It’s usually important that the senior managers of a business think hard about the purpose of the business, and its values, and they need some ready means of keeping these things in mind. It’s usually helpful too if all staff have some sense of this corporate purpose, and their roles in bringing it to reality. But normal practice goes much further, aspiring to create a machine-like uniformity in the culture of the organisation, an aspiration to ensure that it is “on brand” (as determined by the mission and values) in every possible way.

There are many problems with this aspiration, not least that it’s as unnecessary as it is unrealistic. Large organisations will have many cultures, and their interaction is likely to be an important part of what makes that organisation work. There may be aspects of those cultures that could be usefully changed, but these things need to be individually and thoughtfully addressed: throwing the usual vacuous brand vision/mission/values at them is very unlikely to make a difference, and more likely to be counter-productive.

A widespread problem is that the notion of brand identity is all too easily a fiction, an act of wishful thinking by the management. It’s particularly ironic because brand people tend to talk earnestly about brand essence, when they are rarely dealing with anything remotely essential. Brand positioning is too often driven by some kind of market insight, reflecting how managers want the business to be perceived by its customers, rather than anything very real about what makes the business work. This is almost certainly why brand visions are rarely visionary, and the missions and values which are supposed to make the organisation distinctive do the opposite (they are all much the same, full of vapid aspiration rather than anything rooted or even meant).

Conceived this way brand becomes little more than another communication campaign (while unhelpfully pretending to be something deeper), a core slogan to be thrown at the market, accompanied by the dangerous demand that your employees make it real by learning to “live the brand”.

Generally, being human we will struggle to relate to an abstraction such as a business or organisation, and so look for some version of personality in that organisation with which we can have something like a normal social interaction, and which will seem meaningful. Ideas (which are all that get offered by the “messages” crafted by professional communicators) can help express personality over time, but only if they have a deep consistency, reflecting a real identity. Brand people in contrast seem to think that you can replicate this deep consistency through superficial uniformity. But if uniformity is all you have, fictional identities will be undermined because the organisation will almost certainly go “off brand” in the other things it needs to say about itself.

A belief-driven business will have a real version of personality, a real consistency, a projection of the individuals actually engaged in that enterprise.

On some level brand people understand this. It’s why they talk about getting employees to live the brand. But a brand-driven concept of employee communication will defeat the underlying purpose: by pushing an overweening (and usually false) notion of brand personality you negate the possibility of any real personality coming through, and with it lose the possibility of personal engagement or involvement (we are being asked as employees to put our personalities aside, but our real personalities are important both to ourselves and the enterprise, because only real personalities at any level are sustainably engaging).

Corporate identity and brand identity exist in different spaces, and we have different purposes in thinking about each of them. With brand we’re trying to understand what it is about a product that makes people buy it. That may or may not include corporate elements over and above the product’s features and performance, and it’s in those elements that corporate and brand identity meet. But think of this as a Venn diagram: there’s an area of overlap, but it’s not even a particularly large one. 

Corporate identity on the other hand is what the organisation is. Understanding it demands insight into the cultural elements that make the organisation work, including elements likely to attract prospective employees. Corporate identity might well contribute to your products’ attractiveness (particularly through the activities often grouped together as Corporate Social Responsibility) but it is necessarily bigger and more complex than brand.

Forcing brand thinking on corporate identity deforms that identity, damaging its ability to function in ways that it really needs to function. In particular, by pushing for brand uniformity, we’re still thinking in machine rather than human terms.

Purpose and diversity

It is probably, self-evidently helpful if employees understand whatever the core purpose of the organisation might be and are helped to work in a way that supports that purpose. I’ve seen this ambition described as ensuring they are all facing in the same direction, but even this much is a misconception. Most jobs (at least 80 per cent of them) are not mechanical and simple, but are collaborative, involve problem solving and interaction. Value is created not in some core of the enterprise, but in these interactions with people outside the enterprise. The directional metaphor is seriously unhelpful in this reality: we need people to move in circles, to go down different avenues and explore new possibilities and open up new ways of getting to that acknowledged corporate goal.

But the babble routinely talked about brand, about mission and values, and what have you, can only suppress this movement (it is designed to do so), or at least create a pressure that interferes with our own intuitions about what we could and should be doing. We need better ways of influencing people to work in support of the corporate purpose (which probably means we need better ways of understanding corporate purpose).

And yet huge amounts of effort (and quite a lot of money) are expended in pursuit of these dubious goals. It’s as if we’ve switched off our normal critical faculties, the ways in which we normally attend to the world and the people around us.

And perhaps that’s more or less what’s happened. We’ve switched off our broader critical faculties in order to attend to a narrower, more analytic idea of what people do, how they work in groups, how they are influenced. This is characteristic of our left brain view of the world, arguably part of the Zeitgeist, a retreat in the face of the complex and difficult. But it’s a retreat to a fantasy world, and we need to get out more. We need to start using the whole of our brain, to make room for intuition as well as pseudo-scientific measurement, and accept that this isn’t a soft option, but one less likely to waste our time and money, or worse be counter-productive.

We need better ways of thinking about identity, better tools for handling it. If we want to work with intuitive levels of meaning, we need tools or ideas that can solicit and develop intuitive apprehensions of meaning, rather than the blunt instruments of the standard brand toolkit. These ideas will help with external communication, and they are indispensable for internal communication.

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