Corporate Image

February 26, 2004

We all have one, but few work to protect, project it

In nutritional circles, it’s said that “you are what you eat.” As a corporate entity, you are what people think you are. According to a recent report from the Opinion Research Corp., corporate image is a major part of what sells a company and its products. In the study, 97 percent of the responding senior and middle managers said image accounts for a significant measure of a company’s successes and failures.

This study reflects that people do business with a given firm or buy its products for more than the quality of the goods or services. The collective knowledge of customers, stockholders, bankers, brokerage houses, dealers, distributors and the media regarding a company can affect its sales, earnings, valuation, ability to obtain loans and ability to attract quality employees.

Corporate image is the perceived sum of the entire organization, objectives and plans. It encompasses its products, services, management style, communications activities and actions.

Many firms focus little attention on their corporate image until it has been severely damaged. Often, this recognition comes too late to remedy the situation.

Building a positive corporate image requires skillful long-term planning. Management cannot limit its focus to the next few weeks or months. Plans to ensure a positive corporate image should create an impression that will last for years.

Benefits of a Strong Image

According to A.C. Nielson, 30 brands that currently are leaders in their markets will lose their positions in less than two years. A strong corporate image can extend product lives and can buoy a firm through inevitable sales valleys by providing

  • An awareness among managers of the firm’s long-range goals,
  • More clearly defined corporate objectives and direction,
  • Improved insights into competitive positions and market conditions,
  • Improved internal and external communications,
  • A positive account to customers of the firm’s marketplace position,
  • Improved understanding of the organization within the financial community, and
  • Better understanding of the company, its objectives and direction by employees, suppliers, directors and the media.

 

Influences on Image

Advertising and publicity are only two aspects in establishing an image. Everything a company is, says and does is a component of its image.

  • The Product--Consistent high-quality from companies such as Hewlett Packard, Compaq and IBM positions these companies above competition.
  • Service--IBM may not have the most advanced products, but the level of service it provides is not questioned.
  • Finance--When well-known, reputable companies have short-term setbacks in sales and earnings, there is little concern in the marketplace. The financial strength of organizations such as Microsoft, IBM, Compaq and HP is a strong factor in purchasing decisions and affects the successes of those firms.
  • Employees--The attitudes of a firm’s employees often influence the way it is perceived.
  • Sense of Citizenship--In recent years, management has become increasingly aware of its corporate responsibility as citizens of communities and as participants in government policy. HP, Intel, National Semiconductor and other industry leaders have become more vocal and more visible in Washington, D.C., taking strong positions regarding technology drain, technology transfer and international sales.
  • Acquisition Policy--A company’s growth through acquisition generally says the firm is growing. But hostile takeovers, greenmail (an unfriendly move by a securities buyer that buys enough stock to threaten a hostile takeover and then sells it back to the company at a higher price) and similar activities can adversely affect a company’s image. The ability to assimilate new acquisitions into existing corporate structures also is important.

 

Launching an Image

There are certain steps to follow when launching a corporate image program.

  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the current image. Define the factors that determine the image and assess the underlying emotion attributed to these factors. Negative images dictate the need for basic changes in policies and practices. Neutral images require that choices be made between maintaining status quo and promoting expansion and growth. Corporations with positive images should seek to perpetuate and expand on them.
  • Define the image that the firm wants to project. Every firm wants to be perceived as profitable, well-managed, forward-looking, research-oriented, rapidly growing and rapidly diversifying as well as kind and beneficial to its employees, stockholders and customers. Carve out a niche which is unique to your own organization.
  • Determine a course of action that appeals to the largest possible number of your target audience.
  • Create audience-specific selling themes. Make certain each selling theme is compatible and in line with the overall image theme.
  • Coordinate every channel of communications. This includes advertising, salespeople, letterhead, shipping labels, invoices, employee training manuals, brochures, posters, business cards, samples, trademarks, product labels, articles, news releases, trade booth displays and other internal and external promotional vehicles.

 

Image Audiences

The way to launch an effective image development and/or reinforcement campaign is to define your target publics. Most companies seek to influence the following.

  • Consumers--Utilize every resource to research and define your consumers. Then find the most effective method to present the firm to the crucial group.
  • Shareholders--By knowing your shareholders, their degree of involvement in the company and interests, you can develop a communication program that will create a strong network extension of your sales force.
  • The Investment Community--Management has a new and vital job in keeping security analysts, brokers and bankers aware of the company, its management, its plans and its successes.
  • Employees--By working with this group, management can instill a sense of involvement in common goals that will increase productivity, curb turnover and  attract the types of people necessary to ensure future corporate success.
  • Communities--When an understanding of one another’s goals is achieved between a company and the community in which it operates, the result usually is a solid working relationship.
  • Suppliers--These people can have a strong influence on the success or failure of a corporate image campaign and firm. Cultivate a feeling of trust and interdependence. Both sides should feel that they are an integral part of the other’s success.
  • The Media--Establish, maintain and constantly reinforce your relationship with the media at all levels nationally and locally.

 

Reaching Audiences

Once you have identified and prioritized various audiences, you are ready to develop and execute specific programs and plans to reach and influence the following audiences.

  • Shareholders--Use management and public relations to maintain your image with shareholders via a program of communications, annual reports, quarterlies, special reports and shareholder meetings.
  • Financial Community--Senior management should be responsible for regularly contacting financial analysts, brokers and bankers.
  • Employees--Make employees understand that their skills, attitudes and dedication are part of what makes up the company’s image and helps ensure success.
  • Customers--Let present and prospective customers know that the firm realizes that its success is closely tied to its customers’ initial and repeated acceptance of the company, products and services.
  • Industry and Trade Groups--Every company is part of an industry that includes customers, suppliers and competitors. Management should regularly communicate its image within the industry by
    • Keeping the press informed,
    • Participating in trade associations,
    • Participating in trade councils,
    • Becoming spokespersons for industry needs and goals, and
    • Promoting for the overall good of the industry.

Plan of Action

Once an audit of the company’s image has been completed and priorities established, management is ready to move forward.

Keep in mind that a good image deserves a proper presentation. You are trying to inspire, motivate and change or reinforce thought patterns and associations evoked by your organization. This is an art. It can only be accomplished through fastidious application. Your program must be directed to the right people at the right time.

Generally, the molding of a corporate image is not a program that can focus on near-term results. It is a multifaceted, long-term activity that includes everyone in the organization.

A corporate image is no substitute for fair dealings and high-quality products. However, first impressions have a lasting effect. A company’s ability to communicate a favorable and progressive image to its many publics places it ahead of its competition, and subsequently has a profound effect on the bottom line.

G.A. "Andy" Marken is president of Marken Communications, Inc., in Santa Clara, Calif. He may be reached at andy@markencom.com.

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