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 / Second Quarter 1997 / Issue 7(originally published by Booz & Company)


What the Heck Is a Company, Anyway? Reflections on Identity

Our instincts, Professor Fox argues, evolved long before that short span called history and are still paleo-lithic. We like tight bands, in which everyone partakes of a shared identity.

But what if the group that claims people's loyalty is not one in which what Professor Fox calls "the paleo-lithic emotions'' easily fall? Most of the other groups to which people can claim loyalty evolve out of the shared history or shared enthusiasm that makes Serbs Serbs or turns us into Packers fans. Corporations, those groups made to pursue bottom lines and rational interests, aren't likely to evoke such passion.

That's one reason, the writer Joel Kotkin argues, in his book "Tribes," that business in the coming decades will run along ethnic lines. Such primal loyalties, he argues, will outweigh the claims of abstractions like the company and the nation-state. That the pull of ties based on primal feelings is strong is illustrated by a recent Whole Earth Review article on the poor management of do-gooder organizations, which quoted an ex-Forest Service employee who had gone over to an environmentalist group. "I hate what the Forest Service does, but I have to say that when I worked for them, I felt as if I was part of a family, part of a team," he said. "In the environmental organizations I have worked for since, I have never had that feeling."

The pull of the paleolithic emotions is strong indeed. The challenge, then, in creating a powerful corporate identity is to satisfy not only the company's needs for efficiency and change, but also the primal longing of employees and customers for that family feeling.

It's not a small task, because that warm feeling of belonging that marks identities like ethnicity or sports fandom usually emerges from the bottom up. Corporations are usually shaped, represented and changed from the top down.

"No identity program can succeed without a champion at the top," says Hayes Roth, executive director for corporate identity at Landor Associates, the San Francisco-based identity and design firm. The sudden changing of a logo or a name, the shedding of a division, the accession of a new chief executive with new ideas about the nature of the company -- all these things can lead employees to a kind of alienation that's harder to feel when one has been part of a slow and self-directed social change.

"There are three things you can do to the Paleolithic hunter that is Man," Professor Fox writes: Deny him his evolved need to belong to a group; meet those needs by providing a satisfying group to join; or fool the emotions into doing something not natural but useful. Insisting against all instinct that the guys in the mail room are brothers with "the suits" in Mergers and Acquisitions might be an example of the Deny Strategy. Crowds of happy, baying sports fans whooping it up all over town after their team wins the championship are illustrating how well a modern institution can follow the Satisfy Strategy. As for the Fool the Instincts Strategy, Professor Fox cites modern huge nation-states, in which people with nothing in common are called upon to summon up fellow-feeling for other Americans or brother Brazilians.

A company with offices all over the world is an even more abstract entity, harder to envision and love. Hence the stereotype of the large corporation in Hollywood films from "Robocop" to "Local Hero" -- a heartless, faceless entity ("Engulf and Devour" is the name of the corporation in Mel Brooks's "Silent Movie") against which are pitted the human feelings of warmth and mutual concern.


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