Does Your Brand Have an Identity Crisis?

Posted by Jason Biddle on Sep 10th 2019

Originally Published: February 26, 2014

Who happened to see this Comcast commercial? (Turn up your volume; it’s a little quiet)


Anyone else throw the nearest object at the screen and yell, “Lies! All lies!” upon hearing such blatant falsehoods?

If not, then you must be one of the lucky few to have evaded the plague that is Comcast customer service. When Comcast says it cares about its customers and instead does things like this, this, and this, it’s clear that the company has an identity crisis.

Despite efforts to paint itself as a customer-centric organization, Comcast’s true colors show through. There’s a very good reason for Google’s second auto-complete suggestion when searching “Comcast customer service.”

Comcast Customer Service Sucks

To be honest (someone has to be, right?), Comcast is an easy target; the disparity between its promise and performance is huge. Plus, terrible customer service sticks out like a sore thumb.

Unfortunately, recognizing a brand identity crisis isn’t always so obvious, especially when nothing appears to be “wrong.” Without any immediate red flags it’s tempting to assume everything is in good order. But ignorance is not a solution, and an identity crisis is nothing to take lightly: it singlehandedly keeps companies from becoming great.

Are You A Hedgehog or a Fox?

The Hedgehog

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” – Archilochus

The fox is a cunning creature, continually thinking up of new tactics to attack and eat its prey. And of all its targets, it’s the little hedgehog that somehow manages to foil the fox’s efforts. What’s the hedgehog’s secret? Rolling up into a protective, spiny ball. No matter how many different schemes the fox employs, the hedgehog faithfully turns to its only defense strategy and always escapes!

Doing one thing exceptionally well is much better than doing many things with mediocrity.

Good to GreatIn his book, Good to Great, business consultant Jim Collins studies 1,435 good companies to see which of those organizations become truly great over a 40 year period. During his research, Collins finds that the proverb penned by the ancient Greek poet Archilocus some 2500 years ago aptly applies to modern day businesses.

Companies who pursue many strategies at the same time are foxes and suffer from identity crises. Scattered and unfocused, these organizations fail to achieve greatness.

On the other hand, organizations with a single, unifying framework are hedgehogs. Undeterred by distractions, hedgehog companies relentlessly focus on doing one thing extremely well and ultimately become great.

Of the 1,435 companies that Collins evaluates, only 11 (less than 1%) are great! The other 1,424 are distracted foxes, trying to be all things to all people.

Greatness requires a steadfast devotion to maintaining a clear brand identity. And clearing up an identity crisis requires an understanding of all the parts that make up a brand’s identity.

The Three P’s of Brand Identity

3 Peas in a Pod

An important part of every brand diet

A brand is one of the most valuable assets that a business can develop, and sadly, it’s also one of the most misunderstood. There are tons of thoughts on branding floating around the interwebs, but few successfully encapsulate the entire meaning of the term.

Definitions are either too narrow (e.g. a brand is a company’s reputation) or too vague (e.g. a brand is a company’s essence). These explanations aren’t necessarily wrong, but they aren’t complete either. Hopefully this can help resolve the confusion. Brand identity is comprised of three components:

Brand Identity Pyramid 1

Principles, Performance, Promise

Here’s another way to put it:

Brand Identity Pyramid 2

What you value, what you do, what you say

1. Principles

Brand identity always begins with establishing foundational principles that forever guide the organization. These values supersede an organization’s industry, so a trucking company and a clothier may very well share the same core tenets.

Choosing the principles that drive the company doesn’t have to be a difficult, drawn out process. Consider what values are personally meaningful, and select the most important one or two. A single guiding value is best, but holding true to two core principles is also possible (just be wary of the fox syndrome!). Customer service, quality, transparency, attention to detail, low prices, fast delivery, and convenience are a few examples of principles.

Also, it’s important to know that some tenets may conflict with one another and, thus, are mutually exclusive. For example, it’s impossible for a business to value both low prices and quality. At some point the organization will have to compromise one of those principles in favor of the other. Keep this in mind when selecting principles.

2. Performance

Performance naturally flows out of principles. Everything a business does must come back to its core principles.

If a company values fast delivery, then the impact of that principle is company-wide. HR must hire employees whose skills support fast delivery, engineers must design products that can be delivered with speed, operations must develop processes that enable quick turnarounds, marketing must offer value to customers with fast shipping options, etc.

Performance is the way a company lives out its principles.

3. Promise

An organization’s principles and performance give context to the promise the organization makes to customers. Everything a company says must come back to its performance.

“We know that you really value getting your products quickly, so we’ve made fast delivery the core tenet of our company. We’ve developed a unique relationship with our delivery service providers that enables us to ship twice as fast as our competitors. We guarantee at least two-day shipping on ANYTHING we have in stock.” The promise a business makes to its customers is always backed up by its performance and principles.

Making promises that conflict with the company’s foundational values is a sure way to set unrealistic expectations for customers. The Comcast commercial promises exceptional customer service, but the company cannot back up its claims because its core principles and performance don’t support customer service.

“Maybe Comcast made changes to its principles and now values customer service!”

That may be the case, but until Comcast’s performance catches up to its principles, the company will never be able to deliver on its customer service promise. Principles and performance must be in place before promises can be made.

With all the pieces of a brand in place it’s time to take a look at your own brand identity and see if its suffering from an identity crisis.

Identify Your Identity

Lego Batman

Even superheroes have identity crises

In their efforts to dispatch all the villains terrorizing the world, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent share one common struggle: balancing two polar opposite identities in their lives. Fending off the Joker and other nemeses is more than a full-time job, so it’s no wonder why these superheroes’ personal lives suffer so much.

Brand identities are no different. If employees don’t operate under a unifying brand identity or a brand continually changes its identity to appeal to a wider range of customers, then the organization will eventually break down. So how can businesses determine if they suffer from an identity crisis before it’s too late?

1. Identify what’s valued in word

When companies launch, it is common practice to draft core values, mission statements, company vision, etc. Begin identifying your brand’s identity by looking at these mantras and listing the principles that are expressed in writing by the organization. But some businesses never explicitly say what values guide them. If this applies to your brand, you may want to consider drafting a clear, concise statement that demonstrates the brand’s core principles. Writing out these tenets gives them permanence and power.

2. Identify what’s valued in deed

What a company shows it values is even more important than what a company says it values. With your written values statement in hand, evaluate the goals of each department to see if they support the company’s principles. Look for actions and decisions that the business makes that don’t align with the values. Where there’s inconsistency, there’s an identity crisis.

Chances are good that you’ll find at least one case of an identity crisis within your organization (remember, over 99% of companies in Good to Great had identity crises). The key is making it the highest priority to correct identity crises once they’re identified.

Be a Disciple of Discipline

The secret to righting the ship when it goes off course is to make a never-ending commitment to your brand’s core tenets. These company principles must be the lens through which every employee sees the world. Keeping this values statement front of mind requires constant reminders.

Write it on the walls, put it on the letterhead, include it on the email signature, announce it at the beginning of every meeting, incorporate it into advertising, tattoo it on every employee’s face; whatever it takes to ingrain the principles throughout the entire organization. When you think you’ve said it enough, say it again.

When you’re not reminding everyone of the brand identity, you must be disciplined in identifying when the company is drifting away from its identity. Unless you run a small business where you have your hand in the majority of its inter-workings, this will require the help of internal brand advocates. Enlist the department heads to help the brand stay true to its identity by being on the lookout for crises and correcting them immediately. With each division of the company being responsible for itself, this frees you up to encourage your brand advocates to not lose heart and keep fighting the good fight.

Don’t forget: the effort of maintaining a clear brand identity is rewarded by elevating your company from good to great.

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