Corporate narcissism ― the bastard child of misplaced brand thinking

Passing through Slough the other day, wondering what I’d done to deserve this, I noticed some offices bearing the HTC logo and the strapline “quietly brilliant”.

You can see how this might have happened. HTC makes some of the most desirable Android handsets you can buy, but its sales have not reflected the quality of the specs or design. It seems the brand team decided that they would have to make virtue out of necessity, or perhaps “boastfulness” or its variant “false modesty” have somehow been baked into the company’s corporate value cake.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s all wrong, but the worst way it’s wrong is in the corporate narcissism it reveals. This goes far beyond HTC. It’s become common practice in business language, and it is damaging everywhere it appears.

By corporate narcissism I mean the habit of talking about yourself when you should be talking about your customers and what you can do for them. This seems to be a strangely unforeseen consequence of brand thinking, with its focus on identity.

The irony is that this brand focus was conceived as a way of understanding what it might be beyond obvious product features that could determine consumer preference, and yet it seems too often that the parallel belief in constructed identity means businesses are losing sight of those customers. They are too busy thinking about themselves, constructing messages to project this self-reflection, rather than thinking rigorously about the reality of their customer relationships.

The heart of the problem here is the notion of “constructed identity”, and the linked belief that such identity can be built from the relentless repetition of straplines, missions and values.

This problem in turn reflects a confusion about contexts. Understanding brand, or more accurately, emotional attachment, certainly has its place within the dark arts of advertising. But confusing this understanding with “identity” seems to have blinded executives to the very different relationships they must manage. Employees, and potential employees, are necessarily interested in many aspects of their employer. Other stakeholders too may have wider interests, but for most customers the relationship remains narrowly transactional.

You might say that customers are also very interested in an organisations’ ethics and behaviour, so “values” matter. That interest is real, though only up to a point (I wonder how many people have stopped using Amazon because of doubts about its employment practices); but ethics occupy an area where people will judge you on what you do, not what you say, and when a supermarket bangs on about its values to its customers it will always sound more like it’s trying to convince itself than speak to those customers. This is a basic truth of communication psychology (as individuals we don’t usually talk about our values, unless we feel we are being misjudged).

I’m not suggesting that corporate identity doesn’t matter. I think it matters a lot, which is why you have to work much harder than currently normal to understand what it could actually mean. I understand too that it may seem sensible to seek “alignment” of everything the business does with whatever secures customer allegiance. But again this requires more thoughtful work about what such alignment would really look like, and how it could be achieved.

In the meantime, we find ourselves in this strange world in which businesses seem to be forever talking to themselves, though not even in a way that’s likely to engage their employees. Look around. Once noticed you’ll see it everywhere.

I’ve written some extended thoughts on context and tone of voice. It’s a free PDF called Five Tones of Voice. It offers some practical advice which among other things will help you avoid corporate narcissism, so just drop me a mail at paul@brasington.co.uk and I’ll send you a copy by return.


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