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Corporate Image

Corporate Image

"Corporate image" was once advertising jargon but is today a common phrase referring to a company's reputation. The "image" is what the public is supposed to see when the corporation is mentioned. The ordinary man and woman on the street usually have a wry view of public relations, advertising, hype, hoopla, and therefore also of corporate imageand this often for good reasons. But a good corporate image is a genuine asset; it translates into dollars at the counter and higher stock valuation.

The concept is usually associated with large corporations, but small businesses also have a corporate image even if neither their owners nor customers think of it that way. In the absence of active efforts, corporate image "simply happens": it is how a company is perceived. Management, however, may actively attempt to shape the image by communications, brand selection and promotion, use of symbols, and by publicizing its actions. Corporations trying to shape their image are analogous to individuals who will dress appropriately, cultivate courteous manners, and choose their words carefully in order to come across competent, likeable, and reliable. In the personal as in the corporate case, the image should match reality. When it does not, the consequence will be the opposite of the one intended.

THE ELEMENTS OF IMAGE

A corporate image is, of course, the sum total of impressions left on the company's many publics. In many instances a brief, casual act by an employee can either lift or damage the corporate image in the eyes of a single customer or caller on the phone. But the overall image is a composite of many thousands of impressions and facts. The major elements are 1) the core business and financial performance of the company, 2) the reputation and performance of its brands ("brand equity"), 3) its reputation for innovation or technological prowess, usually based on concrete events, 4) its policies toward its salaried employees and workers, 5) its external relations with customers, stockholders, and the community, and 6) the perceived trends in the markets in which it operates as seen by the public. Sometimes a charismatic leader becomes so widely known that he or she adds a personal luster to the company.

Image versus Images

Only in the best of cases does a corporation enjoy a single reputation. Different publics may have different views of the corporation depending on their different interests. A company's brand image may be very good but its reputation among suppliers poorbecause it bargains very hard, pays late, and shows no loyalty to vendors. A company may be highly regarded on Wall Street but may be disliked on the Main Street of cities where it has closed plants. A company may be valued for providing very low prices yet disliked for its employment practices or indifferent environmental performance. It is much more likely that a small business will have an all-around reputation for excellence than that a very large conglomerate will merit all-around praise. Smallness has its advantages.

At the Core: Business Performance

The single most important factor in the corporate image is a company's core business performance; performance, by definition, includes financial results. A growing, profitable corporation with a steady earnings history will, for these reasons alone, please its customers, investors, and the community in which it operates. A profitable company that, nevertheless, exhibits huge gyrations in earnings will fare worse: its earnings and dividends will be unpredictable; it will have layoffs; its stock will fluctuate; its vendors will be more uneasy; its employees nervous. When a business fails in its core function, its reputation heads straight south. Enron Corp., an energy trader, had a stellar reputation as the 7th largest corporation measured in revenues. It fell into bankruptcy almost abruptly on December 2, 2001; the Justice Department began to investigate it for fraud. Suddenly every aspect of the company that had been admired and laudedits audacity, energy, profitability, innovativeness, entrepreneurial spirit, and so ontook on opposite and negative connotations. The core business had failed; Enron's reputation imploded. No amount of corporate image polishing could have saved Enron's reputation after that.

MEASURING THE CORPORATE IMAGE

Corporations evaluate their image, much as politicians do, by survey. They employ the methodology of marketing surveys used both in polling and in support of advertising. The investigators select appropriate samples of the public and interview them; telephone surveys are the most common. They use statistical methods of extrapolation to project from the sample what the public as a whole (or selected publics) think. Corporations, of course, also rely on the much "harder" measures such as sales and stock performance. Surveys of the corporate image are sometimes motivated by sagging sales and a miserable press.

The theory of the corporate image holds that, all things equal, a well-informed public will help a company achieve higher sales and profits, whereas a forgetful or poorly informed public may come to hold negative impressions about the company and may ultimately shift more of its patronage toward competitors.

A recent campaign launched by Toyota Motor North America Inc. illustrates measurement and a response to it. As reported by Jamie LaReau in Automotive News, "Toyota periodically surveys U.S. consumers' perceptions of the automaker. The surveys suggested [that] Americans' awareness of Toyota's U.S. presence had declined since 2000 even as the company was building and expanding plants." The company launched a print and TV program to highlight the company's contributions to the U.S. economy.

WORDS AND ACTION

The example of Toyota is a case in which Toyota felt the need to communicate ("words") something about its investments ("action") in the United States. Ideally words and actions are always closely linked in building or repairing the corporate image. Ideally, also, the two will correspond. To achieve a close alignment of words and deeds is often difficult in practice. Who has not observed with a knowing eye the difference between the cheerful, helpful clerks in the TV ads of a company and the surly indifference of that same company's actual clerks? Expert advisors to the corporate world, such as Roger Hayward writing in Accountancy Age emphasize the need for consistent follow-throughso that employees become "a vast army of goodwill ambassadors."

Whether the objective is to make the most of a good thing or to turn around an adverse situation, good management practice will ensure that action is accomplished before the words are spoken. A case of that sort is presented by the Rite Aid chain store. The company went through a financial scandal in the late 1990s; its former chief executive and others were convicted and jailed. A new management team first turned the chain around before, as reported in Chain Drug Review, it launched a campaign to tell the world that "the turnaround is complete and we are a stable, healthy company focusing on growth," as Chain Drug Review quotes Karen Rugen, Rite Aid's senior vice president of communications and public affairs, a newcomer to the company.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

The management of the corporate image also involves management of the more mundane side of image, the corporation's logo, its brand images, the look and feel of its retail outlets, its offices, signage, even its stationery and the look of its calling cards. Good management implies ensuring that all spokespersons for the company say the same thing in the same way for a consistent message. Furthermore, in pays attention to consistent self-presentation in the look of its facilities.

SMALL BUSINESS AND CORPORATE IMAGE

Every small business will have the equivalent of a corporate image because it will have a reputation among its employees, customers, vendors, neighbors, and the government agencies with which it deals. The first action of the owner, in choosing the name of enterprise, is an exercise in building a corporate image. The process continues in many ways: in the choice of brand names to be used, the location of leased space, office decorations and/or store equipment selected, the company's Web site design if the business has an Internet presence, its sales literature, and so on. As the business begins to operate, it will build its visibility in its market by outward symbols; the quality of its products or services; the knowledge, skill, and friendliness of its employees; its promptness in paying bills; its effectiveness in mounting promotions; and the list goes on.

By their very nature, small businesses tend to be closer to all of their constituencies. As a consequence, the business will enjoy rapid feedback from the public when it begins to make mistakes or has some bad luck. If that should happen, the small business, like the major corporation, will engage in the actionsfollowed by wordswhich will be necessary to recover losses or make the most of unusual success.

see also Brand Equity

BIBLIOGRAPHY

"Analysis: Corporate Case StudySchering-Plough Looks to Remedy An Ailing Image." PR Week. 12 December 2005.

Brady, Diane, Michael Arndt and Amy Barrett. "When Your Name is Mud, Advertise; Companies in Crisis Used to Lie Low. The New Response to Bad Press is Positive Spin." Business Week. 4 July 2005.

"Explaining the Enron bankruptcy." CNN.com/U.S. Available from http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/01/12/enron.qanda.focus/. 13 January 2002.

Hayward, Roger. "Insight: Corporate Reputation" Accountancy Age. 30 June 2005.

LaReau, Jamie. "Toyota Polishes Corporate Image in TV Campaign." Automotive News. 28 February 2005.

"Maintaining Corporate Image." Automotive Industries. May 2005.

"Retailer Burnishes Its Image as 'Stable, Healthy Company'." Chain Drug Review. 20 December 2004.

"What's in a Name?" Industry Week. September 2005.

                                             Darnay, ECDI

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Willis, Wesley

Wesley Willis

Singer, songwriter

In a music industry dominated by slick packaging, hyper-produced recordings and corporate image makers, the raw sound and authentic eccentricity of street musician/singer-songwriter Wesley Willis spawned a cult following that extended well beyond the streets of Chicago. A diagnosed schizophrenic who weighed in at well over 300 pounds, he engaged listeners with his electronic keyboard and off-key commentaries on pop culture. It often wasn't clear whether fans were laughing at him or with him, but they were clearly laughing. While his life ended early, his more than 50 recordings left a fan base that included the likes of Jello Biafra and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Willis was born on May 31, 1963, one of ten children, to Annie Ruth Willis, who reportedly had a tense and violent relationship with her estranged husband. The couple separated later in the decade and Willis and his siblings spent much of their childhood in foster homes. Willis and several other siblings later rejoined their mother in the housing projects where she lived in the 1970s and 1980s, and for some it was the first time they had ever met. The family was extremely poor, and depended on money from the state.

In the late 1980s, young Willis reportedly began hearing voices. According to him, the voices came after his mother's boyfriend stole $100 dollars from Willis's own savings in order to buy drugs, and then threatened to shoot him. In 1989 Willis was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. In response to the violent voices in his head, he turned to music. He was known to listen to rock and metal songs on his Walkman as he roamed the streets of Chicago selling his sketches of the city, and his unkempt appearance led many to believe that he was homeless. On the street he befriended musicians, and decided he would like to become a rock star. One friend helped him record a rap tape, and Willis took an interest in the keyboard while living with guitarist Dale Meiners. He was soon writing his own songs and playing them on the street with his Technics KN 2000 keyboard; all of his songs reportedly used the same pre-set rhythm setting (country rock 8).

Music, he said, was a way of helping him keep out "the demons" who "sometimes try to shoot my jam session down." He explained in his one and only interview with MTV News, "Music helped me solve the problem. Music helped me change my life. And playing rock music, that's the way to go. That's the way to go on a harmony joy bus ride, rather than on a freakout hell bus ride."

Inspired by what he considered to be hilarious lyrics, Meiners gathered together a group of hardcore punk musicians to form a backup band called the Wesley Willis Fiasco. The group, which consolidated after several lineup changes, backed Willis with rock, metal, funk and hardcore. He soon began to gather a group of loyal fans, whom he greeted with his usual "head butt," leaving a trademark callus on his forehead. He found a special interest in his music among indie rockers, and was not shy about peddling his recordings to them or to perfect strangers on the street.

The topics driving Willis's lyrics were often quite mundane, ranging from a critique of fast food establishments ("Rock n' Roll McDonald's") to his own weight problem ("I'm Sorry That I Got Fat"), to unsolicited haircare advice ("Cut the Mullet"). Sometimes he would wrangle with superheroes in songs like "I Whipped Spiderman's Ass" and "I Whupped Batman's Ass." Nothing but praise was reserved for the other artists whose concerts he attended, as revealed by his homages to Hootie & the Blowfish, Alanis Morissette, and Jello Biafra. Predictably, Willis would end each song with the phrase "Rock over London. Rock on Chicago," followed by a jingle from some commercial.

"His music is ... odd. Original. Pathetic. Funny," wrote a reporter for the Washington Post. "Childlike, repetitive lyrics, many recycled from song to song. Verses spoken in a deep, sonorous voice, complemented by offkey, wailed choruses. The same tune for every song. The same format for every song. The same pre-programmed keyboard music for every song."

In 1995 Willis self-produced the album Drag Disharmony Hell Ride, and by that time he had caught the attention of established musicians, including members of bands like the Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, and Smashing Pumpkins. With more than a dozen self-produced albums to his name already, Willis's commercial breakthrough came in 1996, at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, where he was signed by the American Recordings label, run by Rick Rubin. That year the albums Fabian Road Warrior and Feel the Power were released, but ended up being failures in the marketplace, and Willis was dropped from the label.

Nonetheless, Willis continued to make albums independently. That same year his band, the Wesley Willis Fiasco, released a debut album entitled Spooky Disharmonious Conflict Hell-Ride. While some saw Willis as a flash in the pan, his "number one fan," former Dead Kennedy's frontman Jello Biafra, continued to take interest in him, and had four albums released on his Alternative Tentacles label.

In 2001 the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) reportedly took issue with the Wesley Willis Fiasco Live EP album cover due to its use of a logo not unlike the WWF's. The federation requested that all copies be removed from the market.

While some observers criticized the Wesley Willis phenomenon as an exploitation of the mentally ill, others defended the artist's authenticity and the fact that he was committed to his music. "I got these people who have something against my music and my art. But I'm proud of myself," he told the student newspaper Diamondback. "I try to get my music to pick me up but I hate for my music to get shot down. I hate to be called a jerk, a bum. ... I'm just enjoying myself."

After many years living with friends who supported him in his musical endeavors, Willis went to live in a home for the mentally disturbed. In late 2002 he was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). In June of the following year he experienced internal bleeding and was admitted for emergency surgery. He died on August 21, 2003, while recovering at an Illinois hospice. He died with $291 in savings, and roughly 50 albums to his credit. In his honor, the Californian community radio station KFJC held a non-stop 24-hour tribute program "to pay some more respect and to have a harmony joyride." A memorial benefit show was held by fans as far away as the United Kingdom to pay for his funeral and burial costs.

"His songs were simultaneously disturbing, hilarious, blunt, and intoxicating," read a statement on the Alternative Tentacles website, after his death. "Wesley's sheer excitement and unaffected honesty about every cultural phenomenon, defined his music as truly individual, and truly punk rock."

For the Record …

Born on May 31, 1963; died on August 21, 2003, in Chicago, IL; son of Annie Ruth Willis; diagnosed with schizophrenia, 1991; lived with friends for several years until moving to a center for the mentally disturbed.

Began playing music on streets of Chicago, early 1990s; later backed by the band Wesley Willis Fiasco; self-produced more than a dozen albums; gained attention with Drag Disharmony Hell Ride, 1995; released albums Fabian Road Warrior and Feel the Power on American Records, 1996; continued to produce more than 50 albums until his death in 2003.

Addresses: Record company—Alternative Tentacles, 1501 Powell St., Ste. F, Emeryville, CA 94608, e-mail: stuff@alternativetentacles.com.

Selected discography

Greatest Hits, Volume 1, Alternative Tentacles, 1995.

Fabian Road Warrior, American Records, 1996.

Feel the Power, American Records, 1996.

Greatest Hits, Volume 2, Alternative Tentacles, 1999.

Rush Hour, Alternative Tentacles, 2000.

Apocalypse Always, Alternative Tentacles, 2002.

Greatest Hits, Volume 3, Alternative Tentacles, 2003.

Sources

Periodicals

Diamondback, Spring 1996.

Rolling Stone, August 22, 2003.

Washington Post, November 25, 2000; August 26, 2003.

Wrestling Digest, October 2001.

Online

MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com (August 22, 2003).

VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com (April 19, 1996).

"Wesley Willis," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 2, 2004).

"Wesley Willis," Alternative Tentacles Records, http://www.alternativetentacles.com (August 2, 2004).

—Brett Allan King

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