In nutritional circles, it's said that you are what you eat. As a corporate entity, you are what people think you are.

According to a recent report from the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), corporate image is a major part of what sells a company, its products and services…and its stock. In the study, 97 percent of the responding senior and middle managers acknowledged that image accounts for a significant measure of the successes and failures of their organizations.

This study reflects the acknowledgment in the corporate community that people do business with a given firm or buy its products for more than the quality of the goods or services. The collective knowledge of customers, stockholders, bankers, brokerage houses, dealers, distributors and the media regarding a company can affect its sales, earnings, valuation, ability to obtain loans and its ability to attract quality employees.

Corporate image is defined as the perceived sum of the entire organization, its objectives and plans. It encompasses the company's products, services, management style, communications activities and actions around the world.

Many firms focus little attention on their corporate image until it has been severely damaged. Often, this recognition comes too late to remedy the situation.

Building a positive corporate image requires skillful long-term planning. Management cannot limit its focus to the next few weeks or months. Plans to ensure a positive corporate image should create an impression that will last for years.

Benefits of a Strong Image

Products have lives.

According to A.C. Nielson, 30 brands that are currently leaders in their respective categories will lose their positions in less than two years. A strong corporate image can extend

product lives and can also buoy a firm through the inevitable sales valleys by providing:

* A complete awareness among managers of the firm's long-range goals

* More clearly defined corporate objectives and direction

* Improved insights into competitive positions and market conditions

* Improved internal and external communications

* A positive accounting to customers of the firm's position in the industry and the marketplace

* Improved understanding of the organization within the financial community

* Better understanding of the company, its objectives and its direction by employees, suppliers, directors, and the media

Influences on Image

Advertising and publicity are only two aspects in the establishing a firm's image. Everything a company is, says and does is a component of its corporate image:

* The product--Consistent high quality from people like Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, IBM, Verbatim, Panasonic and others has positioned these companies above their competition.

* Service--IBM may not have the most advanced products, but no one questions the level of service they provide.

* Finance--When well-known, reputable companies have short-term setbacks in sales and earnings, there is little concern in the marketplace. The financial strength of organizations such as Microsoft, IBM, Lucent, Intel, HP, AT&T and others is a strong factor in purchasing decisions and affects the future successes of those firms.

* Employees--Happy, productive employees are a powerful market influence. The attitudes of a firm's employees often influence the way it is perceived by clients, trade partners and competitors.

* Sense of citizenship--In recent years, management has become increasingly aware of its corporate responsibility as citizens of communities and as participants in government policy. Netscape aggressively took its battles with Microsoft to Capital Hill. Sun Microsystems has never been shy about its activities in D.C. Intel, Microsoft and AT&T have long had their running love/hate relationships with the movers and shakers on the Beltway. Increasingly, many other business and industry leaders have become more vocal and more visible in Washington, D.C., taking strong positions regarding technology drain, international hiring policies, technology transfer and international sales.

* Acquisition policy--A company's growth through acquisition generally tells its many publics that the firm is growing. But hostile takeovers, greenmail and similar activities can adversely affect a company's image. Bell South’s aborted and rejected run at Sprint will severely hamper them in future acquisition attempts. The ability to assimilate new acquisitions into existing corporate structures is also important--as Cisco, AT&T and MCI WorldCom have realized.

Launching an Image

There are certain steps which must be followed in launching a corporate image communications program. They are:

* Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the company's current image…locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Define the factors which determine that image and assess the underlying emotion attributed to these factors. Negative images may dictate the need for basic changes in corporate policies and practices. Neutral images require that a choice be made between maintaining image status quo and promoting expansion and growth. Corporations with positive images should seek to perpetuate and expand on those images.

* Define the image that the firm wants to project. Every firm wants to be perceived as profitable, well managed, forward-looking, research-oriented, rapidly growing and rapidly diversifying as well as kind and beneficial to its employees, stockholders and customers. That’s motherhood and apple pie. Carve out a niche which is unique to your own organization.

* Determine a course of action that appeals to the largest possible number of your target audience.

* Create audience-specific selling themes. Make certain each selling theme is compatible and in line with the overall image theme.

* Coordinate every channel of communications to build the desired image. This includes advertising; sales, service and support people; letterhead; shipping labels; invoices; employee training manuals; brochures; posters; business cards; samples; trademarks; product labels; articles; news releases; trade booth displays; Web site activities and other internal and external promotional vehicles.

Image Audiences

The way to launch an effective image development and/or reinforcement campaign is to define your target publics. Most companies seek to influence:

* Consumers--Utilize every resource to research and define your consumers as a group and as individuals. Then find the most effective methods to present your firm to this crucial group.

* Shareholders--By knowing your shareholders, their degree of involvement in the company and their interests, you can develop a communication program that will create a strong

network extension of your sales force.

* The Investment Community--Management has a new and vital job in keeping security analysts, brokers and bankers aware of the company, its management, its plans and its successes.

* Employees--By working with this influential group, management can instill a sense of involvement in common goals which will increase productivity, curb turnover and create a working environment which will make it easier to attract the types of people necessary to ensure future corporate success.

* Communities--When an understanding of one anothers' goals is achieved between a company and the community in which it operates, the result is usually a solid working relationship. Sun Microsystems did an excellent job in establishing itself as a strong partner and concerned community member when it consolidated its corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley. Lucas Enterprises achieved major success in taking over San Francisco’s Presidio by aligning itself with the goals of the local community.

* Suppliers--These people can have a strong influence on the success or failure of your corporate image campaign and your firm. Cultivate a feeling of trust and interdependence. Dell Computer has put a lot of power and control in the hands of the firm’s suppliers which not only makes them an integral part of the firm’s success but helps them measure their relationship with the company. Both sides should feel that they are an integral part of the other's success.

* The Media--Establish, maintain, and constantly reinforce your relationship with members of the media at all levels—internationally, nationally and locally. A good relationship can assist in communicating or amplifying your firm's position.

Reaching Audiences

Once you've identified and prioritized your various audiences, you are ready to develop and execute specific programs and plans to reach and influence these audiences:

* Shareholder Relations--Use management and public relations to develop and maintain your image with shareholders via a carefully planned and executed program of communications, annual reports, quarterlies, Web site activities, special reports and shareholder meetings.

* Financial community relations--senior management should be responsible for regularly contacting financial analysts, brokers and bankers. Provide them with company "white papers" and regular mailings to keep them well informed.

* Employee relations--Make certain that employees understand that their skills, attitudes and dedication are a large part of what makes up the company's image and helps ensure the firm's future success.

* Customer relations--Let present and prospective customers know that the firm realizes that its success is closely tied to its customers' initial and repeated acceptance of the company, its products and its services.

* Industry and trade relations--Every company is part of an industry which includes customers, suppliers and competitors. Each of these groups influences the company's image. Management should regularly communicate its image within the industry by:

- Keeping the press informed

- Participating in trade associations

- Participating in trade councils

- Becoming spokespersons for industry needs and goals

- Promoting for the overall good of the industry

Plan of Action

Once an audit of the company's image has been completed and priorities established on the various aspects of the image program, management is ready to move forward.

Keep in mind that a good image deserves a proper presentation. You are trying to inspire, motivate and either change or reinforce thought patterns and associations evoked by your organization. This is an art. It can only be accomplished through fastidious application. Your program must be directed to the right people at the right time. It must be presented in the most beneficial atmosphere.

Generally, the molding of a corporate image is not a program that can focus on near-term results. An undesirable corporate identity is a lot like obesity. It takes a long time to develop the symptoms, and it will probably take just as long, if not longer, to achieve significant improvement. It is a multi-faceted activity that includes everyone in the organization.

A sound corporate image is no substitute for fair dealings and quality products. However, first impressions have a lasting effect. A company's ability to communicate a favorable and progressive image to its many publics places it ahead of its competition, and subsequently has a profound effect on the bottom line.

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G. A. "Andy" Marken President Marken Communications, Inc. Santa Clara, CA Andy has worked in front of and behind the TV camera and radio mike. Unlike most PR people he listens to and understands the consumer’s perspective on the actual use of products. He has written more than 100 articles in the business and trade press. During this time he has also addressed industry issues and technologies not as corporate wishlists but how they can be used by normal people. He has been a marketing an...

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