What Corporate Identity Isn’t

by | Jul 6, 2005 | Marketing

Misconceptions about the purpose of a corporate identity system often cause companies to limp along with a sub-standard business image. Find out how you can avoid these common mistakes in your own organization.

(Update: Many thanks to Antonio Mariscal, who took the time to translate a Spanish version of this post.)

1. Corporate Identity Isn’t a Selling Point

This is probably the biggest mistake that new companies make when trying to develop their corporate identity. The purpose of your identity is—perhaps surprisingly—not to convince people to buy your product. There are other tools (e.g., text content, your staff, and the product itself) that actually perform that task.

Instead, its primary role is to serve as an anchor that helps to lock the overall message created by those other tools into your customers’ minds. Think of it as a shortcut, a mnemonic to help your client remember the cumulative effect of your other sales and marketing efforts.

Starbucks is a fine example of an identity done right. The name and logo are essentially meaningless in themselves, but they are punchy and memorable enough that they can effectively represent “the Starbucks experience”—which actually comprises more tangible things such as the decor, the employees, the coffee, etc.—in an abbreviated form.

If they had fallen into the trap of trying to actually sell coffee with their identity, they probably would have come up with a name like “Superior Coffee” and some kind of generic swirly logo—and it would never have become the success that it is today.

A rose named “premium red flower” doesn’t smell nearly as sweet.

Freeing your identity from the burden of trying to sell your product allows you to develop one that excels at its true job, which is to instantly evoke the experience of interacting with your organization.

2. Corporate Identity Isn’t Critical

I say this not to dissuade you from investing in your identity, but rather to prevent you from thinking that you can succeed simply by following the lead of big brands, because those big brands often thrive not because of their identities, but despite them.

IBM is a terrible name for a business, for example. It doesn’t give a strong anchor for their overall brand experience. It’s just alphabet soup. They’ve managed to thrive over the years, however, because their products, people, and marketing efforts have compensated for that weakness.

It would be a mistake to attribute their success to their name, particularly if you then try to become “the next IBM” by giving your company an equally dull name.

Instead, work on developing an identity that is declarative, vivid, and memorable. Be fresh—don’t worry about emulating others, because the whole point of your identity is to make you stand out.

3. Corporate Identity Isn’t Comfortable

If you’re sitting around the conference room table with a logo sketch on the whiteboard, and all the major stakeholders are nodding and smiling, then you’ve almost certainly got a dud on your hands.

Committees are great at developing identities that are generally pleasant, but you can’t be generally pleasant and remarkable at the same time. A great brand is evocative, passionate, and impressive—and it’s a rare committee that can come up with anything that can be described
with those words.

Trying to find an identity that “we like” is a fundamental error made by business decisionmakers. It actually doesn’t matter much if you like it, even if you’re the owner of the business, because your personal preferences have little to do with how your customers will respond to it.

(In fact, because you’re probably in a position involving a fair amount of risk and stress, the names that appeal to you are exactly the sort of generic, comfortable, soothing names that you should probably avoid. It’s easy to name your company “Apex Shoes”—and hard to name it “Nike”)

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