When did Apple Computer become just “Apple”? According to The New York Times, shortly after it introduced the iPhone. It’s a matter of identity. Realizing it had a transformational new product on its hands, Apple likely wanted to ensure consumers no longer thought of it as just a computer company. And as The Times emphasizes, identity awareness is paramount to business success. “As the core essence of a company, identity plays a central role in guiding managerial decision-making,” says Wharton School professor and co-author of The Soul of the Corporation, John R. Kimberly.
For Apple, a relatively simple branding tweak enabled the company to make the transition from computers to a wider variety of electronics. But for companies attempting to traverse greater identity landscapes, the move isn’t quite so simple. The article notes that a key ingredient in successful face-lifts of this sort is continuity.
For example, when Fujifilm moved beyond the imaging realm into pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, it helped consumers bridge that wide gap by advertising the links between the two. The company used television commercials to explain “how nanotechnology originally developed for photography helped skin cream to better penetrate the skin.”
Information manager Iron Mountain used its core values of customer service and building trust to ease consumers into the company’s new digital offerings, emphasizing the fact that clients’ records were safe, regardless of the format.
Both of these solutions highlight a common thread of company history, whether that thread lies in products or culture. And it is this notion that speaks to our work at The History Factory. Companies often come to us at this critical point in their history, when they want to turn a corner, change their identity, but aren’t sure how to get there.
A common identity issue we face is a recent merger or acquisition of considerable size, one that can’t easily be rolled into a parent company’s brand. How do you reconcile two disparate personalities—in the eyes of employees as well as consumers? The solution lies in history.
Sometimes it takes a bit of digging, but more often than not, the companies have more in common than they thought. If two companies in the same industry have any history to speak of, they likely share some of it. For example, we’ve uncovered personal relationships between founders of two companies that merged hundreds of years later, thinking they had nothing in common. This shared experience becomes the lifeline for both companies as they come to grips with their new, shared identity.
If identity truly does guide decision-making, it is imperative for companies to be aware not only of who they are, but who they were.