Using a brand symbol to construct organizational identity
CELIA V. HARQUAIL, PhD 2 Edgemont Road
Montclair, New Jersey, 07042
Tel.: (973) 655-8994
PRACTICE AND IDENTITY:
Using a brand symbol to construct organizational identity
Organization members can take their cues about the organization’s identity from a variety of sources. As discussed in the introductory section of this book about the sources of organizational identity cues, (page ref), these cues can be internal and external, material and discursive, behavioral and conceptual. In the organization described in this case, members constructed their collective definition of the organization’s identity by drawing on cues from a tool that they had developed for their brand. This tool, their brand icon, was a fictional character created expressly to personify and embody the attributes that they wanted to associate with their brand’s identity. Features of the brand icon and her story, combined with organizational practices intended to help employees use the brand icon in marketing-related decisions, ultimately served as cues from which organization members constructed their beliefs about the identity of the organization itself.
The idea that organization members would draw identity cues from their marketing tools is interesting because we generally assume that members construct their organization’s identity from cues related to the organization as a whole, in its entirety. Nevertheless, it is not altogether surprising that tools or practices related to branding the organization’s products could be taken as cues for the organization’s identity itself. Products are often believed to reflect or express the organization from which they come (see Soenen, Monin, & Rouzies and Stigliani & Ravasi in this volume). For this reason it can be advantageous for organizations to blur the distinction between the organization’s identity and the identity of their product brand, and organizations often explicitly enlist the organization’s identity in constructing, reflecting, and legitimating the brand’s identity for the consumer. Enlisting the organization’s identity can add heft to the brand’s identity claims by suggesting that the brand’s attributes originate from the organization itself. At Kartell, for example, the organization’s design philosophy (part of its organizational identity) is used to support their marketing claims that their brand of plastic furniture, although constructed from a mundane material, reflects very contemporary and highly sophisticated design (Stigliani & Ravasi, this volume).
While the distinction between them can be blurred, organizational identity and brand identity are very different constructs. Organizational identities emerge from members’ collective values and experience, and help to provide the organization and its members with a deeper, broader reason for being. In contrast, brand identities are beliefs invented about a product to make it more desirable, to sell it, and to make a profit. Brand identities are largely “made up” to appeal to the desires and demands of a particular segment of potential customers (Aaker, 1996). Despite the fact that employees are able intellectually to distinguish between the identity of their organization and the identity of their brand, what is important is that in practice organization members often treat the organization’s identity and the brand’s identity as the same construct.
Blurring the line between the organization’s identity and the brand’s identity can be a savvy, effective marketing choice, especially when the brand’s identity is difficult to substantiate, largely conceptual, and more rhetorical than real. However, reversing the direction of influence so that a somewhat fictional brand identity is used to construct the organization’s identity invites questions about what is effective, what is authentic, and what is real.
The Heartland Corporation profiled in this case offers a vivid example of how the distinction between brand identity and organizational identity can be blurred and how the brand’s identity can influence the collective definition of the organization. In practice, the Heartland Corporation used the attributes, tools, and beliefs they invented about their brand as resources for cues about their organization’s identity. Their brand icon came to represent not only their beliefs about the brand’s identity but also their beliefs about the organization’s identity.
Introducing the Heartland Corporation
The Heartland Corporation (a pseudonym)1 is a 20-year-old, privately held business headquartered in a small city in Missouri, the “Heartland” of the United States. Heartland employs 500 full-time workers at its headquarters and about 20 employees at each of 1,000 retail stores across the United States. The company sells its own name-brand gourmet foodstuffs, as well as unbranded gourmet kitchen implements and tabletop accessories. Heartland’s target customers are middle-class women who are interested in cooking and old-fashioned hospitality. Heartland’s brand positioning focuses on food as a gift, cooking as a personal indulgence, hospitality, and honest goodness. Their foods are presented as being top quality, wholesome, and “good for you.”
Branding practices at Heartland. Heartland has a simple, unified brand identity structure, where the organization and its product brands share the same name (Harquail, 2005; Cappetta & Gioia, 2005). As an organization, Heartland has a strong marketing orientation (Christensen, 1995): the organizational culture emphasizes the importance of marketing as a practice and the primacy of satisfying customers’ desires. Heartland executives fully recognize that customers purchase Heartland products less for their function or material performance than for their ideational, symbolic aspects (Gobe, 2001). Therefore, to maximize their products’ ideational, symbolic values, Heartland has become very skilled at branding. Branding is the practice of taking a more or less generic product and making it distinctive and desirable to consumers by associating the product with real and imagined attributes.
A commonly used tool in the practice of creating a brand identity is the brand icon. A brand icon is a character – fictitious or real, human or anthropomorphized – that an audience identifies with the brand and the brand’s attributes. Well-known brand icons include KFC’s Colonel Sanders, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Pillsbury’s Dough Boy. To create a brand icon, marketers identify the attributes they want to associate with their product and invent or adopt a character who they define and depict as having those attributes. Sometimes marketers elaborate on the character’s attributes by weaving them into a real or fictional life story. The character is then presented to the target audience as a symbol of these attributes. When a character is effectively created and communicated, the target audience not only recognizes the attributes the character is intended to convey, but also connects both the character and its attributes with the brand. In this way, a brand icon symbolizes the brand and personifies the brand’s identity.
Brand icons are most often thought of as tools for communicating with consumer audiences. However, brand icons can also be effective tools for communicating with an internal organizational audience. Internally, organization members can use the brand icon as a tool to help them elaborate upon or extend a brand’s identity and to translate the brand identity into products, packaging and retail presentation, advertising, and so on. As a tool inside an organization, brand icons are increasingly common (Gobe, 2001; Schneider, 2002).
Heartland’s Brand Icon
Inventing a Brand Icon. On an executive retreat early in the company’s third year, Heartland’s executive team decided to invent their own brand icon – a character whose personality and biography would help to organize, distill, and personify the identity of the Heartland brand. They wrote a story about Carrie King, the woman who founded Heartland, describing who she was, what she valued, how she came to start Heartland, and what she wanted for Heartland’s customers. Executives hoped that employees throughout the organization would refer to the brand icon when they made decisions affecting the brand. In this way, they could align decisions about the brand across different organizational functions and strengthen the relationship between the product, the brand identity, and the presentation of the brand to achieve consistency across product lines and distribution points. The brand icon was intended for use only within the organization: it was never used as a public face to represent products to retail customers.
Describing Carrie King. Heartland’s brand icon, Carrie King, is the thirty-something mother of Hannah and Max and the wife of Sam King. She was born in a farming town west of St. Louis, Missouri. As a teen, Carrie earned pocket money selling her homemade jams, pies, and specialty breads at her family’s produce market. As a young mother, Carrie started a small business, staffed by herself, her grandmother, and two other homemakers, selling “home-made” jams, sauces, spice mixes, and bread mixes under the Heartland brand name. The business was so successful that she opened her own stand-alone store, the Heartland Gourmet Shop. Four years later, when her business had grown to four stores and 35 employees, she sold it to a group of investors who expanded the business to 600 stores nationwide within the first ten years. Heartland continued to use Carrie’s original recipes and retained the original brand positioning and retail store design. The company was relatively profitable, with very strong brand recognition, brand loyalty, and high market penetration.
Carrie is described by Heartland employees as being “everyone’s friend”:
“Carrie’s virtues stand as an ideal. Honesty: Carrie is one of the most honest people you’ll ever meet, and the way she sees it, truth is an ideal; it is an obligation. Carrie is truthful in the way she lives her life and the way she runs her business and in the way she expresses who she and her business are. Carrie is here always. Integrity: You can trust Carrie to do the right thing, and you can trust her products. Carrie stands for quality, pure and simple. Accountability: She stands behind her products because she sees every one as an extension of who she is. Even if a product doesn’t bear her name, it carries her reputation. Also, Carrie has humility. Carrie respects people and has the unique ability to appreciate them for who they are. In turn, people find her inspiring, motivating and kind.” (ER)
Capturing, communicating, and using Carrie’s story. To communicate the story of the brand icon easily and consistently throughout the organization, a marketing director summarized what had been developed at the retreat. The resulting ten-page booklet described how Carrie started the business, how she learned to cook, how she met her husband, why she moved back from New York City to St. Louis, what she liked to eat and wear, and what values were important to her. The executive team worked to refine the story so that it captured, elaborated upon, and emphasized the attributes that they wanted for Heartland’s brand identity. Later, this story was translated into a video that was shown at new employee orientation and at corporate events.
The booklet and the video were used as reference tools by product managers and creative staff. For example, the photo stylist at a product shoot was given the book to help her create visual imagery that would evoke the brand’s desired identity. Similarly, at marketing meetings, product development discussions, and when discussing the retail presentation of products, executives and marketing staff referred to this document to help clarify and refine the Heartland brand attributes they were trying to express in the product, packaging, copy, and retail store.
Employees described using Carrie and her story to represent Heartland’s brand attributes in their decision-making. As one product manager explained:
“Somebody had the idea that we should sign our customer service letters with Carrie’s name – Carrie King. And I almost had a heart attack … I recall saying ‘Absolutely no way are we doing this,’ because to me that seems like the antithesis of what Carrie would do, if she were a real person. If Carrie were a real person and she had created a fictional founder, she’d never send customers a letter from a fictional person.” (HMK)
If consistency in product development, brand extensions, retail promotions, and strong overall business results are any indication, using Carrie King as a brand icon was a powerful branding tool.
CREATING A BRAND ICON: MARKETING AND ORGANIZATIONAL TACTICS
Establishing Carrie as an effective branding tool within Heartland required marketing tactics that developed the character and associated her with the brand, as well as organizational tactics that enabled every employee to recognize and potentially utilize what she represented for it. To link Carrie and the brand, Heartland used two marketing tactics: (1) cohering and explaining the brand’s attributes through Carrie’s story, and (2) positively elaborating Carrie’s story. To establish Carrie as a symbol system shared throughout the organization, Heartland pursued two additional tactics: (3) brand training for all employees, and (4) ubiquitous co-presentation of Carrie and the brand. These tactics were interdependent in their execution, but are discussed separately here for theoretical clarity.
Linking Carrie with the Brand’s Attributes Creating a compelling personality and narrative. Heartland’s marketers created a clear, coherent, and evocative personality and life story for Carrie. Carrie’s personality was configured to create an explicit consonance between her personality and the attributes that marketers wanted to use to define Heartland brand’s identity. Carrie was also given a personal narrative – a life story – to establish a connection between the set of attributes and the character and to explain why she was who she was. By creating a set of attributes for Carrie that matched the Heartland brand attributes, by cohering these attributes in Carrie’s personality, and by explaining the source of these attributes in Carrie’s narrative, Heartland made it possible for its internal audience, the organization’s employees, to see Carrie as a representative of its brand.
“Have you seen the video? If you show the video to an associate [employee], it’s like this transformation happens to them … they just get it. And so, suddenly, all these documents that talk about brand vision and pages and pages of what we stand for – it’s like ‘I get it. I see it. I know what I have to do.’” (MS)
Marketing managers also elaborated on Carrie’s narrative by inventing new episodes for her life story, sometimes to link Carrie with the brand as the brand identity evolved, and other times to embellish the reasoning behind business decisions made without initially considering Carrie or the brand identity (e.g., centralizing the distribution function). Between 1985 and 1992, the written story grew from 10 to 50 pages. As interpretations of Carrie evolved and as attributes in the brand identity evolved, the practice of elaborating Carrie’s story helped to sustain a correspondence between what Carrie represented and what defined the brand’s identity.
Creating a positive, elaborate character narrative. Heartland marketers created Carrie and her life story with only positive, attractive attributes. With no unhappy episodes in her story and no unpleasant characteristics in her personality, Carrie could represent only positive attributes of the brand. As one executive put it: “We love the idea of using an imaginary person [to represent the brand] because of all the pitfalls of having to live with what a real person would be like” (LP).
Carrie’s narrative was also very detailed and specific – this specificity helped the story make sense and seem convincing, allowing employees to visualize who Carrie was (Escalas, 2004; Hoorn & Konijn, 2003).
“The clearer the story is, the more you can engage around it … If the story is convincing enough, then anybody can embrace it. Just like you read a novel – ‘That character’s not like me, but I can certainly picture it’. I can imagine [Carrie] – what she would say, what she would do … They (any of the employees) could certainly engage around it because the story is just so convincing.” (LP)
The richness of Carrie’s story also enabled employees at Heartland to feel as if they actually knew her like a friend, inside and out:
“I think everybody in their life knows a Carrie. She’s like your mother, or your best friend. You just know who she is. It’s multicultural, it’s ageless, she’s easily understood.” (RP)
The elaborate narrative created for Carrie allowed her audience to understand who she was, why she was who she was, and what she stood for – making her an easy and appealing tool to use.
Establishing Carrie as a Shared Symbol System Employee Brand Training. Heartland used two organization-wide tactics – employee training and organizational décor – to spread an understanding of Carrie and to convey her importance to the entire organization. Through their new employee orientation, Heartland made sure that every employee knew the details of Carrie’s story, could describe her personality, and could explain how Carrie represented what the Heartland brand was all about. New employees read a synopsis of Carrie’s story and watched a seven-minute video that focused on her personality, depicted important episodes in her life, and talked about the values she wanted customers to experience with Heartland’s products. Employees were taught how to use Carrie to evaluate brand-related issues. For example, they played a game called “Carrie or Not Carrie?” to evaluate whether a product idea was “on-brand” or “off-brand.” Employees also were taught to act like Carrie in their interactions with customers and suppliers: “Carrie treats every customer like a friend, and you should too” (Employee Handbook). Through new employee training, staff were taught to recognize what Carrie represented and how to use her as a brand management tool.
Carrie’s importance to the brand was regularly reinforced when marketing personnel invoked Carrie and her story. The question “What would Carrie do?” was raised in marketing discussions about all manner of brand issues, such as how to craft a product, how to position it, what to call it, and so on. This became such an important decision-making tool that banners asking “What would Carrie do?” were hung in the main conference room and in the employee training room. As every member of the Heartland Corporation recognized Carrie, knew exactly what she represented, and knew how and when to employ her as a guide for marketing decisions, Carrie was a symbol shared throughout the organization.
Organizational decor. To reinforce the relationship between Carrie, the brand attributes, and the Heartland brand – and to emphasize Carrie’s importance – the company decorated their building with “dramaturgical props” (Goffman, 1959; Pratt & Rafaeli, 2001). Dramaturgical props are images, objects, words, artefacts, and other symbols that manipulate aspects of a physical setting to create a particular impression. Props were initially concentrated in the workspaces of the marketing department: brand meetings took place in the Hannah Conference Room and the Max Conference Room, where participants sat on wooden chairs painted to look antique, arranged around farm tables made of knotty pine, just as if they were sitting in Carrie’s kitchen. In the product trend rooms, where marketing employees experimented with new visual imagery for the retail stores, props such as photos, objects, fabric swatches, typefaces, and potential products themselves reflected not only brand attributes (e.g., bins of grain and a hand-turned grist mill representing wholesomeness) but also elements of Carrie's personal story (e.g., 4-H posters, fabric swatches from “Carrie’s kitchen curtains”). Bringing visual imagery from both the brand and the character together in the same places created a metonymic association between them and facilitated the perception that Carrie’s story, the Heartland brand, and the brand attributes were all interconnected. Moreover, the ubiquity of these co-presentations kept Carrie and the brand identity salient in employees’ minds (Ind, 2001). By combining traditional marketing tactics with organizationally targeted tactics, the company established Carrie as an internal brand icon that was recognized, understood as, and used as a representative of Heartland’s brand identity by everyone in the organization.
Using a Brand Icon to Construct the Organization’s Identity
Connecting the Organization to the Brand Icon
Through additional practices intended to enhance their marketing effectiveness, Heartland’s managers inadvertently made it possible for Carrie to symbolize not only Heartland’s brand identity but also the identity of the corporation itself. Employees drew cues about their organization’s defining characteristics from Carrie and her story, and Carrie came to personify and embody for the collective, internal audience some of the central, continuous, and enduring features that composed the organization’s identity (Albert & Whetten, 1985).
The first step towards constructing their organization’s identity using their brand icon occurred when Heartland organization members began collectively to see a connection between Carrie and the Heartland organization itself. This link was made possible by a foundation of similar attributes and was made desirable by the attractiveness to organization members of what Carrie represented. The second step evolved through Heartland’s organization-wide efforts to enlist all employees in supporting the Heartland brand. These efforts, explicitly intended to get members to link Carrie to the brand, also encouraged them to link the organization to Carrie, because they implied that Carrie was relevant beyond the marketing function and throughout the organization.
A foundation of similar attributes. Although Carrie’s personality and life story were created to express the brand’s attributes, some of these attributes were also attributes of the Heartland Corporation. For example, Carrie’s heartland and the Heartland Corporation were both located in the Midwest, both were informal and friendly places, and both were focused on creating a quality product that gave the customer good value. Like Carrie as a person, the Heartland Corporation was thought of by its employees and its competitors as a homegrown, local company that achieved national success by producing a high-quality product, by using honest business methods, and by capturing the imagination of the middle class with products that were neither snobby nor down-market. Heartland members perceived a similarity between Carrie’s attributes and what defined the Heartland Corporation: “The values of Carrie are almost verbatim from what anyone will tell you are the values of the organization” (MS).
Although a complete overlap of the attributes of the brand and the attributes of the organization could not be inferred from cues such as material facts, social categories, strategic groups, and so on, this foundation of similar attributes made it possible for the organizational audience to believe that the brand icon and the organization shared key, defining attributes, and to view the brand icon as an expression of the organization’s identity.
The attractiveness of the brand icon as a representation of the organization itself. Although consonance between brand attributes and organizational attributes makes it possible for organization members collectively to link the organization to the brand icon, it is the attractiveness of the brand icon as a potential representation of the organization that makes this linking desirable. For Heartland employees, two features of the brand icon made Carrie an attractive potential representation of the organization itself. First, Carrie appeared to be a plausible and legitimate representative of the Heartland Corporation; second, she offered Heartland employees an opportunity for collective, organizational “self-enhancement.”
Plausibility, legitimacy, and the attractiveness of the icon. The idea that Carrie could be the founder of the Heartland Corporation and that she could embody what defined the organization seemed plausible and legitimate, as Carrie’s story specifically describes her as the founder of the company. Organizational identities “bear the mark of the founder’s imprint” (Whetten & Mackey, 2002). The idea that Carrie, as a founder, could define the corporation appears legitimate because it fits both scholars’ and laypeople’s beliefs about the influence of founders. Academic research demonstrates that founders have a profound impact on the norms, values, cultures, and identities of organizations (e.g., Deal & Kennedy, 1982; Schien, 1983; Whetten & Mackey, 2002). The popular press treats as a fact that organizations are stamped with defining features that are the direct result of the personalities and values of their founders (e.g., Ewan, 2002). If “the culture of a business becomes, at least in part, an embodiment of the founder’s personality” (Hollander & Ellman, 1988: 149), then using the story of a founder to clarify or represent an organization’s identity fits expectations and thus seems legitimate. The founder and the founder’s story – who she or he is and how he or she went about starting and growing the organization – are material traits that can be used as identity cues.
Carrie’s story appeared to be a legitimate resource for identity cues, because stories about the organization are such a common way of constructing its organizational identity. Many scholars argue that it is through the construction of a narrative, by telling a story to themselves about their organization, that members develop and share an understanding of what defines their organization (Czarniawska, 1997; Whetten & Mackay, 2002). Narratives are extended identity claims and thus offer important identity cues. A narrative about the founding of Heartland is a legitimate resource for defining an organization’s identity.
In addition, the content of Carrie’s story – the material “facts” themselves – focus on Carrie as the reason Heartland Corporation is the way it is. Carrie’s story puts her personality, values, and biography at the center of collective attention and action. Her story tells the audience that she and her values defined the corporation. Because the details of her story appeared convincing, because her story seemed plausible, and because her relationship with Heartland appeared legitimate, Carrie’s narrative was all the more attractive as a resource for identity cues to help members construct their collective definition of the Heartland Corporation identity.
It was plausible that a person like Carrie could have established certain attributes as important elements of the Heartland Corporation. Because her personality and story were plausible and realistic, the internal organizational audience could understand and trust the meaning of the story (Hoorn & Kinijn, 2003), and thus using Carrie as a cue to the organization’s identity was attractive for organizational members.
The aspirational, “possible organizational self” and attractiveness. The attributes of Carrie and her story offered Heartland an appealing “possible self” (Markus & Nurius, 1986) that they could aspire to in the future and imagine and employ for themselves in the present. Just as an individual might identify with an organization in an effort to achieve an attractive “possible self” (Dutton, Dukerich, & Harquail, 1994), Heartland’s members could enhance their collective self-definition by linking the company’s organizational identity to the positive attributes that Carrie represented. Using Carrie to help to define Heartland’s organizational identity offered company members as a group the opportunity to aspire to be all the positive things that Carrie and her story represented.
In addition, Carrie’s story offered an appealing imaginary identity: one that explained Heartland’s core values and attributes effectively but which was more romantic than the corporation’s actual founding story, and in that sense was more attractive as an identity cue. The “real” story behind the Heartland Corporation was a perfectly respectable, even laudable story of a hard-working, millionaire businessman who saw a retail opportunity, hired talented executives, and worked with them to grow Heartland into a profitable national retail chain. Heartland’s business success is the result of a strategy of quick and less expensive imitation of other specialty food companies’ products. Heartland relies on sophisticated data mining and trend analysis to develop brand extensions, and their profits are helped by very strict cost controls. The company is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a large international conglomerate.
In contrast to the actual founding story, Carrie’s Heartland story explained the company’s growth as the result of personal inspiration and creativity and established warmth, hospitality, and personal attention as dominant organizational features. Carrie herself is an appealing person: “Everybody wants to be Carrie, or if you’re a man you want to marry her” (MS). Carrie’s motivation for founding Heartland and the values she sought to instill in the company’s products were themselves inspiring. Her story was attractive because it offered the organization an opportunity for “wishful identification” (Von Feilitzen & Linne, 1975), helping the organization overlook the ways in which they were unlike Carrie, as well as to visualize and focus on what they collectively thought would be a desirable “possible self.”
Carrie’s identity enhanced and highlighted Heartland’s existing positive attributes, suggested that Heartland could be even better (perhaps even more welcoming, more honest, or with more integrity), and created a romantic fantasy about the source of the company’s identity. The romantic, idealized identity also offered Heartland an opportunity to exaggerate its virtues, suggesting in this idealism that the organization was somehow special or unique (Wilkins, 1983). This sense of distinctiveness – that Carrie’s Heartland was a unique place in terms of actual and aspirational values and attributes – also enhanced its attractiveness (Dutton, et al., 1994). Allowing Carrie’s story to substitute for or represent the actual story of the corporation accentuated all of Heartland’s real attributes, suggested desirable additional ones, and imagined more attractive ones.
The irrelevance of fiction. It is important to recognize that Carrie’s status as a fictional character was not an obstacle to seeing her as an attractive representation of the company’s identity. Every organization member understood that Carrie’s romantic, fantasy story was a fiction. Carrie did not exist, and they all knew that. Nonetheless, they felt that she was inspiring and that there was nothing harmful in acting as though her story were true. In their view, none of what Carrie represented led to anything undesirable; nor was it detrimental to how the organization functioned. Even though they acknowledged that Carrie was largely fictional, they still found her story collectively self-defining, aspirational, and appealing:
“We’d like it if it were all true, but it’s not as though it’s not true.” (AH)
“In a jaded world, to think that there is even this fictional person who really cares about her customers and wants to be honest and wants to have integrity and says what she means and isn’t lying, isn’t giving you a product [with false] promises … You know, just to think there might even exist such a person! I really saw it in Carrie, and I believe that Carrie has a lot to do with how good our associates are and we [Heartland] are.” (LB)
Implying a link between Carrie and the organization
The efforts of the marketing department to teach all employees about Carrie and how to use her were intended to get the entire organization to support the brand. Inadvertently, however, these brand-focused efforts also created an opportunity for employees to link the organization to Carrie, by suggesting this link symbolically. By spreading symbols of a connection between the icon and the organization throughout their headquarters, and by creating new symbols that linked the organization directly to Carrie, Heartland allowed the organization to appropriate Carrie’s symbolic meaning for itself.
Carrie was present, symbolically, everywhere in the organization. For example, the entire wall behind the receptionists’ desk at corporate headquarters was covered by a photographic mural depicting the farmhouse and fields where Heartland’s original offices were purportedly located. In the cafeteria, each of the five food stations was decorated with a different fake storefront (e.g., a butcher’s shop, a bakery) so that cafeteria appeared to be a stylized replica of the main street of Carrie’s hometown. Carrie even had a dog, Lucy, who had free run of the building and slept in her own doghouse in the reception area. To see Lucy, a living creature, roaming the corporate office created the illusion that Carrie was somewhere in the building too, and that she was really part of the corporation. The symbols of Carrie’s presence throughout Heartland’s corporate space led not only to a transfer and sharing of attributes between Carrie and the organization, but also to the perception that these attributes were characteristic throughout the organization and central to it.
Through a foundation of similar attributes, through the attractiveness of Carrie as a potential representative of the organization’s identity, and through the organizational practices that implicitly connected the organization to Carrie, she and her story came to be used collectively throughout Heartland to represent what organization members believed to be the central, enduring, and distinctive attributes of the organization. One demonstration that Carrie had become an organizational icon was that every employee interviewed described Carrie as embodying characteristics and values that were important in defining the company. For example, as a product development executive explained:
“Carrie in her own way is a legend. In twelve years, she built a two billion dollar company … Somebody had to have this great creative drive to be able to do this … I think it’s very important to have Carrie because she puts the human aspect into the company … even given the magnitude of our size, it [Heartland] never feels like a huge corporation. And it still amazes me when I talk about some of the numbers that we do, you just can’t believe that this is how big we are, because we don’t run like that. And Carrie is responsible for that. Carrie is responsible for the fact that we run more as a small-time company of people doing multiple jobs and multiple tasks. I think that keeping that [the small-time company feeling] is very unusual … Carrie has been responsible for that because everything that we have done, from the 4-H’s of our company’s values, which had been derived from Carrie, which put in the integrity, the respect, how we treated one another, hard work, good humor, whatever it might be. All those wholesome acts, so to speak, that you don’t find in a corporation everyday. That has been the responsibility or the outcome of Carrie. And I think that’s why I directly link her as being the reason for our company being the way it is.” (BS)
Or, as the CEO succinctly put it, “Carrie IS Heartland.”
With Carrie as symbol of the organization, asking the question “What would Carrie do?” became a way of invoking the organization’s identity when organization-wide issues were being considered. The idea that Carrie had come to represent what defined the organization itself was borne out in the ways that organization members appropriated Carrie and her story to explain their expectations of the organization and to explain organization-wide decisions that were not relevant to the brand or to marketing. For example, one organization member described her efforts to get the corporate cafeteria to use biodegradable paper cups:
“You know, I’m waging a war in our cafeteria because they have Styrofoam cups, and I think that’s just outrageous … I’m down there every week saying to (the cafeteria manager), ‘Carrie would not have Styrofoam; she cares about her earth.’” (CM)
In another example, Carrie was used to explain why the company cafeteria sold “carry out” dinners that employees could take home to their families, as well as why they had a dry cleaner’s and a nail salon at their headquarters:
“Carrie understands what it’s like to be a working mother – a working parent – and she wants to make it as easy as possible for all of us to take care of day-to-day things too. And, Carrie knows that sometimes you just need a nice manicure as a treat.” (AH)
Having Carrie as an organizational icon gave Heartland a way to capture, make coherent, and begin to put into words the intrinsic and unexpressed attributes that defined their organization. It gave them something to talk about as they sought collectively to articulate and understand who they were as an organization. Carrie and her story functioned as a tool for constructing meaning, providing a “centering narrative” (Boyce, 1995) that enabled Heartland members to shape, revise, and enact their organizational identity.
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
By providing members with several types of cues for construing the organization’s identity, the brand icon was appropriated by members to represent their collective definition of the central, enduring, and distinctive attributes of the corporation. As Carrie came to symbolize Heartland’s identity, she also influenced the company’s identity-related practices. First, using Carrie and her story to represent their more abstract beliefs about what defined the corporation made it easier for Heartland members to evoke, articulate, and discuss their beliefs about the organization’s identity. Once these beliefs were discussed, it was easier for Heartland members to implement these beliefs by translating them into behaviors, decisions, and operational strategies. Second, using Carrie to represent their organization’s identity made it possible for every member of the organization to participate in discussions about its identity, because every member was familiar with Carrie and what she stood for. Third, using Carrie to represent the organization’s identity facilitated conversations between different organizational functions, each working to put the company’s identity into practice, and helped to keep all the functions aligned with each other.
The story of Carrie King and Heartland has several implications for our understanding of how organizational identity is put into practice and how it is constructed from practice. Most basic is the recognition that cues for constructing the organization’s identity can be drawn from any part or any function of the organization. Specific functions or divisions, tools, and even products can become resources for constructing organizational identity. And, organizational identity can be shaped or influenced by activities that are not “about” the organization per se.
The idea that Heartland’s brand structure, organizational structure, marketing orientation, and other features may have facilitated rather than impeded the use of a brand icon to represent the organization itself may make this an uncommon case. Nevertheless, although not every organization might identify with their brand or have their brand icon come to represent their collective self-definition, the case of Carrie and the Heartland Corporation encourages us to dig more deeply into the complex relationships between products, brands, brand icons, and organizational identity.
The Heartland story also suggests that we should consider whether identity cues and the conclusions drawn from them can be both factual and fictional. Collective fictions, in this case Carrie and her story, can represent collectively shared beliefs about the organization; fictional stories, embellished histories, and objective timelines can all provide cues from which organization members can construct their organization’s identity. However, incorporating attributes that are fictional or embellished into an organization’s identity can raise questions of authenticity and challenge members’ collective meaning.
Heartland’s experience helps us to understand the ways that organization members can connect their organization to a symbol and use this symbol in turn to influence how they define themselves collectively. By embodying Carrie King with brand attributes that resonated with important elements of the organization’s actual story, with attributes that reflected an attractive potential collective self-image, and with a personality and biography that were familiar, plausible, romantic, and attractive, Heartland created in Carrie a symbol that potentially could reflect back on them all manner of desirable attributes – presently, potentially, and ideally. Through employee training that ensured organization-wide understanding of Carrie and what she represented, and by suggesting a link between Carrie and Heartland through stories, artifacts, and décor that presented her as central to the organization, the company facilitated the use of Carrie and her story as a source of cues about their collective sense of self. In this way, Heartland’s marketing practices provided cues for the construction of their collective organizational identity.
What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of representing an organization’s identity with the same character that represents the organization’s brand?
What is the appropriate relationship between an organization’s identity and its products and brands?
What are the implications of drawing cues for organizational identity from stories, characters, and attributes that are largely fictional?
How might using Carrie to represent the organization’s identity influence the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of Heartland employees as individuals?
How do organization members’ personalities, life stories, etc. offer cues for constructing organizational identity?
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1 Because of the sensitive nature of the strategic information shared with me, I agreed to preserve the anonymity of the organization by disguising identifying details. In my cover story, I have retained the central values of the organization, the symbolic attributes of the brand, the features of the organization’s history, and the icon’s personality and biography to reflect as accurately as possible the relationships between the organization, its brand, and the icon herself.