Identity

The Benefit of Organizational Identity

Having worked on more than 300 identity programs over the course of our careers—for all types of clients, ranging from startups to Fortune 100 companies like GE, Boeing, Apple and Walt Disney—we’ve seen that the value of a strong brand identity cannot be underestimated. It can be the difference between success and failure for an organization, no matter how big or small.

From marketing and advertising to operations, investments and recruiting, everything you do begins with identity. It’s the organizing principle that makes your organization unique and meaningful. And because it is of such strategic importance, a strong identity drives tremendous value through your organization.

We recently made a video that distills our thinking about the value of organizational identity—why it’s important and what it can do for you.

Please take a look and share to anyone you think might be interested in learning more about why identity matters.

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Lessons on Being (and Staying) No. 1

Lessons on Being (and Staying) Number OneAt Marshall Strategy we’re fortunate to work with many clients who are ranked No. 1 in their fields. These range from Caltech (No. 1 on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings  for the last three years) to Google (No. 1 in search) to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (the No. 1 rehabilitation hospital in the U.S. for 23 straight years).

Many of these companies enjoy status as household names. What unites them, and what lessons can others learn from them?

Congrats on Being No. 1: Now, How Do You Stay There?
In some respects, you might expect our client roster to be made up of companies that are struggling. After all, aren’t they the ones who need the most help?

READ MORE

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Did the Olympics Help Russia’s Brand?

Did the Olympics Help Russia's Brand?

Philip is an Olympian who represented the U.S. in rowing.

By most accounts, the 2014 Sochi Olympics were very well run and thoroughly enjoyed by athletes and spectators with a minimum of protests or distractions. A recent poll conducted by the Guardian asked “Were the 2014 Winter Olympics a success for Russia?” According to 77 percent of respondents, the answer was “Yes.” And with the games coming in at a reported cost of $50 billion, Russia certainly spared no expense.

However, I’m not sure Russia got the beneficial image impact such an effort should have yielded. That’s because Russia was sending out two powerful and opposite messages. Never a good strategy.

Unrest Detracts from Impressive Games
The Olympics surely helped us admire Russia and Russians. The sheer scale of the undertaking in Sochi was impressive. And the Olympics are always a chance for the host country to show off its best qualities.

But even as the Games were being played, images of chaos and discontent in Russia’s sphere of influence undercut the general goodwill. The continuous shipment of armaments and ammunition to the Syrian government for use against its citizens continues to hurt Russia (at least in the West and among supporters of human rights). So does support for the authoritarian regime and strong-arm tactics of recently ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

Less than a week after the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, Russia is conducting military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border and the cover of The Economist shows a figure silhouetted against a flaming backdrop with the headline, “Putin’s inferno.”

The Sochi Olympics have been the most expensive Games ever. From such an expenditure, one would expect a benefit to the host country’s image. And that has generally been the case. But while the Olympics are likely to offer a short-term benefit to Russia on the world stage, its geopolitical tactics will continue to be a long-term problem.

The lesson here, for all organizations, is that your organization’s behavior will have more long term impact than any short-term communication initiative. Ideally, your behavior should be consistent with your communications.

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Focus First on Your Brand Message, Not Appearance

Focus First on Your Brand’s Message, Not AppearanceSeveral years ago I took a Harvard Business School course on business thinking for design leaders. Toward the end of the course, one professor told us that what we do as brand strategists and designers frightens some CEOs. Why? Because what we do, while vitally important to their success, is not always directly quantifiable. It’s hard to measure emotional connection with a number.

This unsurety and discomfort can cause business leaders to judge brand expression solely on its aesthetics, rather than on the idea the expression is meant to represent. Ironically, this can increase CEOs’ discomfort; what sits before them does not appear to be immediately satisfying. Without a clear understanding and appreciation for the meaning behind the brand expression, executives will miss out on the value brand thinking can create for their organizations.READ MORE

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Think Big: Understanding the Value of Strategic Ambiguity

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity.

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity. It helps clients understand the need to find balance between being highly specific or overly vague in what it is they stand for and how they want to be perceived.

Strategic ambiguity, as organizational communication expert Eric Eisenberg defines it, enables a company to express itself—its mission and goals—in a way that allows “the freedom to alter operations which have become maladaptive over time.”

By being strategically ambiguous, companies who encounter turbulent times in the future can maintain a firm grasp on their identity and goals while embracing change. For our clients, this is key to staying relevant.

How Does Strategic Ambiguity Work?
Eisenberg notes that when air travel replaced sea travel from the United States to Europe, cruise lines survived only because they rebranded themselves as entertainment and hospitality facilities. This broader self-identifier allowed companies to provide new services, such as pleasure cruises and activities on boats that never even leave the dock. Because the cruise industry didn’t pigeonhole itself as a method of transportation, it survived and has since flourished.

In another industry affected by technological change, at least one company failed to identify the opportunity that strategic ambiguity allowed it. At its heart, Eastman Kodak was a chemical company in the business of making and selling film. As technologies changed and digital transformed how we create and consume images, Kodak didn’t evolve to think of itself more broadly. Had Kodak zoomed out and seen itself as a leader in the imaging industry, its future (and current unfortunate reality) may have looked very different.

Taking advantage of strategic ambiguity isn’t a matter of creating a formula, and it takes work. Finding the right balance is a step we help many clients take, and it’s part of what I love about our work. We help our clients make sometimes difficult choices and develop consensus on where their organizations are headed.

Achieving the Best Results
Three tips for applying strategic ambiguity:

  • Know the difference between being ambiguous and being strategic about your ambiguity. When naming and/or positioning your company, you can’t say, “Well, we don’t want to limit ourselves, so we’re going to try to be all things to all people.” You are not all things to all people—and you won’t succeed if you try to be.
  • Make choices. Strategic ambiguity is about drawing lines, and it requires a strong identity strategy. It’s more about who you are and why you matter than about what you’re doing right now. If you can commit to what you stand for, that commitment will actually allow for more flexibility when you’re confronted with change.
  • Think about the possibilities. Find ways to explore what you do now in different contexts and from new perspectives. This will help prepare you to make decisions about where and how you’ll allow yourself to grow and evolve over time.

If you hang your hat on what you do best right now, understand that people will continue to perceive you that way—a year, five years or 10 years from now.

So think big. Just not too big.

Ask Marshall About Strategic Ambiguity for Your Business
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Secret Sauce As a Brand

Special SauceLast week, I wrote about B2B branding: Your audience may not be comprised of “consumers” per se, but it’s still made up of people. People have preferences, loyalty and affinity for certain brands.

So how do you make sure your brand communicates what’s unique and special about you? In essence, what’s the secret sauce that sets you apart?

Making Your Own Secret Sauce

Many clients hire us because they’re having trouble articulating exactly what it is that makes them who and what they are. A lot of our identity work gets to the heart of this—helping clients tell their stories. Even if you aren’t embarking on an identity project, you can still follow some simple principles:

  1. Realize that you never have nothing: If you aren’t widely known for your secret sauce, that doesn’t mean you don’t have it. It can be difficult to pinpoint, and even harder to communicate (and often it’s easier to engage someone to help you find it—which is why it makes up a lot of the work that we do). But there is something worthwhile that sets you apart, and finding it is worth the effort.
  2. Don’t try to be something you’re not: If what you’re attempting feels inauthentic, it’ll be hard to make a shift that will turn employees (likely your most important audience) into brand ambassadors. Take Marshall, for example. We may not the hippest kids on the block, but we’re thoughtful, strategic and big-picture thinkers. Because we know this, we’re able to focus on what we do best.
  3. Don’t be afraid of aspiration: You may need to consider how well your identity tells a clear and cohesive story about your company. When you set out in a direction that is aspirational and authentic, you’ve turned identity into a strategic priority, not just a communications tool.

You’ve got a secret sauce baked in there somewhere, and it’s an essential component of your identity that you should use to your advantage.

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The Beauty of the United States’ Identity System

American flag

Courtesy Kahunapule Michael Johnson

This 4th of July, it’s worth taking a moment to admire and be inspired by the U.S. Identity System (naming and design firms unknown). What lessons can we who are in the business of brand identity draw from the U.S. system?

An aspirational and inclusive identity: The system is based upon the universally desired attributes of Freedom, Justice and Equality. The system is not intended to favor, or to appeal only to any single cultural, ethnic or religious group. It is not intended to balkanize the U.S. into separate groups with interests prejudicial to others, or to allow one group to abuse other groups.

A cohesive architecture: The U.S. system allows for increasing levels of loyalty. U.S. citizens can be proud Americans, but they can also be proud citizens of Texas or California and proud citizens of Dallas or Houston and Los Angeles or San Francisco, and The Mission District or Pacific Heights. These loyalties to states, cities and neighborhoods under the United States umbrella provides plenty of room for individual identities within a collective identity. In addition, we benefit from the cultural contributions of African Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans Hispanic Americans, Gay Americans, Catholic Americans, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, Native Americans, liberal Americans and conservative Americans and many more. Large companies with dispersed operations, multiple products and diverse customers should hope to achieve such a cohesive yet diverse and vibrant identity.

Unique and evocative naming: The names of U.S. states provide a rich tapestry of stunningly beautiful and unique names. How could names be more wonderful than: California, Texas, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Colorado and Alaska? The uniqueness and beauty of these names stand as a mighty challenge to those in the business of naming companies, divisions and products.

Clarity of purpose: The U.S. also has major Divisions, and each has a clear and powerful mandate: Justice, Energy, State, Treasury, Budget, Agriculture, Commerce, Trade, Small Business, Labor, Health, Veterans, Housing, Transportation, Education, Environmental Protection, Defense, Interior and Homeland Security.

Great graphic design: The unique graphic impact and flexibility of the American flag’s stars and stripes are unlimited. There have been beautiful applications of blue fields with white stars and vertical or horizontal uses of red and white stripes and combinations of both. We have a wide range of authoritative seals and symbols (some better designed than others).

People who embody the “brand promise”: And, we must never forget the brave men and women in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, each with its own uniforms, units, symbology and rousing anthem, who protect and defend all that we enjoy.

How did we get so lucky?

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3 Signs You Need to Reconsider Your Identity

 

Courtesy Brian Talbot

Courtesy Brian Talbot

We’ve written before about the ways that a strong identity benefits leaders. Identity work can have tremendous positive impact on internal audiences, but it’s more likely that clients will come to us because they’re being misperceived by their external audiences. Here are three of the most common scenarios that signal it’s time to reconsider your identity:

  1. You’re losing business because of how you’re perceived: We’ve seen clients have multimillion dollar deals killed at the last minute because of how the brand was perceived in the marketplace. Other times, misperceptions can slowly erode your relevance with key audiences.
  2. You’re too narrowly defined: We’ve had clients with a great set of services and products, but they’re known for only one thing. If you’ve made your name in one area, great. But it might be time to communicate that you’ve got more to offer.
  3. The market you’re in is changing: Maybe you’re in an industry undergoing significant change. To stay relevant you need to be ahead of that curve when markets shift.

Transforming Into Something New
When you do change your identity, whether the change is evolutionary or revolutionary, it needs to be communicated in a way that is relevant. An identity change signals to both internal and external audiences that something is fundamentally different about your company. You need to make that difference as clear as possible.

One of our clients had acquired several regional cold-chain supply companies to create a cold-chain logistics company with national connectivity. The challenge for this client was that even though they were bringing together multiple smaller companies, they didn’t want to be perceived as a big, impersonal corporate roll-up and lose the family-owned, regional heritage of the acquired companies.

We created the name Lineage Logistics to convey a sense of history and legacy coming together to form a fully connected, forward-looking service business. The new name communicated to employees that the heritage of their companies was important to the new company, and signaled to customers that existing relationships weren’t going to go away. The benefits of the new company–increased efficiency and coast-to-coast continuity–were established without sacrificing regional understanding and local relationships.

Making Change Successful
An effort to change your identity involves more than changing your logo or tagline. To make the shift successful, you must understand how it will affect your people, your culture and your customers. When you communicate a clear a reason for change, you can effectively engage both internal and external audiences. Customers, prospects and clients understand where you’re going, and your internal audience sees that there’s something they can believe in and get behind.

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Strategic Identity and Your Corporate Image

Corporate Identity Branding and Strategy

Some people believe that “image is everything” when it comes to marketing their company. Others think “identity” begins and ends with a logo.

The reality is, both are important, and identity and image have a critical relationship in telling your unique story.

We believe that a strategic identity should help you clearly articulate who you are, what you do, and why you matter to your key audiences, in ways that are ownable, believable, beneficial, sustainable, and profitable.

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Corporate Identity and Branding – A Reality Check

Some people believe that “image is everything” when it comes to corporate identity and branding. Others think “identity” begins and ends with a logo.

The reality is, both are important, and corporate identity and image have a critical role within brand marketing strategy. Branding consultants are a great resource when designing your successful branding strategies.

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