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