A corporate identity is the overall image of a corporation or firm or business in the minds of diverse publics, such as customers and investors and employees. It is a primary task of the corporate communications department to maintain and build this identity to accord with and facilitate the attainment of business objectives. It is usually visibly manifested by way of branding and the use of trademarks.
Corporate identity comes into being when there is a common ownership of an organizational philosophy that is manifest in a distinct corporate culture. At its most profound, the public feel that they have ownership of the philosophy. Corporate identity helps organizations to answer questions like “who are we?” and “where are we going?” Corporate identity also allows consumers to denote their sense of belonging with particular human aggregates or groups.
In general, this amounts to a corporate title, logo (logotype and/or logogram) and supporting devices commonly assembled within a set of guidelines. These guidelines govern how the identity is applied and confirm approved colour palettes, typefaces, page layouts and other such.
Corporate identity is often viewed as being composed of three parts:
• Corporate design (logos, uniforms, corporate colours etc.)
• Corporate communication (advertising, public relations, information, etc.)
• Corporate behavior (internal values, norms, etc.)
Organizational point of view
In a recent monograph on Chinese corporate identity (Routledge, 2006), Peter Peverelli, proposes a new definition of corporate identity, based on the general organization theory proposed in his earlier work, in particular Peverelli (2000). This definition regards identity as a result of social interaction:
• Corporate identity is the way corporate actors (actors who perceive themselves as acting on behalf of the company) make sense of their company in ongoing social interaction with other actors in a specific context. It includes shared perceptions of reality, ways-to-do-things, etc., and interlocked behaviour.
In this process the corporate actors are of equal importance as those others; corporate identity pertains to the company (the group of corporate actors) as well as to the relevant others;
The following four key brand requirements are critical for a successful corporate identity strategy
• Differentiation. In today’s highly competitive market, brands need to have a clear differentiation or reason for being. What they represent needs to stand apart from others in order to be noticed, make an impression, and to ultimately be preferred.
• Relevance. Brands need to connect to what people care about out in the world. To build demand, they need to understand and fulfill the needs and aspirations of their intended audiences.
• Coherence. To assure credibility with their audiences, brands must be coherent in what they say and do. All the messages, all the marketing communications, all the brand experiences, and all of the product delivery need to hang together and add up to something meaningful.
• Esteem. A brand that is differentiated, relevant and coherent is one that is valued by both its internal and external audiences. Esteem is the reputation a brand has earned by executing clearly on both its promised and delivered experience.
Corporate visual identity plays a significant role in the way an organization presents itself to both internal and external stakeholders. In general terms, a corporate visual identity expresses the values and ambitions of an organization, its business, and its characteristics. Four functions of corporate visual identity can be distinguished. Three of these are aimed at external stakeholders.
• First, a corporate visual identity provides an organization with visibility and "recognizability". For virtually all profit and non-profit organizations, it is of vital importance that people know that the organization exists and remember its name and core business at the right time.
• Second, a corporate visual identity symbolizes an organization for external stakeholders, and, hence, contributes to its image and reputation (Schultz, Hatch and Larsen, 2000). Van den Bosch, De Jong and Elving (2005) explored possible relationships between corporate visual identity and reputation, and concluded that corporate visual identity plays a supportive role in corporate reputations.
• Third, a corporate visual identity expresses the structure of an organization to its external stakeholders, visualising its coherence as well as the relationships between divisions or units. Olins (1989) is well known for his "corporate identity structure", which consists of three concepts: monolithic brands for companies which have a single brand, identity in which different brands are developed for parts of the organization or for different product lines, and an endorsed identity with different brands which are (visually) connected to each other. Although these concepts introduced by Olins are often presented as the corporate identity structure, they merely provide an indication of the visual presentation of (parts of) the organization. It is therefore better to describe it as a "corporate visual identity structure".
• A fourth, internal function of corporate visual identity relates to employees' identification with the organization as a whole and/or the specific departments they work for (depending on the corporate visual strategy in this respect). Identification appears to be crucial for employees, and corporate visual identity probably plays a symbolic role in creating such identification.
The definition of the corporate visual identity management is:
Corporate visual identity management involves the planned maintenance, assessment and development of a corporate visual identity as well as associated tools and support, anticipating developments both inside and outside the organization, and engaging employees in applying it, with the objective of contributing to employees' identification with and appreciation of the organization as well as recognition and appreciation among external stakeholders.
Special attention is paid to corporate identity in times of organizational change. Once a new corporate identity is implemented, attention to corporate identity related issues generally tends to decrease. However, corporate identity needs to be managed on a structural basis, to be internalized by the employees and to harmonize with future organizational developments.
Efforts to manage the corporate visual identity will result in more consistency and the corporate visual identity management mix should include structural, cultural and strategic aspects. Guidelines, procedures and tools can be summarized as the structural aspects of managing the corporate visual identity.
However, as important as the structural aspects may be, they must be complemented by two other types of aspects. Among the cultural aspects of corporate visual identity management, socialization – i.e., formal and informal learning processes – turned out to influence the consistency of a corporate visual identity. Managers are important as a role model and they can clearly set an example. This implies that they need to be aware of the impact of their behavior, which has an effect on how employees behave. If managers pay attention to the way they convey the identity of their organization, including the use of a corporate visual identity, this will have a positive effect on the attention employees give to the corporate visual identity.
Further, it seems to be important that the organization communicates the strategic aspects of the corporate visual identity. Employees need to have knowledge of the corporate visual identity of their organization – not only the general reasons for using the corporate visual identity, such as its role in enhancing the visibility and recognizability of the organization, but also aspects of the story behind the corporate visual identity. The story should explain why the design fits the organization and what the design – in all of its elements – is intended to express.
Corporate colours (or company colours) are one of the most instantly recognizable elements of a corporate visual identity and promote a strong non-verbal message on the company's behalf. Examples of corporate colours:
• Red for Coca-Cola
• Blue for IBM, nicknamed "Big Blue"
• Brown for UPS, "What can Brown do for you"
• Light Teal for Korean Air
Visual identity history
Nearly 7,000 years ago, Transylvanian potters inscribed their personal marks on the earthenware they created. If one potter made better pots than another, naturally, his mark held more value than his competitors’. Religions created some of the most recognized identity marks: the Christian cross, the Judaic Star of David, and the Islamic crescent moon. In addition, Kings and nobles in medieval times had clothing, armor, flags, shields, tableware, entryways, and manuscript bindings that all bore coats of arms and royal seals. The symbols depicted a lord’s lineage, aspirations, familial virtues, as well as memoirs to cavalry, infantry, and mercenaries of who they were fighting for on the battlefields.
A trademark became a symbol of individuals’ professional qualifications to perform a particular skill by the 15th century. For example, the Rod of Asclepius on a physician's sign signified that the doctor was a well-trained practitioner of the medical arts. Simple graphics such as the caduceus carried so much socioeconomic and political weight by the 16th century, that government offices were established throughout Europe to register and protect the growing collection of trademarks used by numerous craft guilds.
The concept of visually trademarking one’s business spread widely during the Industrial Revolution. The shift of business in favor of non-agricultural enterprise caused business, and corporate consciousness, to boom. Logo use became a mainstream part of identification, and over time, it held more power than being a simple identifier. Some logos held more value than others, and served more as assets than symbols.
Logos are now the visual identifiers of corporations. They became components of corporate identities by communicating brands and unifying messages. The evolution of symbols went from a way for a king to seal a letter, to how businesses establish their credibility and sell everything from financial services to hamburgers. Therefore, although the specific terms "corporate image" and "brand identity" didn’t enter business or design vocabulary until the 1940s, within twenty years they became key elements to business success.
Visual identity designers
The visual identity design profession has substantially increased in numbers over the years since the rise of the Modernist movement in the United States in the 1950s.
Media and Corporate identity
As technology and mass media have continued to develop at exponential rates, the role of the media in business increases as well. The media has a large effect on the formation of corporate identity by reinforcing a company's image and reputation. Global television networks and the rise of business news have caused the public representation of organizations to critically influence the construction and deconstruction of certain organizational identities more than ever before.
Many companies proactively choose to create media attention and use it as a tool for identity construction and strengthening, and also to reinvent their images under the pressure of new technology. The media also has the power to produce and diffuse meanings a corporation holds, therefore giving stakeholders a negotiation of the organizational identity.
The ideas of corporate identity may be applied to national identity. For example, although the United States is not a corporation, it still has organizational components and has a certain image and identity. The US is founded on certain principles, values, and beliefs, and at the same time, has a diverse and widely recognizable popular culture. Because of distinct founding principles, and the way US culture operates, the US too can be observed as a brand. Former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, "We’re selling a product. That product we are selling is democracy."
Images and identity do not always have to be planned and built by an organization, they also can be attributed to an organization by others' interpretations. During the Cold War, Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe, and Baywatch were booming in popularity and became obsessions of popular American culture. These images portrayed confidence and superiority in American media, therefore the USA seemed more secure and superior during the war. With the growth of the media, popular culture and celebrities still seem to define America in certain ways. Images of Brad Pitt and Mickey Mouse are easily associated to the US. The US has evolved into a nation with industries focused solely on celebrity gossip, TV shows, music, and blockbuster hits, making the US a highly-mediated nation with a strong focus on celebrity.
In addition to the "celebrity" identity factor, there have been more strategic and patriotic images used to re-brand the country as well. After the September 11 attacks, Bush administration initiated the re-brand of the United States from "global bully" to a "compassionate hegemon". Many American citizens contributed to the act of patriotism by placing American flag bumper stickers on their cars, purple ribbons on trees in their yards, or hanging flags in their windows, all to recreate the feeling and image of nationwide pride and support.