The Who are We messages

The “Who are We?” Message

Who am I? isn’t just an existential question for a mid-life crisis.

Self identity is critical for organizations. It guides actions and decisions in times of change and crisis. Without a strong self-identity businesses can flounder and fail. The history of business is riddled with companies that lost their way. Think of Apple before Steve Jobs came back. Xerox, which has struggled to reinvent itself as something other than the copier company, and Sears, once an iconic brand that has struggled to remain relevant today.

That failure happens in face of changing markets and the struggle to shift from one identity to another. Kodak could not shift its core internal identity from a maker of camera film to digital technology company. Despite inventing the digital camera in 1975, it was not part of the company’s identity. According to Steve Sasson,

“But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.”

That was a Kodak Moment for the company. It caused an existential crisis that went on for years. The business that brought photography to the masses could not get past their own legacy of film. That’s a core problem the “Who are We?” message has to overcome — that identity is tied to capability. In Kodak’s case, their addiction to film, led to thinking about itself in core capabilities terms rather than what it did for its customers. At one point they sought to identify themselves as a chemistry company, making an acquisition of Sterling Drug for $5.1B. It failed.

A question every company must consider, is how timeless is their sense of self? Witness Kodak. A sense of self defined in film, in hindsight, is not as timeless as a sense of self defined in pictures. That nuance might have made the difference, where the once mighty Kodak being worth pennies, while instagram was purchased for one billion dollars.

The larger the company, the greater the inertia, the harder it is to make the shift when required. Clear and present danger from competition is not enough. A leader, and more often a critical mass of leadership, has to define who we are in a way that builds off the success of the past, and orients to the future.

Contrast two large businesses who do this very differently, to varying degrees of success. AT&T, a telecommunications monopoly built around utility and a heritage of fixed line, refocused on innovation, publically declaring, “Rethink Possible.” When CEO Randall Stephenson took the top job, he began to fight that inertia head on. “When Randall came in and said ‘We’re a wireless company’ that sent shockwaves through some employees,” said AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega, who helped broker the iPhone deal at a time when most of AT&T’s sales were from its wireline or traditional phone business.

SAP on the other hand, has a more timeless and cleanly expressed “Who are we?” message, one that carries the same thread through multiple contexts:

The External View (according to Hoovers)

SAP provides enterprise software and services for managing accounting, distribution, human resources, and manufacturing functions. The company’s products include business intelligence, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, and supply chain management software.

The Self-declared View (Company Website)

We help our customers imagine new ways of doing business, and inspire people to be the best

The Marketing View (Tagline)

The Best Run Businesses Run SAP

The Vision

Help the World Run Better by Improving People’s Lives

The Mission

Help our customers become best run businesses

CEO Statements

“We are a pure-play business software company…”
“We are a natural choice for our customers…”
“We are a Database Company…”
“We are a global Cloud services provider…”
“We are a top 20 global brand and the most valuable brand of any company based in continental Europe…”

You can see the flow of customer-centricity and running business that works through lines up SAP. It’s applied differently in different contexts, but it’s a strong — and timeless “who are we?” message.

Businesses and brands, like humans have to evolve their identity over their lifetime, a balancing act of staying true to self without creating multiple personalities, and evolving and adapting, without being locked in perpetual adolescence and being left behind.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint. More at Google+Facebook and Pinterest. Comments are welcome, links are appreciated. If you’re interested in writing guest posts for this blog, please contact me.

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