The Corporate Self

Jennifer Rice has sparked off a good discussion with her post The Corporate Self.

Over the past several years I’ve gotten uncomfortable with the word ‘brand.’ Branding has traditionally been associated with marketing communications: the logo, tag line, visuals and tone of voice. I’ve been fighting a losing battle in my attempt to broaden the definition of brand to include operations. Talk to a CEO about his brand and he immediately says “oh, that’s a marketing decision.” Yet if a company’s actions don’t match its words, the brand is simply a facade that customers so clearly see through.

So this morning I was surfing through the thesaurus in search of an alternate word without so much baggage. It was pretty enlightening. Compare the associations with the following two words:

Brand: Classification, badge, identification, signature, symbol, emblem, stamp, label

Self: Being, essence, personality, substance, texture, distinctiveness, singularity, essential nature

Brand is associated with external ‘label’ words, whereas self digs deeper into essence. And essence is the true heart of a brand. Self — used as a modifier — also has many other meanings: self-important, self-confident, self-respect, self-control, self-centered, selfish. It’s a great reminder that brand (self) can have positive or negative connotations, and that self-perception may be completely different from how others perceive you.

“What is your corporate self?” What a provocative question. It circumvents every pat, rote answer that’s been spewed out to customers, employees and investors about the brand. It forces a shift in thinking from externals to essence. It also wipes out the silo mentality and departmental battles. Because the word implies one body. What is in the best interest of the hand, eye or foot is usually in the best interest of the entity. All parts work together for the good of the whole.

Judging by the comments, she’s touched a chord. For instance, Stephen Macklin:

An interesting question, “What is your corporate self?” It is one I would like to pose to senior management where I work. I would be especially interested in how they feel their recent decision to close three U.S. manufacturing facilities fits within their vision of the corporate self.

And Tom Asacker takes a good swipe at the status games that plague brand thinking – a snippet of his comment:

Take a look and see if you see the problem that the experts perpetuate:

1. Strategic Leaders: Sessions, led by gurus and C-level practitioners, are specifically geared toward high-level business leaders. Topics discussed range from building loyalty and developing breakthrough channel strategies to understanding the value profit chain and executing your growth strategy.

2. Brand Building: Positioning and maintaining your brand is at the core of marketing strategy. Hear from industry “greats” about the newest ideas in building your brand to ensure business success.

Tom’s comment reminds me of the extent to which discussions of brand are skewed towards command-and-control fantasies because that’s where the big money is for consultants. Go the C-suiite and pretend that your genius will operate the levers of their business for greater profit. They have a massive vested interested in pretending that the “brand” or organisation is a complicated machine for which they have the wiring diagram. What chance there of curiosity, exploration and surprise?

David Foster asks a pertinent question:

How do you avoid have the discussion of corporate “self” slide down into the same kind of feel-good, chest-thumping generalities that afflict most “mission statements?

Yes. I think what needs to be challenged is the Abstraction that is a brand or corporation. The Corporate Self could become just another distraction from looking at our own choices and decisions, at our own values rather than other people’s.

Part of the problem may be in this part of Tom’s contribution that I want to challenge

I’m not sure what the answer is. I like your attempt with “Self,” but I don’t believe that it will resonate with MBA’s and CFO’s. Know what I mean?

The trouble with that statement is that it may be part of the problem; it’s part of perpetuating the idea that change must come from the MBAs and CFOs. And lumps those diverse indivduals into a group, and generalising about their response (Branding them, if you will). And sometimes people can be moved by things that challenge their views rather than confirming them.

I want to suggest that brands and organisations are labels we give to shifting dances of humans that are constantly influencing each other, intentionally and unintentionally. The dancers come and go (outsourcing; headhunting; congressional hearings, depending on status). The question “who are we” as a group is interesting; but not it if becomes an excuse for NOT saying who I am and what I believe. (Which is why I like blogs…) It would be like the people joining Jennifer’s debate saying: look, here we are on Jennifer’s blog, we’re an organisation, what is our credo?

Remember that tedious precept, “There is no I in team”. Codswallop (and I can email you a brilliant anecdote that is too vulgar to blog on that point). In my experience, there’s too much loose talk about “we” in organisations where a pseudo-consensus covers some much more interesting conflct. In my life, some of the more slippery characters default to taking about “we” when they are after a favour and “they” when making excuses for not granting me one! Organisations might paradoxically flourish if there was less of the averaged out “We” and more individuals willing to show up as themselves.

This is not to deny the value of being part of group or tribe. Absoulutely not. What I question is the amount of abstraction and rule-making about this “We” as if it is a fixed group, which tends to obscure the more fluid, emerging story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.