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  • Writer's pictureKaren Gold Anisfeld

Corporate Identity Management: The Pursuit of “Identity=Image”

Many, many years ago, I fell in love with the study of Corporate Identity Management. I was starting a Master’s program in Public Relations and had been attending conferences to learn more about my new professional direction, when I stumbled across the concept.

“Branding” was not yet a widely used term, and, in fact, “Corporate Identity” wasn’t either. But there was discussion about the importance of distinguishing corporate messaging in order to differentiate one company from all the others competing directly or indirectly.

Soon, it became clear that “Identity” is what a company projects about itself…and “Image” is what is reflected back by the company’s “publics”.

Westinghouse: Divestiture Led to Branding Conundrum

I’ll give you an example of one company I studied in 1985-1987: Westinghouse. At the time, it was more than a century-old conglomerate involved in broadcasting, nuclear research, defense engineering and many other endeavors. But the company was in a serious financial crisis and about to fire a high percentage of its 24,500 employees nationally. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, my hometown, the company was one of the largest employers in the area. The company slogan: "You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse" was known to all.

Background: In 1975, White Consolidated Industries purchased the well-known Westinghouse Electric appliances brand and in 1986 Electrolux acquired White Consolidated.

Despite the fact that appliance manufacturing was not part of the Westinghouse family for more than a decade, when I researched the local population, including business executives, the vast majority claimed that manufacturing electrical appliances was among the company’s primary activities. The Westinghouse Electric brand name stuck…even though it was long since a non-entity.

Clearly, the messages being promoted by Westinghouse – declaring its identity – did not reach or were not being grasped – even by the company’s hometown, potential employees and the vast majority of people in its ecosystem.

While I don’t believe the gap between Westinghouse’s identity and image caused its decline, it certainly did not help the bottom line or its negotiating position in the mid-1980s, as it sold off various business units.

Perpetuating a Mistaken Identity

This example is very interesting, as it relates to one of a company’s greatest assets: its brand name. Clearly, one of the most valuable aspects of Westinghouse’s appliance business was its name – a brand that was both first and best in its market niche for decades. The brand recognition provided the value proposition for the acquisition.

But, what happened when the highly recognizable name was sold, perpetuating the illusion that there was still an affiliation with its former parent company? Westinghouse forfeited control over its name and, hence, the ability to reshape its identity, post appliances.

What else could have been done to protect the Westinghouse brand? Could the Company have stipulated that the name would have to be phased out and rebranded over a given period of time? How could Westinghouse have repositioned its remaining businesses through careful messaging and formally “detaching” from the electrical appliance niche?

The irony is that Westinghouse clearly did not live up to its slogan: "You can be sure…if it’s Westinghouse".

Winds of Change and Corporate Identity

Unmistakably, we are living through times of change and uncertainty. In many ways, the business climate has changed, due to the pandemic, and the economy is impacting businesses and their customers in unforeseen ways.

Regardless of how these changes have altered your business and marketing strategies, it is very important to be clear in your messaging about how your company perceives itself: its offerings, its competitive advantages, its plans to grow and thrive…and how it is distinct.

Only by communicating clearly with your target audiences – customers, investors, suppliers, employees, competitors, etc. – can you achieve the ultimate goal of being recognized as you wish to be perceived.

This is the objective: to have your identity reflected back as your corporate image…to be seen as you wish to be seen…to be understood in such a way that the buzz about your company perpetuates your messaging.

Interested in talking about your Corporate Identity? Contact us.


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