My biggest mistake was coming to London thinking I spoke English.
I tried to promote our consulting expertise in 'Corporate Identity'. In a land where pants are trousers, crosswalks are either zebras or pelicans, and suspenders aren't braces (to say nothing of the various definitions of rubbers and fags]), I should have known that 'corporate identity' probably meant 'logos'.
I have since learned my lesson: find out what people think you do before you try to sell it to them, it saves a lot of time and confusion.
There are some very successful British companies that have understood what I call corporate identity for a long time.
They recognise that a company changes over time and should review its identity periodically, to see if people see it as they actually is or as it used to be.
There are others who have been confused by graphic designers borrowing the term 'corporate identity' to refer to a cosmetic means of smartening up a company's appearance.
Some of the companies we met with thought they only needed a paint job, and seemed surprised when we talked about a remodelling.
We've been involved in a number of discussions where we've heard such revealing observations by the client as 'Our image isn't very good, we think we need a new identity.'
When we started asking questions about business strategy, plans for European integration, international competition, imminent strategic change - they asked 'What does any of this have to do with our identity?'
After talking to one particularly perplexing client a few weeks ago, I said to my colleagues: 'These people still don't know what we do. They think we only offer design.'
So we've taken a dose of our own medicine - we've changed our identity.
We no longer describe ourselves as corporate identity consultants. We say: 'We're corporate obscurity consultants - we help companies that are misunderstood to get better understood.'
I've tried out this description on about 50 London cabbies and they understand it, so I figure that others will (keep in mind that cabbies are a pretty savvy lot])
You see, corporate obscurity sounds like a disease, something to be avoided. We've even come up with a short description.
'Corporate Obscurity' (n. symptom): A common condition which occurs after organisational change; leading to confusion about a company's scope, structure and focus.
People seem to understand this. To illustrate the point, you have only to point out the fate of 'obscure companies', you know - companies that people either don't know about or have a misunderstanding of, such as Hawker Siddeley, Dowty, British Aerospace, BET.
But if this phrase does not work, we'll find another one.
We cannot make people believe companies are something they are not. But corporate identity - which has always been a misnomer - will become very important in differentiating one company from another, particularly as their products and services become more and more similar, and they have to fight for attention in foreign capital markets.
So take pity on a well-intentioned American in London. Next time I ring up to discuss corporate identity, please don't say, 'Thanks, we already have a logo.'
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