Corporate identity, we’re told, is the outward manifestation of a company’s internal culture. A projection of the collective personality of the people who work there, perhaps buffed up a tad by the marketing department. Every time a phone is answered, an e-mail or letter written, a client or supplier received, it should somehow reflect the company’s ethos and values. All these seemingly insignificant little elements fit together like jigsaw pieces to create a bright, shiny, lovable picture.
So how do you create a mindset where everyone will sublimate their natural inclinations and habits to the greater good? Simple, you get your employees to ‘live the brand’. Pardon? Well, look at it as a kind of never-ending mantra, which is reiterated so often that it becomes a seemingly incontrovertible truth.
Everywhere these poor buffeted drones look they see another piece of branded merchandise: Post-its, pencils, pads, stress balls, bumper stickers, mouse mats… all in brash corporate colours and festooned with some incarnation of the invasive company logo.
They look across at one of their colleagues, who’s wearing a badged micro-fleece (‘they’re free you know, and the quality’s great’); there’s another, sporting a back-to-front trucker-style baseball cap with that oh-so-familiar acronym printed across the adjustable band. Yo, company cool. You can rub your eyes as hard as you like, but instead of bright white dots, you see a bright white dancing logotype.
There’s no escape. The insides of the office lifts are that oh-so familiar shade of puce, even the toilet seats are customised with a clever little corporate motto. Every corridor you walk down has a small gallery of posters reminding you to keep your end up. The principle’s easy: keep repeating the way things should be done, hammering home the importance of every tiny aspect of personal behaviour, until eventually you all walk, talk and dress the same. Consistency and dependability, that’s the ticket.
In Douglas Coupland’s 1996 novel Microserfs, which dissects the live-to-work Silicon Valley lifestyle, he describes a typical meeting with the marketing department, where the pressure’s really on to conform: ‘Spent two hours in the morning trapped with the Pol Pots from marketing… I think everybody hates these meetings because of how they alter your personality. You end up becoming this perky, gung-ho version of yourself that you know is just revolting, all frat-boy and chipper.’
That’s the other point; this whole notion of officially sanctioned jollity. The ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic is just one small step away from the idiotic adage behind the pub bar which reads ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’. ‘Hey, we know how you guys like to party – but just make sure you don’t miss them. Can you bring your boyfriend/ girlfriend? No, it’s strictly a staff treat. And you’ll love our team-building away-days out in the country, there’s clay-pigeon shooting, paint-balling and quad-biking, so keep that weekend clear.’
The most regimented corporate cultures tend to have a dominant figurehead, who, while paying lip service to individuality and initiative, is really after a mirror. The imposed rules, though they wouldn’t be so crude as to call them that, are designed to create legions of mini-me’s, diligently perfecting a kind of homage to their boss’s personal style. These corporate potentates go on regular walkabouts with their generals, inspecting everything from the recycling bins in the canteen to the shade of the paintwork. The young shaver who’s bought a pair of Puma trainers in the company colours gets a pat on the back. It’s a form of vanity that assumes success is based on replication rather than originality.
A local Church of England primary school I considered sending one of my boys to had a poster that read, ‘If you’re ever uncertain what you should do, just think of what Jesus would have done in the same circumstances’. Substitute the chief operating officer’s name for Jesus, and you’ll understand what’s expected of the staff in these stultifying places. (Of course, I didn’t send him there.)
Those who don’t swallow the corporate line have little choice but to get out. Or else you’re a miserable outsider, an unbeliever, shunned by the faithful. It’s a tough decision to take, but so liberating. It’s like escaping from a religious cult. It takes a while to readjust to life on the outside, but once you’ve found your feet you realise you have choices, options and possibilities and you can go any way you want.
So don’t live the brand, get a life.
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