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Peggy Simcic Brønn is an associate professor in the Department of Communications, Culture and Languages and Associate Dean of the Undergraduate Public Relations program at BI. Her work has been published in several international journals in the area of corporate social responsibility, causerelated marketing and corporate branding. She is currently the European editor for Journal of Communications Management and is on the editorial board of Corporate Reputation Review. Peggy is the Norwegian academic representative to the Reputation Institute.

When it Comes to Corporate Image It's Identity That Counts

This article is based on material from the book Corporate Communication, A strategic approach to building reputation, Brønn, P. S. and R. Wiig Berg (eds.), Gyldendal, 2nd edition forthcoming 2005

In the last few years, Norway has been bombarded by a number of different types of image or reputation surveys. starting with the MMI-Aftenposten image profile, the number of surveys has grown to include others such as: Best Place to Work in Norway, Firms with the Most Women on the Board, the Top Ten Hotels, the , the Top 10 Leaders, the Best Liked Sports Club etc., etc. More recently the international Reputation Institute's Reputation Quotient survey was introduced in Norway, listing the top ranked firms with respect to a number of variables. These results have subsequently been compared with Reputation Quotient survey results in Sweden and Denmark.

These surveys raise a number of questions. One of the most frequently asked is - why should I spend money on measuring our image? Other questions are: What do they mean for me, i.e. for my company? What is a good reputation survey? What are they really measuring? What about my stakeholders? I'll leave it to someone else to deal with these questions and methodological issues around the measurement of image. Instead, I will address the two concepts image and identity, two concepts that are key to understanding why reputation and its measurement have become so important in the business landscape, and which of them is more important.


This section looks at a number of researchers' views on corporate identity starting with visual identity. Dowling (2001) defines corporate identity as the symbols and names used by an organization to identify itself to people. According to Dowling, corporate identity helps people find or recognize an organization. Ind (1997) refers to identity as the outward manifestation of an organization. McDonald's, Disney and Nike provide well-known examples. Nike doesn't even need to use its name anymore; the "Swoosh" logo is sufficient.

Corporate identity as visual identity is probably most recognized and encompasses a variety of media. Gregory and Wiechmann (1996) list seven broad categories of materials that can carry out a firm's name for instance: stationery, literature, transportation, packing, architecture, signs and marketing/sales. These may include letterhead, business cards, news releases, annual reports, sales bulletins, cartons, labels, stamps, logos, trucks, ships, business cars, building design, interior, landscaping, uniforms - the list is endless. According to Hatch and Schultz (2000) sound, touch and smell (The Body Shop, for example) have recently been added to this list. Optimally, organizations should not choose these media elements in a haphazard manner. They are core to the organization, and it is extremely important how a visual identity mix is chosen.

According to Melawar (2003), however, corporate identity also encompasses corporate communication, corporate design, corporate culture, behavior, corporate structure, industry identity, and corporate strategy. This taxonomy reflects the multidisciplinary nature of the concept and the struggle to understand what it is.

The term organizational identity (OI) has been developed by social scientists and management theorists and, according to Dutton et al. (1994), describes the underlying beliefs and values that underpin an organization's behavior. Other definitions include "different beliefs or meanings of an organization" (Brown and Starkey 2000), a set of beliefs and meanings that are shared collectively (Dutton and Dukerich 1991, Pratt 2000) and that are recognized by management (Scott and Lane 2000).

Hatch and Schultz (2000) differentiate between corporate identity and organizational identity. They view corporate identity as theidea of the organization and how it is represented to different audiences, in this case primarily external stakeholders. The corporate identity is that defined by top managers and their advisers and communication channels are mediated, i.e., are delivered, in most cases by means of the mass media, or non-personal channels such as newsletters, annual reports, etc. In contrast, organizational identity ishow an organization's members perceive and understand it: "who we are" and "what we stand for." Organization identity is seen from the perspective of all members of the organization, who are also the recipients of messages. Interpersonal communication is the dominant communication channel.

Due to the overlap of internal and external stakeholders, however, there may be no clear lines between the two definitions, and employees' impressions of corporate identity are likely to carry over into their direct experiences with organizational identity. It is easy to see that organizations that don't realize the distinctions between these two concepts can, by focusing too much on corporate identity, i.e. externally, find themselves with problems. For instance, companies can alienate employees when they allow their customers to define who they are, forgetting that it is the employees that have to live, so to speak, the identity, and that perhaps they should be included as a major player here.

Identity is important for a number of reasons. According to Dowling (2001), the primary roles of identity are to create awareness, trigger recognition of the organization, and activate an already stored image of the organization. van Riel (1992) believes that a strong identity will help raise motivation among employees by creating a "we" feeling, allowing people to identify with their organizations. A purposeful identity communicated with consistent symbols can also inspire confidence among stakeholder groups because they will have a clearer picture of the organization. He believes that it can inspire customer confidence, which can be the basis of long-term relationships. Finally, it can inspire confidence in the financial community, among the suppliers of capital. It does so by improving the likelihood of identifying with or "bonding" with the organization. Schmitt and Simonson (2000) believe the tangible benefits of identity are increased productivity, loyalty, premium pricing, cost savings, protection from competition and the ability to cut through information clutter. These authors refer to the aesthetics of identity where product and design include function and form, communication includes central as well as peripheral messages, and spatial design has structure as well as symbolism or experiential aspects.


Olins (1989) suggests three kinds of corporate identity: monolithic, endorsed and branded. Other authors sometimes refer to these as brands or branding (Ind 1997; Keller 1998). Monolithic identities are associated with organizations where the entire company uses the same visual style, logo, etc. Everything in the identity mix is the same for all products and divisions, with perhaps some slight variation, and the parent company is instantly recognized. Such companies include BMW and Shell.

An endorsed identity is associated with organizations whose subsidiaries have their own style and distinction but the parent company is still visible in the background. Some examples here are General Motors, which owns, among others, Chevrolet (Corvettes, Impala), Oldsmobile (Cutlass), and Pontiac. L'Oreal with its Studio Line hair products and Paris Plénitude skin care products is another example.

A branded identity might be seen as the opposite of monolithic. Here, the organization has a number of brands, or products, and it is nearly impossible to know who the parent company is. This includes such companies as P&G, Unilever and, in Norway, Orkla, Scandinavia's largest fast moving consumer goods company. L'Oreal may fit somewhat under this heading as well since it also owns Biotherm, Helena Rubinstein, Redken, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, among others.

Each form of identity has its plusses and minuses. For example, it might be an advantage to be a branded company in the case of product failure, as it is difficult to immediately identify the parent company. The product may develop a negative image, but the parent company might not. Of course, the opposite is true when a parent company cannot reap the differentiating benefits in the marketplace from a strong corporate identity because they are unable to attach it to their branded products. P&G as a company promises that they "make everyday better." They do this through their products but also through educational programs in the Third World, commitment to the community, relief programs and environmental initiatives. None of P&G's products, however, benefit from these efforts as the name P&G on products is often not obvious to the consumer.

Balmer and Greyser (2003) propose that organizations have five types of identities; an actual, a desired, a communicated, a conceived and an ideal identity. These are explained below:

Actual identity , or who or what the organization really is - this encompasses such things as organizational behavior, activities, market scope, performance and positioning, but also internal values. The most important stakeholders here are employees.

Communicated identity, who or what the organization says it is , this includes various organizational messages sent by the company, normally planned messages through public relations or marketing communications. The stakeholders here are the organizations communication functions.

Conceived identity , or how others view the organization - includes reputational profile and image representation. Stakeholders here are normally external but can include employees.

Ideal identity , or that which the organization might compare itself with - the optimum positioning for the organization in a given time frame. Stakeholders here are other organizations that are "best in class" that can possibly provide a benchmark.

Desired identity , or what the organization would like to be - normally this is a decision made by upper management. Stakeholders here are the board, top management, etc.

Optimally, these five identities should be in close alignment. It is quite possible, however, that an organization's desired identity may conflict with how its identity is perceived, which conflicts with the actual identity, which in turn clashes with the communicated identity. We often see cases where upper management has a notion of what they would like the organization to be, the desired identity. This desire can be based on nothing more than a "feeling" of what they believe the organization is. In contrast, the "ideal" identity can be found through benchmarking, i.e. research into what is the best. And it is here that the many image ratings can be of value. Which organization is consistently ranking best in a particular industry sector and why? What are they doing that people's perceptions of them are so positive?


In most of the literature on image, the terms reputation and image are used interchangeably. Dowling (2001), however, distinguishes between corporate image and corporate reputation. According to him, corporate image is the "global evaluation (comprised of a set of beliefs and feelings) a person has about an organization" (p. 19). Corporate reputation is "the attributed values (such as authenticity, honesty, responsibility and integrity) evoked " of the company (p. 19). Dowling explains that a good corporate identity can affect corporate image in two ways. People make the association between the company and its identity, i.e., they recognize the organization. The identity elements can help them recall their image of the organization, which may include a mental picture (an actual picture of a building, perhaps) and/or sensory feelings (for example whether or not the interaction with the organization was pleasurable). Thus, for Dowling, corporate image has a cognitive or logical aspect and an emotional or feeling aspect. Together they form an overall corporate image. To understand how this works, think of a company you recently visited, a café perhaps or boutique. Visualize your surroundings, remember your experience and see if you have pleasant or not so pleasant memories of the encounter. If it was pleasant you may now associate that feeling with the visual cues of the shop, as they act as a reminder and recall this image. This is explained in marketing by means of the behavioral learning approach where there is a stimulus-response orientation, expressed in this case through classical conditioning (Fill 1999).

Dowling then contends that if a person's beliefs and feelings about a company (its image) fit their personal values regarding proper corporate behavior, then the person will attribute a good reputation to that organization. There must be a "fit" between the image of the company and what he refers to as the person's "free-standing" value system. Dowling insists that it is critical that the definition of image and reputation be kept separate, but the complicated nature of trying to explain the differences is daunting.

Fombrun (1996) makes a distinction between image and reputation when he describes an organization's reputation as the sum of various stakeholders' images of the organization. Fombrun raises an extremely important element in the discussion on corporate image by stating that organizations should never believe that they have only one image. In fact, they have as many images as they have stakeholders. And each of these images is dependent on the stakeholders' relationship to the organization. Organizations that focus their attention on the customer, for example, and ignore the effect of their activities on other groups, are in for a big surprise when the other groups start influencing the images customers have. In most organizations, stakeholders also overlap. For example, an employee may be a shareholder, a member of the local community, and a customer. This same employee has a different impression of the organization in each of these roles.


Figure 1: Corporate reputation as the sum of various stakeholders' images of the organization. (Adapted from Fombrun 1996)

It is important to remember that images exist at several levels. Knecht (1986) defines seven: product class, brand, company, sector, shop, country and user. It can be argued that for an organization these levels are not mutually exclusive. An organization may experience every single one of these levels in that they often overlap. The importance of each level to each organization is dependent on the organization itself. For example, Rolex on the country, shop and user levels is associated with Swiss watch making, high-end luxury shops, and wealthy people. In Norway, an example of the user and product levels is that some luxury car dealers are concerned about the purchase of their vehicles by customers associated with gangs. They believe the negative image of "gangs" and all that they represent to some people can impact the image of the brand for their target consumers.


Keller (1998) discusses a number of images that are associated with the organization. These are shown in exhibit 1 and discussed below.

  • Common Product Attributes, Benefits or Attitudes Quality
  • People and Relationships Customer/Stakeholder Orientation
  • Values and Programs Concern with EnvironmentSocial Responsibility
  • Corporate Credibility Expertise

Exhibit 1: corporate image associations (Keller 1998)

The first image association has to do with product attributes, benefits and attitudes that people associate with the organization. One such association is high quality, the perception that the company makes products of the highest quality. Proof of this claim may be such things as the US Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award given to business and industry to recognize effectiveness and efficiency, or high ratings in consumer publications. Another product association is innovativeness; the organization develops new and unique marketing programs, especially with respect to product introduction and improvements. Examples here include 3M, which claims that 30 percent of sales come from products introduced in the last four years. Thus, you can rely on their slogan, Innovation Working For You. In the case of organizations where the product carries the same name as the company, this association becomes key. However, with highly branded companies like P&G, Unilever and Norway's Orkla, product quality associations are not easily transferable to the parent company.

A second image associated with the organization is that of people and relationships. This may include a customer-focused corporate image orientation, where the company is seen as responsive and caring about their customers; they will be heard and the company will not take advantage of them. Sometimes, corporate image associations may reflect the characteristics of employees. IBM, for example, has used their employees in advertisements for the company where the employee is seen to embody the values that the company claims to have. Dave Thomas, the late head of Wendy's, was a powerful spokesperson and symbol for the company and personally stood for the values of the organization. I would urge that this image attribute be expanded beyond this narrow focus on employees and customers to include a full-scale stakeholder-focused image orientation. This is particularly important in light of the fact that Keller defines social responsibility (see below) as an image association. Normally, the stakeholder approach and corporate social responsibility go hand in hand.

A third image association is values and programs. These can include concern with the environment; the company works to protect and improve the environment and to use natural resources more effectively. Social responsibility is another area under values and programs. In this connection the company is perceived as contributing to community programs, supporting artistic and social activities, in general trying to improve the welfare of society. P&G's activities mentioned earlier are examples of this.

The last association with a corporate brand is corporate credibility. Credibility, according to Keller, encompasses expertise, trustworthiness and likeability. The organization is seen as expert when it is skilled in making or selling its products or carrying out its services. Trustworthiness has to do with the extent to which an organization is honest, dependable and sensitive to stakeholder needs. Lastly, likeability is whether or not the organization is viewed as likeable, attractive, prestigious, dynamic, etc. Credibility is perhaps the most abstract of the organizational image associations.


According to Fiol et al. (1998), identity is constructed from both what is similar and what is different. Selznick (1966: 181) describes an organization's character as something that is unique and that answers the questions: Who are we? Who should we be? Who should we be identified with? Where are our roots? Thisspecialness is at the heart of organizational identity. As noted by Gioia (1998) "identity is arguably more fundamental to the conception of humanity than any other notion." According to this researcher, the features of individual identity are the basis for extending it to organizations. Therefore, the basic roots of identity are internal to the organization and focus on employees. In other words, "actual" identity, the real "who we are", begins by looking inside the organization and starts with employees.


Figure 2

According to Fombrun and Van Riel (2004) there is a correlation between a high reputation ranking and how well organizations express themselves through targeted communication. They then make the case that expressiveness (the ability to communicate well) is a function of the degree to which companies are able to generate employee and customer identification with the company. And the more employees and customers identify with an organization, the more likely they are to engage in supportive behaviors.

The figure below outlines a process for reputation management as developed by Charles Fombrun and the Reputation Institute ( I contend that prior to or at a minimum simultaneously with this process, organizations must answer three existential questions: Who are we? What do we stand for? and What do we want to stand for? Basically, organizations need to know themselves before they can communicate to others who they are. This brings in line the actual and communicated identities, which, as demonstrated by Fombrun and van Riel, has a positive impact on conceived identity, i.e. image.


This article has discussed the difference between image and identity, arguing that organizations must not only know what others think about them, they need first and foremost to know themselves. Kay (1993) believes that there are four distinctive capabilities that give organizations competitive advantages. Corporate reputation is one of them. It provides competitive advantage because it is rare, valuable, inimitable and nonsubstitutable (VRIN) (Eisenhardt and Martin 2000). According to Kay, reputation is the "most important commercial mechanism for conveying information to consumers" (p. 87). I argue that "consumers" should be changed to "stakeholder groups", but the point remains that the capabilities that provide competitive advantages need to be protected. They give the organization an edge that has financial value. But some companies still question the value of image ratings, wondering why they should spend money on something they feel they already know. The following quote, however, demonstrates just how naïve this sentiment is.

Image is reality.It is the result of our actions.If the image is false and our performance is good, it's our fault for being bad communicators.If the image is true and reflects our bad performance, it's our fault for being bad managers.Unless we know our image we can neither communicate nor manage.

- David Bernstein, 1984

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