Developing a 21st century corporate image

Developing a 21st century corporate image

Lee Hornick

A corporate image can be the leading indicator of whether a company will survive and thrive into the next century. Each year, thousands of new products and services enter a crowded marketplace, but only a few are accepted by an increasingly judgemental consumer.

In response to global competition and a changing marketplace, savvy organizations are gearing up with communication strategies to create a distinctive image and personality.

IABC recently sponsored the European Corporate Image conference in London with The Conference Board and NYNEX. The focus was on how to gain credibility and influence with your publics. Here are some strategies discussed at the conference that may give you a leg up on the competition.

Differentiating the corporation

Customers respond to an image that shows innovation and is meaningful. The days of the “me too” corporate and brand image are over. It doesn’t matter if the company is a manufacturer of cars, computers or sneakers, the marketplace judges it on perceptions, reputation and image. The strategy selected must reflect the reality of the corporate culture and have enough flexibility to adjust to marketplace changes.

“Corporations have only a limited number of ways to differentiate their products. They can do it with price, innovation and distribution,” says David Locke of Dialog Limited, a corporate communication consultancy with offices in London, Paris and Geneva. “But, the only true way to differentiate the company is with service.”

Locke believes service can be delivered through customer-oriented business systems or employees.

He says employees must:

* Understand the corporate promise to the market.

* Take ownership of corporate values.

* Deliver on the promise each day to the customer.

“Most companies try to create employee understanding, but fail to turn understanding into action. It is not only what employees think, but also what they do to influence the bottom line,” says Locke.

To differentiate a company, create an “outside in” corporate positioning strategy. Most current corporate images are inside-out – they use visual labels, claim ownership of assets and people, project no consumer promise, and show the corporation’s inside-out view of the world.

To improve an image, communicate the corporation from the consumers’ perspective and express an external promise. For example, Myers Beds becomes Sleepeezee or HMSO becomes Niceday. When using the existing corporate name, add a tag line that expresses the outside-in promise. For example, Avis becomes Avis – We Try Harder.

Closing the image gap with internal messages

To succeed into the 21st century, organizations will need a work force with the ability to delight the customer. To succeed, employees must first understand the company’s vision and values, be committed to them, and then put them into action on a day-to-day basis.

An effective communication process is vital to change employee attitudes and behaviors. This communication process has three stages:

* Understanding

* Commitment

* Delivery.

“We believe the best way to communicate is with a short and clear phrase that serves as a consistent reminder to help employees modify their behavior. We call this an intellectual totem,” says Locke.

The intellectual totem not only encapsulates the company’s philosophy in short form, but also conveys a sense of purpose, positioning the company against its competitors and challenging employees to continually improve. Used with either the corporate brand or supported by its own identity, it becomes the physical face for change, separating change messages from the clutter of day-to-day messages.

The intellectual totem strategy offers a different approach when compared to an ordinary advertising slogan. When applied properly it will:

* Add corporate service value to the product offer

* Influence attitudes and behavior of your employees.

200 years of ingredients

“Human beings act, not on the basis of fact and reality as such, but on the basis of opinions and beliefs about facts,” says Lars Gellerstad, director of marketing communication for Europe, Middle East and Africa, DuPont de Nemours International S.A. “I say this for two reasons. First, it fits very well as a backdrop to the role of brands. Second, as a reminder to all of us that marketing is not an exact science.”

DuPont learned many lessons over its 200-year existence as one of the world’s great science and discovery companies. DuPont is a global corporation with sales of U.S. $37 billion last year and $12.9 billion in Europe, which puts them on the “Europe 100” largest companies listing.

Ingredient branding is DuPont’s reality. They don’t make the garment, they make the garment better. Making themselves visible through their wide variety of ingredients is their branding strategy. DuPont connects everything they produce to the corporate brand. For example, “Teflon – Only by DuPont.”

In power image studies, DuPont ranks high internationally. As a brand name, it overwhelms the powerful image of its most successful brands such as Lycra, Stain Master and Silver Stone. At the same time, a product reputation such as Lycra can be immensely helpful to the corporate name. It helps ensure favorability and market acceptance, and has a positive impact on the corporate image.

DuPont manages more than 1,700 consumer brands, channel brands, upstream brands and trademarks. To become visible in the marketplace, it chose to create a global superbrand image that attaches itself to its ingredient brands.

Changing perceptions

“Consider the customer who has purchased something and finds out it’s been badly made, or who suffers bad service, or who experiences rudeness at the hands of the company’s staff. It’s going to take more than a bit of public relations and advertising to bring that customer back,” says John Stanley, divisional director, corporate affairs, for Marks and Spencer PLC, London.

The public image of Marks & Spencer in the United Kingdom was built up over 110 years. The company has grown in a series of leaps – from market stall to Penny Bazaar, from Penny Bazaar to shop, from shop to superstore. It has grown from a small entity to a retailer with an expanding overseas presence.

According to the chairman of Marks & Spencer, “If the name Marks & Spencer is above the store, it must achieve our best standards of operation, even if it only has limited merchandise due to the shortage of space. The reputation of the company depends to a great extent on the quality of care we give our customers.”

A recent survey showed that consumers’ perceptions of the company had changed little since 1981. “The company’s reputation for quality, value and reliability was consistently high, but our image was safe and steady rather than fashionable and dynamic. The perceptions had not kept pace with the reality of change,” says Stanley.

The survey also showed that many customers were not looking beyond the departments where they habitually shopped and were not up-to-date with the company’s merchandise offerings.

Marks & Spencer tackled the problem with a four-point communication strategy that would change perceptions and improve company image. The integrated marketing communication strategy included media relations, special events marketing, publications and advertising. This multi-functional strategy would eventually challenge entrenched views and replace them with up-to-date perceptions.

“We developed a strategy to inform non-customers and reeducate existing customers in an integrated effort,” claims Stanley. The strategy included:

* Media Relations: creating a series of meetings and interviews for senior executives with the press. This helped reshape perceptions and established a proactive forum with important newspapers, magazines and broadcast journalists.

* Special Events: developing special shopping events for charge card customers and inviting them to their local stores for refreshments and a chance to shop in a more relaxed atmosphere.

* Customer-focused publication: Developing the Marks & Spencer magazine, a quarterly publication with a potential readership of more than three million people. This helped promote both the merchandise and corporate messages.

* Advertising: introduced image-building campaigns designed to show staff and customers that Marks & Spencer was fashionable and stylish and worth another look.

Lee Hornick is president of Business Communications Worldwide, Inc., New York City.

COPYRIGHT 1995 International Association of Business Communicators

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