctiveness, and temporal  continuity  aspects.  This   approach argues that an organization may possess multiple personalities and that these may be at both the individual level and the level of the organization. Of particular interest  is the  temporal and evolving nature of identity, with issues of identity having particular congruence at particular stages of the organization’s development. Albert and Whetton’s ideas have been subject to critique for their proposition that an organization’s identity is enduring. Writers in the last decade have sought to question how enduring an organization’s identity is, viewing organizational identity as dynamic and suggesting that identity is increasingly fluid and transient to enable it to respond to environmental change.

The  central role of communication in  the processes of identity formation is also relevant to this discussion. Burke’s (1966) ‘‘rhetoric of identification’’ links identity with issues of per suasion  and  processes  of  organizing.  Burke argues that identification is a necessity due to the estrangement experienced by the individual through the division of labor. The  individual responds to the division by acting to identify with others, seeking personal meaning through corporate identities. These  identities may be manifested through labels and names, enhancing the self through status and prestige. For example, by identifying with a particular group within an organization, any praise directed at the unit is also directly or indirectly praise for the individual. While Burke’s identification is usually associated with  the  individual act  of identifying, the organization can provide assistance in  this  process through  symbolic processes  that   associate  and   disassociate  the individual with specified groups. Within organization communications the use of ‘‘we’’ and ‘‘they’’ is important to induce cooperation. The managers within an organization may seek to encourage the  individual employee that  they and the organization are like them, that  they share similar values and  beliefs, or  that  the individual shares  with  the  manager and  the organization a common enemy against which the parties should unite.

However, these differing perspectives to the body of thought  have highlighted the  multi faceted nature of branding within the organizational context. In the process they have offered new ways of conceptualizing organizations, with a particular focus on the  presentation of the identity within and of the organization. Increasingly, the differing perspectives from organizational  studies,  marketing,  accountancy,  and human resource management are being drawn together. The  outwards directed communications and identity presentation has been supplemented  with  identity  formation and  internal communications to  employees,  shareholders, suppliers, and distributors. The  idea of what constitutes the corporate image has also broadened. The  corporate brand has moved away from  a  monologue through  advertising  and press releases, to  an interactive ‘‘experience’’ (Schmitt   1999).  Increasingly,  organizational branding is seen as a means for the specialist functions of an organization (e.g., marketing, accounting, and human resource management) to work together in support of a cohesive entity. Issues of distinctiveness encompass not merely the differentiation from other organizations, but also the ability of the organization to demonstrate who they are and what they stand for. This  is epitomized by Schultz  et  al. (2000), who bring together the differing perspectives to suggest that a holistic approach to organizational branding is necessary.

This extension of branding to organizations has been driven by a number of factors, most notably deregulation of industries, mergers, acquisitions, and the internationalization of business. The growth of the service sector and the development of electronic exchanges have required organizations to rely increasingly upon the  development of familiar visual cues and symbols to attract and reassure the customers in the absence of more tangible evidence. With the renewal of debates surrounding corporate social responsibility in the 1990s, the need for an organization to demonstrate what it stands for has seen a focus upon activities that enhance the  organization’s reputation  and  realize  its responsibility as  a  ‘‘corporate citizen.’’ In  a period  of  shortened  product  life  cycles and difficulty in  recruiting  and  retaining  quality staff, a strong corporate identity can provide a degree of protection from competitors. In the building of an identity, particular attention is paid  to  the  structures,  actions,  communications,  products,  and  services associated with the organization.

Perhaps significantly, the push to develop a coherent identity for the organization coexists with the problematization of the boundaries of the organization. The processes within a value chain  are  often  spread  across organizations, requiring the cooperation of a number of organizations in the fulfillment of the desired out come.  Strategic  alliances,  secondment,   the outsourcing of supply, and subcontracting of production thus provide examples of where divisions between organizations become blurred. The distinction between the customer and selling  organization is  also problematized.  The means by which organizations communicate is transforming this relationship as digital media enable an increasing number of communication channels and promote an approach to relations that emphasizes the need for interactivity.

Due   to  the  relative  youth  of  the  area, researchers  approach  organizational  identity through   a  multitude   of  differing  perspectives and  there  has been a concentration on conceptual issues rather  than  methodological approaches. Methods used to research organizational identity  and  branding  include functionalist   approaches  which   view  corporate identity as a social fact. This is exemplified by market research attitude surveys, and psycho metric tests that seek to establish the feelings and perceptions of individuals (e.g., customers and other key external stakeholders to the brand) are frequently used tools. In contrast, more  interpretive  perspectives are  beginning to draw linkages between identity, image, and culture,  examining how  symbols, rites,  and infrastructure are used to construct meaning. Such approaches have also problematized the identity   of   the   stakeholders  and   defining whether stakeholders are external or  internal to the organization. A more relational approach is being adopted that seeks to undertake a more longitudinal perspective on how an individual relates to the organization. Discourse analysis offers  a  particularly  intriguing  method  for exploring how myths and stories help to formulate  the  organization’s identity.  Such  an approach also exposes the probability of there being a number of storytelling narratives that are not necessarily coherent and quite likely to be  contradictory.  The  manner  in  which the employee is constructed within such narratives and how the employee seeks to live up to the story being told becomes an area of interest. This  moves us  into  the  way in  which  the employee uses branding to exhibit a particular form of self to the organization that is enterprising  and  simulates  the  values  expressed through  the  organization. With  the  convergence  of  perspectives and  the  emphasis  on developing a multidisciplinary perspective on organizational identity and branding, a number of  research  tools  that   seek  to   fulfill  this approach  are  being  promoted.  Of  particular recent managerial interest is the AC2ID  Test developed by Balmer and Greyser (2002). The authors are seeking to develop a holistic perspective on organizational identity and branding, drawing from functionalist and interpretive perspectives. Rather than assume a monolithic organizational identity,  Balmer  and  Greyser propose  that   any  organization  comprises  a number  of identities and  these identities are pertinent  to different groups both within and beyond the organization. The AC2ID Test pro vides a framework within which these identities can be explored, the aim being to manage these identities and to ensure alignment.

Over   the   last  decade,  the   sociopolitical aspects of branding and organizational identity have been explored and work in this area has enjoyed a broad audience. Popular texts have employed the ideas of branding and organizational identity to illuminate broader social problems. Texts such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2000), Douglas Coupland’s MicroSerfs (1995), and   Morgan   Spurlock’s  documentary   film Supersize Me (2004) have made significant contributions  to  the  debate.  These,  and  similar texts, position branding and organizational identity  as  an  integral  aspect  of  what  could  be referred to as marketing culture.  This  is the acknowledgment that the consumer sign based structure of society is incorporated within the discourse of civil society and is integral to the structuring of social relations. The  distinction between consumption and production is blunted as the act of working itself becomes an act of consumption, employment becoming an integral part of identity formation. Who you work for and the way in which you work are increasingly as important as the clothes worn, places seen, and the labels displayed in the presentation of the self. With the convergence of the shopper and the worker, the debates on organizational identity and branding are central to discussions of the construction of the individual within con temporary society.


  1. Albert,  &  Whetton,  D.  (1985) Organizational Identity. Research  in Organizational Behaviour 7: 263 95.
  2. Balmer, M. T. & Greyser, S. A. (2002) Managing the Multiple Identities of the Corporation. Cali fornia Management Review 44(3): 72 86.
  3. Balmer, M. T. & Greyser, S. A. (2003) Revealing the Corporation: Perspectives on Identity, Image, Reputation and  Corporate Branding. Routledge, New York.
  4. Burke,  (1966) Language and  Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  5. Coupland, (1995) Microserfs. Flamingo, London. Klein, N. (2000) No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Flamingo, London.
  6. Schmitt, (1999) Experiential Marketing: How to Get Customers to Sense, Feel, Think, Act, and Relate to Your Company and Brands. Free  Press, New York.
  7. Schultz, , Hatch, M. J., & Larsen, M. H. (2000) The Expressive Organization:  Linking  Identity, Reputation, and the Corporate Brand. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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