The corporate identity playbook
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
How to build a valuable strategy, brand, culture and team that all pull in the same direction.
First of all… what’s a corporate identity?
Easy to learn, hard to master. A corporate identity is the heart and soul of your organisation. The convergence of your purpose, values, strategy, culture, engagement and branding. It’s that feeling you get when you see a particular logo, or step into a particular office… that moment you know this ‘place’, ‘space’, or ‘people’ is different.
It can be hard to pin down though. Because it’s not really HR, and it’s not really marketing either. If your organisation is big enough, there might be a head of brand identity that might come close; but even then it often leaves out the crucial aspect of people.
What a corporate identity can provide an organisation is a truth; something it’s sets itself in, unshakable. Where employees own it, marketers leverage it, executive boast about it and managers lead from it. But today, more than ever, it’s a confused beast that’s deeply under threat… why? Because the infamous Gen-Y are beginning to manage, and those scary millennials are entering our workforce. Both of whom are generally digitally native, enamoured with being driven by purpose and question the status quo at every turn.
Cast a vision
In the day and age we find ourselves in, organisations I speak to are finding In a desperate attempt to ensure their strategy is valued. They cast their vision by committee and come up lukewarm nomenclature that’s crafted out of compromise and not necessarily lead from the front.
The solution is always advisable to cast the vision from the front, with a single leader or if there’s enough conviction, from the board only. The clarity that comes from a single mouthpiece with utter devotion and conviction can not only provide great direction, but it can inspire too.
Case Study – Thankyou Group Consider, if you will, the wonderful work of Dan Flynn. A very young leader and entreprene
ur thrust into the responsibility of leading a large, fast-growing and award-winning organisation. Still in his twenties, Dan is a great example of how a single vision – “giving every day Australians the chance to change the world” – can inspire not only staff but partners, customers and the media. I spent a small amount of time with the team in the very early days as four young and hungry entrepreneurs set out to change the world. But it was Dan who cast the vision, leads the idea and has stood the test of time as the front man of his organisation. Grants, it’s a little easier to cast a vision in a social enterprise than it is for an accounting firm – but the lesson remains the same. Vision needs to be cast from the front.
Anchor it all in a purpose
Want to know why some organisations are more innovative, influential and more profitable than others? It all starts with WHY.
Defining a purpose-driven organisation can be one of the most difficult things a team of leaders can try and do. It can also be the most rewarding. It’s in Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ book, Built to last, that we find successful, enduring organisations are the ones with a fundamental understanding of “why” they exist. Similarly, it’s the work of Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Advantage, that articulates the notion that organisations, at every level, need to know their purpose, a statement for their entire existence that falls somewhere shy of “to make the world a better place”.
Why? It seems awfully fluffy, doesn’t it?
Let me give you an easy example. And I’ll use the classic Kodak illustration: “If they had only adopted the digital camera, they might not have filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012.” Only, let’s pretend the imaging giant’s purpose in the late 90’s was to “push the potential of photography and imaging forward”. They may have found themselves investing in higher capacity storage cards for the early digital cameras. They may have found a niche in both tradition and digital photography as well as industrial imaging. They may have adjusted their manufacturing to suit forward-thinking technologies, like Apple and Tesla are doing today, building their own solar farms.
An enduring purpose exists outside of economic climate, and especially in a disruptive age like today, actually begs the question: “Should you not be able to trade tomorrow, what do you care about? How would you start again.” – not commercially, but emotionally – falling just shy of “to make the world a better place”. Why are some organisations more innovative, influential and more profitable than where you’re at? As Simon Sinek puts it, “Start with Why”.
Define a leadership identity
“It’s all about self-awareness” a bold and abrasively assertive Gary Vaynerchuck, internet sensation and CEO of one of America’s fastest growing client services agencies, VaynerMedia. Going all-in on your strengths and leaving those things you “suck at” behind is a big part of his narrative and should be yours too.
Your leadership identity is the combine of your core business model, leadership intent, company performance and market category. In other words: What kind of business are you? In what market to you play? How will you differentiate? And how will you perform?
Consider the golden triangle: If you’re Qantas, the worlds safest airline, everything you do is about quality service. Service of the customer, service of the plane, service of the brand. Everything. But if you’re Southwest Airlines, in the States. With a purpose of connecting as many people as possible (*note, purpose…) to what’s important to them. Then your imperative is to lead on cost. You’ve got to service your planes, they can’t fall out of the sky, but your main driver is to democratise air travel and lower the barrier of entry to as many people as possible. In order to sustainably democratise domestic flights, SouthWest Airlines would need to perform differently, outline how they’re different and ensure their competing in the right market categories to win.
Distill and clarify
With all these pieces at the ready, it can sometimes start to get a little wordy. We’ve diverged, caught a whole lot of clarity around who your business is. But it’s complex, verbose and probably full of your favourite buzz-words. Now it’s time to simplify.
There’s a template I like to use that gets you started. It’s not the sexiest statement in the world, but it’s a great icebreaker to try can get the clarity required from everyone in the room.
It goes a little like this:
<Business name> is a <core business model> in the <category> providing <target market> with <core offering> by <mission statement> through <company performance> <leadership intent>
that <purpose statement>.
For D.Why it ends up looking a little like this:
D.Why is a challenger in the management consulting industry providing directors and exectutives with a way to improve their brand and their corporate strategy by connecting objectives and a values-driven culture to a corporate identity through design thinking, storytelling and staff engagement in a way that meaningfully connects people to the organisations.
It’s a VERY long sentence. It’s clunky, and very “board room” BUT, it captures the heart of what I’m here to do. And now I can massage it into something memorable, concise and packed full of meaning.
Once you’ve nailed the clarity of your corporate identity, we need to make it relatable. This is about understanding the human element of a brand and of an organisation. Thinking about it as a personality. It has goals, it want to be known for something, it has a personality and a voice, and there’s a reason people want it around. Companies that truly understand this really crack open a fantastic culture, and a ripper brand.
Brands that a packed for of personality are hard to forget. Remember Apple’s think different campaign? Or NAB’s break up campaign. Not only were these campaign, but they introduced the brand with attitude, charisma and authenticity in a way that companies rarely do.
Case Study One of the clearest examples I can think of in a humanised corporate identity is that of Atlassian. While not favourable to all types of businesses, the software platform developer and one of Australia’s wealthiest success stories was quick to distill their corporate values into something really “real” and very memorable. 1) Open company, no bullshit. 2) Build with heart and balance. 3) Don’t #@!% the customer. 4) Play, as a team. And 5) Be the change you seek… By humanising the company’s values the values are easy to remember, and in Atlassian’s case somewhat surprising. But it allows the culture to be set by the individuals in the room and activates everyone in the business to own it, on their terms.
Whether it’s a brand voice on an ad campaign, a humanised set of values or something as simple as the way you use grammar. Humanising the way you communicate, articulate and demonstrate your corporate identity gives it more weight in the hearts and minds of those who care about it; your staff and your customers.
Make it desirable
When it comes to the work I do in strategic design; this is often the one piece I keep finding I’m pushing up hill, by myself.
Just because we’ve articulated value, just because we’ve distilled ideas, just because we’ve humanised the corporate identity… doesn’t mean I care yet and certainly doesn’t mean it’s a desirable product, brand, culture or place to work. Creating desirability is about the aesthetic of the corporate identity, in word and deed.
Get your social pitch right – where do you work? Why does it matter? And why is it the best decision you ever made? (or why should it be?)
Make your brand stunningly attractive – There’s a reason people flock to certain businesses over others – think about your branding, and think about your employer brand. Make the investment to make both of them somewhere people want to be. If it’s consulting, make them want you in the room. If it’s employment, make the very best talent want to line up for the honour of working with you. And if it’s a business card or a website, make it make sense and make it beautiful.
Connect through story – building a brand narrative that brings this together is incredibly important (see below)
Use media – Video, audio and even social media can be used to build a profile that makes your corporate identity attractive. The ability to connect to hearts and minds through video media is only just starting to be tapped. [See my article on how to market professional services firms in 2017]
Ensure people can own the corporate identity for themselves
There’s nothing better than seeing an organisation sold out to the strategy, brand, leadership and culture of an organisation. But getting them to own it themselves can be half the battle.
Narratives – are a fantastic way to bring together the heart and soul of your organisation onto a single page. Learn how to write a narrative, or bring in a professional. Use it as guiding ideas and language to solve issues around alignment, fashion engagement and activation activities and answer complex questions.
Stories – are a fantastic and portable way to communicate complex and compelling ideas. Brand sentiment, values, ideas and visions can be packaged into real stories that make the ideas portable and easy to recall for staff and marketers when it comes to doing their own work.
Activation – encourage people to engage with the idea, think about how it applies to them and what’s involved in making it their own. Give people booklets, share stories across the table, use activation agencies and hang posters. Give people a reason to believe in who you say you are.
When people own the corporate identity of the place they work, they protect it, they invest in it, and they develop it over time. Some of the healthiest companies I’ve ever worked in are the large ones that each and every employee has the right to own and protect.
Case study In my own work with one of Australia’s big 4 banks. I worked with a small team to deliver a change in brand position to tens of thousands of staff. With a changing environment, moving dates and confidentiality all moving targets, we had to land “the idea” without giving the big reveal away. Using a two-step release we seeded ideas, activated sentiment and told stories around a single narrative so that, when it came time for the big reveal, it’s wasn’t a surprise to the staff, but a generous and accurate reflection of what everyone was already thinking. This made the activation on the day more about celebrating what the bank could promise, rather than introducing the nomenclature by itself.