Multimodality, Corporate Identity, and Market Positioning

'Hey You, Thanks for Buying Our Stuff': Language, Multimodality and Identity in Two Corporate Websites


This chapter explores the semiotic resources employed in website design to evoke corporate identity through a comparative multimodal analysis of two cycle-component-maker websites (Shimano 2017a; Surly 2017a). One, Shimano, is the global leader in cycle parts manufacturing and the other, Surly, is an American niche brand that specialises in making affordable steel frames and parts, and targets budget-minded bicycle hobbyists. The comparison shows how image, font and other effects, as well as the organisation of the page, work together to create very different corporate identities. It is proposed that whereas Shimano evokes an aesthetic of engineered polish, Surly deliberately creates an aesthetic characterised here as ‘anarchist-punk’ that reflects its maverick position in the marketplace, resisting the tide of technological progress promoted by companies like Shimano while working in accordance with Shimano’s technological standards, which dominate the marketplace. This extends to the humorous style used in employee blogs and even product manuals, which blend the functional organisation of a manual with the informal style of blogs and forums, such as the one discussed in the previous section.

© The Author(s) 2018

P. Kiernan, Language, Identity and Cycling in the New Media Age

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51951-1_8

A comparison of these corporate websites illustrates how they can shape corporate identities. While each website gives the impression that its own use of semiotic resources is ‘natural’, the comparison shows up different ideological and identity positionings. Whereas Shimano offers a range of products that compose a hierarchy ranging from the most basic product models to state-of-the art technology used by professionals, Surly offers a variety of bicycles in a similar price range but designed for different types of riding, and only one grade of components. Moreover, Surly products focus on making bicycles simpler and less technologically advanced. These strategic differences are reflected in everything from the choice of fonts and images to the language used throughout the websites.

In order to explore identity work within the two websites, this chapter begins with a detailed analysis of two user manuals that provide instructions on basic maintenance of a component. Both manuals perform the same purpose and include recognisably similar resources, but they construct very different interpersonal relationships with the reader of the text. Whereas Surly (2017b) uses a relatively informal tone, it also relies heavily on a textual account that positions its ideal reader as a competent mechanic. Shimano (2017b; 2017c), in accordance with its emphasis on high technology, instead offers two sets of instructions, one for the end user and one for the shop mechanic. The end-user manual (Shimano 2017b) focuses on instructions for safety and provides no information about fitting. On the other hand, the professional manual (Shimano 2017c) uses high-quality illustrations and sparse text to provide the relevant instructions.

Comparative semiotic analyses of product videos, webpage organisation and menus are also used to build up a picture of the very different identity work being carried out by Shimano and Surly within these websites. The texts on the website do not all simply reiterate a consistent image of the corporation but rather offer complementary perspectives that contribute to evoking a sense of the corporate identity. At the same time the texts on the Surly website and those on Shimano’s share generic expectations but realise these expectations in different ways. In addition, I will suggest that the remarkable consistency of the respective corporate identities across a range of modalities invites a way into exploring them further.

The principal approach in this chapter is multimodal analysis (Kress 2010; Kress and van Leeuwen 2001, 2006; O’Halloran and Smith 2011), which in turn draws on Halliday’s functional grammar (Halliday and Matthiessen 2013) and other semiotic resources within the SFL framework, including genre theory (Martin and Rose 2008) and appraisal (Martin and White 2005).

The analysis is divided into three sections describing a three-part comparative analysis of interpersonal meaning in (1) the user manuals; (2) the macro-structure of homepage design; and (3) the semiotic interrelations among text, image and video resources. The user manuals are two texts that appear inside the respective websites. Both texts can be located after navigating through the paths from the homepage. First, though, the following section briefly introduces the webpage as a site for shaping corporate brand identity.

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