I was told by a very close person that I may have an identity problem. Before you judge and advise me to visit a psychiatrist, or tie my name to some made up scandal, let me tell you that I’m not at all disturbed by this and that I even found it a bit flattering, after this person provided a little clarification. This whole event started with this person’s observation of my ‘overly easy and quick’ adoption of new things in life…starting with a new surname (yes, I got married and wanted to be practical), then deciding to use my nickname for professional purposes (yes, my first name is more difficult to pronounce – again being practical), then being open to new citizenship (yes, I didn’t want to go through a ‘special process’ when traveling much more frequently than my husband – once again practical), and of course moving to a new country and adapting to a new life, customs and culture (yes, a country where my native language is not spoken, where the culture and customs are very different than my homeland)…I guess that I’ve been letting go of who I was and getting used to all these changes way too easily in the eyes of certain people… But, is this really an identity problem? Or a matter of personal growth and development?
Throughout my life, I somehow always viewed this personal trait as being positive; the ability to adapt, to change, to continue to work with what’s given, whether an opportunity or challenge, and making the best of it. Then, one day somebody tells me that I’m a weak person, who doesn’t respect her heritage nor who she was really meant to be in the first place, but instead just accepts whatever is thrown her way without resistance. Being attacked and judged as a reckless chameleon made me think about ‘identity problems’ in a different direction – let’s say business (of course!). It was not difficult for me to identify with the fact that businesses sometimes also need to modify or completely change their identity – sometimes only to keep up with a trend, at other times to follow the direction in which a market is moving, and sometimes to simply just ‘survive’. But how often do businesses change their identity?
Often enough for us to notice! In business, a ‘corporate identity’ is clearly defined (not like in my case where a bunch of variables were taken into account to proclaim me as a person with identity problems); Wikipedia and Business Dictionary offer very detailed insight on this topic, going even further and chopping a corporate identity into 3 parts: corporate design, corporate communication and corporate behavior. All of these are valuable for different situations but corporate design is the one that the masses somehow notice first. For most of us, logos and colors – the pillars of corporate design – are the first elements in which we would notice a change in a company’s identity. Hmm, do you wonder what kind of identity problem or other situation would make a company change its logo or colors? Nowadays, it appears that such a change is most commonly initiated through mergers, and less often due to an entry into new markets (globalization), a new revolutionary product, catching up with new trends, or even as a tool to evade bad publicity. Personally, I find corporate identity changes – or rebranding – most interesting when they occur due to a) a merger or b) bad publicity…they’re just so much fun!
Mergers seem like a popular thing to do in a recession – every once in a while we hear about one in the news. Quite often, mergers seem confusing to us – even if we read a detailed public release, it always feels like there might have been some secret deal behind the closed door that we will never know about. But leaving behind all the confidential details, we can always comment on the visual consequences of the merger. Let me remind you about one of them that happened during 2010: United Airlines and Continental Airlines. Remember how United fans reacted when the famous “U” (which was sometimes perceived as a “W”) and the legendary ‘United colors’ red, white and blue were exchanged for ‘just’ a blue version of the logo that ‘arrogantly’ added Continental livery. People saw/read Continental even if the logo clearly says ‘United Airlines’. Hmm, an identity problem for United? Much more of a Continental feel than some people would like to see, I guess…but knowing another side to the story – that both companies have some bad tales from the past – we shouldn’t be surprised if their identity changes once again in the near future. New identity, fresh start for them, maybe?
The second interesting moment for an identity crisis happens when a scandal or other bad publicity occurs. Can you think of any examples this second? How about the hottest ‘bad publicity’ story for 2010…BP…oops, I have to resist the urge to discuss BP since they haven’t yet rebranded, as they apparently aren’t yet suffering from an identity crisis! But there are many more…how about Enron (of course!), Tyco, Arthur Andersen, Philip Morris or WorldCom, just to name a few. What puts Arthur Andersen, Philip Morris and WorldCom (MCI) in the same basket is that they freed themselves of some bad reputation by taking on a new identity – Accenture, Altria and Verizon, respectively.
Take for example ‘Philip Morris’, a name that was most frequently associated with cigarettes, smoking, cancer, addiction, and death. It did not matter that, at the time, Philip Morris Companies Inc also owned Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing Company…people just saw cigarettes.
”When people say ‘Philip Morris,’ people don’t know which company you’re talking about. We’re more than a tobacco company, obviously, but there are a lot of people who don’t understand that” (Steven C. Parrish, the company’s Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs)
So, renaming the parent company (Philip Morris Companies Inc) to Altria and keeping Philip Morris U.S.A. and Philip Morris International as the only two tobacco companies under Altria’s umbrella should make things clearer and better, right? The new identity ‘Altria’ was supposed to bring a fresh start…but many people and anti-tobacco organizations did not ‘buy’ the new identity.
“It may change its name to Altria, but Philip Morris is still wanted for the death of millions”
But Altria was still a good move – people tend to have short-term memory and generations shift. I mean, the company has to be good – ‘look at their logo with such a positive collage of colors’!
Identity change is a complex cycle that will not only include this visual component but also other areas of business. It is important to have a strategy and a goal regarding where you want to be after you do go through the change. So, anytime you decide to make a change or to rebrand any part of your business, plan wisely before starting your ‘new company’ and pick a good partner to help you with the new identity!