Joining the identity parade

Good news for corporate identity specialists: after a long period of curtailed expenditure on corporate identity, blue-chip companies are once again prepared to carry out wholesale reviews of their identities, not just piecemeal tinkering. The current trading environment is upbeat, with signs that the industry really has turned the corner.

Take, for example, the much publicised, if controversial, rolling-out of BA’s new look at a reported cost of 60m, or even the Co-Op’s makeover – both a far cry from the derision that met BT’s relaunch in the early Nineties. It would appear that with corporate identity, the good times are here again.

Whether the current “boom” in corporate identity can be maintained remains to be seen, particularly in the light of fears over economic slowdown. Nevertheless, Mintel’s new special report Corporate Identity 1998 reveals a generally upbeat mood in the industry. This new-found optimism stems from a need for companies to look afresh at their identities which may have been overlooked during the recession. As a result, the corporate identity sector is now reaping the rewards of pent-up demand as some companies have found their identities looking tired during a period of economic stability and much improved balance sheets.

Since Mintel last looked at the area of corporate identity in 1995, the public has become more sceptical about companies promoting their image. Exclusive consumer research carried out for the report shows that when asked why companies promote themselves, an overwhelming majority of respondents (nearly nine out of ten) said it was to improve sales, an even higher response than in 1995.

The sample was also significantly more likely than in 1995 to mention other commercial grounds such as “appeal to a new set of customers” and “to tell people they have new products”. Much lower on the agenda this time round were feelgood aspects such as “improving people’s feelings towards them” and “presenting a more caring image”.

All this suggests that the public is ascribing a greater commercialisation to the business world in a more competitive trading environment. In other words, the more upbeat the economic climate, the more people feel they are being sold to and that their custom is in demand.

In terms of motivation, Mintel’s research shows that quality of products/services is the very essence of identity. Indeed, if that is not being delivered, the impression created will be fundamentally flawed. Standards of customer service also rank highly, with a little less focus on price in the mix.

A key objective of the report was to assess how well a range of major companies and retailers stacked up on set criteria. These were: provision of value-for-money goods and services; trustworthiness; being in touch; concern for social and environmental issues; and, finally, putting across what it is they stand for. For most criteria, results show a strong bias to those companies used on a regular basis – for example Boots, M&S, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, The Body Shop and even the BBC ranked highly.

That does not mean, however, that there is room for complacency. M&S is down on its level of concern for social/environmental issues and has a much lower profile among 15 to 24-year-olds; while women have much less positive views towards the BBC, with fewer mentioning the Beeb as trustworthy. The implication is that even among the crème de la crème, there is scope to fine-tune identities and direct a stronger focus towards certain audiences.

It is on this last point that more work clearly needs to be done. The general public is clearly not convinced that even the top companies are fully in touch with their customers. This key finding is perhaps all the more surprising given the current emphasis on loyalty cards and customer service initiatives aimed at meeting consumer needs. Perhaps this suggestion that major companies are not really in touch with their customers is born out of a sense of loss of the personal touch as big business keeps getting bigger, leaving the customer feeling alienated.

Such findings suggest that companies could be doing more to communicate more effectively with their customers, for example through direct mail or other consultation routes. It could also be an area for corporate identity management companies to address. Surely those companies which do make the effort to listen to what customers want could be stealing a march on their competitors by making that approach count in the market. Customers want to feel they are a valued part of the process and will vote with their feet if they feel their needs are not being met.

Given this apparent lack of communication, Mintel asks: could more meaningful, closely defined straplines or mission statements be doing a better job at communicating what these major companies are all about? Our research reveals high recognition levels of company straplines for BT, BA and the AA, which suggests that consistent simple messages work best when it comes to communicating what a company stands for.

Highly prosaic straplines may be appropriate in markets such as fragrances where they can evoke the right sort of mood. However, it is questionable whether they as equally appropriate when applied to more mundane sectors, such as grocery shopping. Keeping it simple and relevant to the business at hand would appear to be essential.

It is clear that the process whereby the public ultimately judges a company is highly complex. This takes into account the sum total of consumer experience from early conditioning (for example, what their parents may have bought), what they have read, what others have told them, impressions from advertising, and so forth. It is the complex nature of consumer perception which makes effective corporate identity management a huge task which requires consummate skill and attention to detail. With corporate identity enjoying something of a renaissance at present, it is a task which companies ignore at the risk of losing sales and a positive public persona.

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