Doctrine of a corporation as a legal person, separate and distinct from the personality of the members who compose it, has been defined and propagated by lawyers and judges. Unless it is a dummy, a corporation would have an organisation comprising of people. How would one describe an organization? One way could be through anthropomorphizing the organizations.
Usually one single word captures the personality of an organization – such as – overbearing or happy or joyful, and so on. This one word description is a collective for the “behavioural” aspects and “personality traits” of the organisation. Does the organisation have fair policies or unfair practices – perhaps an espoused technical superiority of products that is mostly based on copy-paste practices with little advancement led from research effort and innovation?
“Who are you and why should we care?” Since the 1950s, companies have turned to externally focused branding methods to answer such questions that consumers ask from them about their businesses. Today, companies face increasingly hyper-connected customers in sceptical marketplace where they want to know the substance beyond the sizzle of advertising. For branding to remain the economic engine it has been over the past 70 years, there has to be an acceptance of the fact that transparency is the new mantra of communications. This amplifies the importance of a strategic approach that engages every corner of the organization — the whole system — in ensuring the walk and talk are aligned.
Where a corporation is signified, corporate brand is the signifier. Borrowing from Edgar Schein (Schein, Edgar H with Schein, Peter: Organizational Culture and Leadership, fifth Edition, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley, 2017) – if organisation is the body (Artifacts), mind (Espoused Values) and soul (Basic Underlying Assumptions) of a corporation, it is inside this organisation that the corporate brand is conceived, carried, birthed, nurtured, groomed and delivered to business arena as an economic contribution from the corporation. In this vain, organizations can be re-imagined as brand-ecosystems and that may well be the next evolution of branding. This perspective transcends the shiny veneer of the shallow and superficial efforts focused on external communications, first introduced by the men of Advertising, and takes on the responsibility of connecting the sizzle to the substance, a connection which the customers, employees and the world are seeking.
This framework of “Organisations as Brand-Ecosystems” thus defines these components of organizations that must be managed in order to build trustworthy brands as image, identity, culture and vision.
Image is the impression carried in the minds of the audience (customers, consumers and stakeholders) about the culture and the vision of the organisation. Identity is the manifestation of the culture and the vision of the organisation in its policies, products, practices, communications, conduct and response to external and internal stimuli.
Organizational culture is all of those shared norms, beliefs and values that linger in the fabric of the organization. Some of these values are embodied in the policies and procedures while others are an unintended consequence of these same policies, procedures and practices. Vision answers the questions – ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ about an organisation.
In this framework, strategy is redefined as a process of composing the cohesion of the various elements of the system: identity, image, culture and vision. Well-executed strategy produces a tight interlocking of the various elements of the ecosystem. Authenticity and trust, two crucial determinants in attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees and loyal customers, are strengthened, as the twining between the identity storyline (who the organization says it is) and the other parts of the system takes place. This virtuous brand spiral, over time, builds the most valuable asset for any organisation – its reputation – by engaging the most important resource, its people. On the other hand, organizations unable to create this alignment spin into a vicious cycle resulting in dysfunction and distrust of the organization and movement away from the vision of the leadership.
Viewing organizations as brand ecosystems acknowledges the walls that once-separate internal and external audiences have fallen down. Everything is connected, and everything communicates. From thinking of branding as a function owned solely by marketing departments or experts charged with pushing out messaging, this represents an important shift to the realisation that brands are a co-creation, dependent upon engaging all stakeholders in shaping the “meaning” that defines the brand.
When a new vision is introduced that is significantly out of alignment with the existing identity of the organization, a new narrative must be introduced to bring the system into balance and avoid any Identity-Vision Gap. When frustrations emerge among leaders because they feel members of the organization are not, or cannot, deliver on the aspirations for the company, it shows a Vision-Culture Gap. Vision-Image Gap exists when the images held by the marketplace are disconnected from the aspirations of leadership, and it becomes difficult for the organization to move to the next level. When the organization fails to deliver on the story told to its employees and the marketplace, we say the culture is out of alignment and an Image-Culture Gap has set in. Gaps in the ecosystem are symptoms of weak brands.
Organizations will find the brand ecosystem a valuable framework in producing both a brand that people trust and, over time, a reputation that builds sustainable success.