Written by Julia Engel
The digital extended self and its implications for brand identity
In the first part we found out that we, as individuals, have an extended digital self, which consists of different objects we gather around us, including online profiles and digital re-embodiments of ourselves. Although some characteristics of our representations might not completely mirror our real self, we are able to integrate them in our identity as long as we can identify with them. Due to the ease of changing between these re-embodiments of our identities it becomes harder and harder to differentiate where our real self stops and where the extended self begins. Therefore the boundaries between our offline and online become non-existent. For me, that is up until I come across a product or service, which does not provide integrated services. Let’s see how the principle of the extended self can help companies provide more integrated products and services.
The Corporate Identity and its ‘Brand Extension’
In order to investigate whether the principles of the extended self applies for companies, we first have to see how companies define their “self”. The difficulty here is that concerning companies, corporations, business and brands there is an unlimited amount of definitions and terms being used for describing the ambiguous aspects (Topalian, 2003).
In the attempt to compare companies with individual identities, it seems reasonable to look closer into the term ‘Corporate Identity’. According to Topalian (2003) corporate identity describes is “the articulation of what an organisation is, what it stands for, what it does and how it goes about its business” by using a mix of hard and soft factors. Hereby physical, operational and human characteristics, define a corporate identity on who the company is, its future vison and its implementation (Topalian, 2003).
With all the different terms and definitions however, I realised that throughout my studies I the term ‘corporation’ or ‘company’ was more and more linked to ‘brand’, e.g. corporate brand, employer brand, product brand etc. Why this change in terminology? The “Corporate Brand Identity Model” CBIM by Urde (2013) is extended by a few more elements.
Source: Urde (2013)
In the attempt to apply the principle of the ‘Extended Self’, it is striking that the Corporate Brand Identity Model is already defined by internal as well as external elements (Urde, 2013). This could indicate that the model, to some extent, accounts for an “extended” identity through external factors. However, it cannot be concluded that these factors alone define and express the Corporate Brand Identity. Another striking observation is that, in comparison to individual identities, none of the internal elements is primarily tangible, which make it seem like they define the ‘soul’ of a brand rather than its ‘body’. This makes sense, especially if accounting for ‘only online’ businesses. The most important insight is the fact that, similar to individual identities, it seems difficult to draw a clear line between the ‘Corporate Identity’ and its outside ‘Brand’. However, it explains that there was need for terminology that also includes the extension of external elements. Based on this argument let’s assume that like individuals, companies regard their digital re-embodiments as natural extension of their corporate brand identity.
FAQ: Digital Extension available for Corporate Brand Identity?
For a corporate identity to be alive it must contain “a tangible reality that is a true representation of an organisation and its aspirations which ‘breathes’ and changes with that organisation over time … Employees understand and adopt the identity in such ways as to bring it to life for themselves and those they serve. Other stakeholders find it easy to recognise the organisation, then come to ‘know’ and identify with it” (Topalian, 2003). Without question the core identity also has to be implemented in all presentations and re-embodiments – both real and virtual– in order to be recognised as ‘authentic’ behaviour (Topalian, 2003). Assuming the corporate brand identity, is of a living and evolving nature, it would be natural that it has to adapt as revolutionary innovations occur (Topalian, 2003). At the same time, the core and essence of identity needs to be in focus and serve as a constant guideline for change (Urde, 2013).
What does that mean for digital embodiments of Corporate Brand Identities? Assuming that corporate brands, like individuals, can be whomever they want to be online (Belk, 2014), this would mean the reinvention of these embodiments is bound to the real elements of their ‘body’. As established previously the core identity of a brand is not necessarily bound to its physical elements or resources. To ignore these, however, could lead to drastic distortion of an authentic representation of the Corporate Brand Identity. In addition, digital profiles and avatars for brands often have their own ‘strategic agenda’ and are part of a marketing strategy.
Here is an hypothetical example:
The brand ‘Old fashion Oldies’ wants to grow and has decided to tap into a new, exciting market. The most important managers of the company think that the market segment ‘Cool kids’ is hip and young and exactly the right choice to turn around the brand image of ‘Old fashion Oldies’. As the ‘Cool kids’ use the channel ‘Grapeline’ a lot, the most important managers think ”Great, I will tell my marvellous marketers find out EVERYTHING about ‘Grapeline’ and then just jump right into in.”
What the most important managers might not realise is that maybe not all elements of ‘Old fashion Oldies’ are able to keep up to the ‘Grapeline’ as it does not fit their Corporate Brand Identity. What if being on the ’Grapeline’ means 24/7 online delivery while the core of ‘Old fashion Oldies’ stands for a restful work free weekend and personal delivery?
At this particular touchpoint their customers will be reminded that there are limits to their extended digital identity. They might not be happy about that, as they are reminded of the boundaries between offline and online. As evaluated previously, any ‘authentic’ behaviour needs to reflect the corporate identity (Topalian, 2003). Otherwise the identity will be regarded as disrupted and result in incoherent performances.
Error while Installing Digital Extension of Corporate Brand Identity
As you can see the basic principles of the extended self can be applied to companies and there is an indication that it is already included in existing branding models and theories. However, I think that if it comes to digital representation of corporate identities, many companies are approaching it with an ‘outside in’ approach to reach their target. They want to ‘be where the customer is’. This however might lead to an incoherent brand and have negative consequences on the perception of their brand. I believe that companies have to extend the creation of their digital identity to the same natural approach as individuals do, while keeping their ‘body’ of physical elements and resources in mind. In this context, I am excited to see how companies can consciously use the concept of the ‘extended self’ to naturally extend their Corporate Brand Identity by integrated representations – no matter if in real live or in the digital world.
Belk, 2013. Extended Self in a Digital World. Retrieved 17.02.14 from http://ludwig.lub.lu.se/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=90169610&site=eds-live&scope=site
Belk, 2014. Digital consumption and the extended self. Retrieved 17.02.14 fromhttp://www.tandfonline.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/doi/abs/10.1080/0267257X.2014.939217#.VOPHjS534RI
Sheth & Solomon, 2014) Extending the Extended Self in a Digital World. Retrieved 17.02.14 from http://ludwig.lub.lu.se/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=94648704&site=eds-live&scope=site
Topalian, 2003. The development of corporate identity in the digital era. Retrieved 17.02.14 from http://www.emeraldinsight.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/doi/pdfplus/10.1108/03090560310477690
Urde, 2013. Brand Orientation and Market Orientation. Retrieved 17.02.14 from http://www.sciencedirect.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/science/article/pii/S0148296311002542