From past to future: culture and identity

The organisation develops and retains awareness of its past experience through theoretical reflection and empirical research. The knowledge of these experiences, properly balanced with openness to change and innovation, is key to facing future challenges. Empirical research shows that organisational members tend to reinterpret their past in the light of desired and expected futures (Gioia et al., 2002). For the company, the aim is that its member individuals capture the links between past events and present in vivid and applicable forms. The cognitive processes are influenced by the organisational culture, meaning the perceptual processes and behaviours of the whole and its members. Organisational culture is a set of powerful and often unconscious forces that determine individual and collective behaviour and modes of perception. Culture is shared thought patterns and values, assimilated throughout company history and elaborated at different levels (Schein, 1984).

As Edgar Schein (1984) suggests, the culture of a particular firm is best grasped and expressed by thinking of the organisation from a historical perspective, and identifying the values, beliefs and assumptions learned together over time. The organisational values are the idealisation of successful collective experiences in the exercise of a competence, and as the emotional transfiguration of the accumulated experiences (Gagliardi, 1995). These contribute to the company identity, guide management behaviour and choices, form the basis for distinctive positioning, and suggest the essential promises to diverse stakeholders.

Closely associated with culture, the company’s identity is what distinguishes it, makes it unique and verifiable to external audiences, and makes it different from all competitors. The organisational identity arises from the subset of cultural beliefs, values and objectives that meet specific criteria of centrality, distinctiveness and durability (Stuart and Whetten, 1985). The values that define an identity are thus the ones central to the nature and life of the very organisation. These serve as the starting point for building relations with the outside world. They distinguish the organisation from others, and remain constant through time. A cohesive and shared identity is a source of competitive advantage, because it improves the company’s image and consolidates its reputation, promotes internal cohesion, increases staff motivation, generates trust, and serves in generating lasting relationships with stakeholders (Melewar, 2008).

From this reasoning we can see that heritage marketing, due to its process of exploration, recovery and reference to the past, is strategic in defining and conveying the corporate culture (Schein, 1984). Heritage marketing is indeed not only directed externally, but is also essential to the delicate process of identity building among internal stakeholders, enabling them to understand the meaning of their activities as part of the one organisation. The “corporate heritage identity” is the set of indelible attributes that unite past, present and future of the organisation, and it serves in promoting both continuity and change (Balmer, 2011).

2.4 The power of narrative in constructing organisational identity

Narration is a powerful tool, endowing events with names and meanings. The narrative process is the crucible for the formation of identities, the way of both knowing the organisation internally and communicating it externally (Czar-niawska, 2004). Organisational narratives occur in three ways: as remembered and known tales of the field, through collecting and documenting new stories in the field, and finally through the creation of stories, taking an interpretative approach (Van Maanen, 1988). Managerial studies have more thoroughly consolidated the conceptions of the first two forms, while the third — which conceptualises organisational life as the creation of a story (Czarniawska, 2004) — gains increasing importance in the case of heritage marketing strategies.

The collection of stories is highly useful in understanding an organisations sociality. In the anthropological and ethnographical approaches, the collected stories are examined as distinctive elements of the organisational culture. Business stories are “instrumental rationalisations of the past” that provide an explanation of organisational events and serve in claiming collective uniqueness (Martin et al., 1983). The stories are an expression of organisational culture, transmitting values and behavioural patterns, and generating and reflecting organisational changes.

As Karl Weick (1995) suggests, stories postulate a rational organisational history and offer behavioural guidance. They are crucial for “sense-making,” meaning the processes of understanding and creating meaning in the face of the current context. They enable analysis, interpretation, and even activation of the environments of contemporary complex events, and so are essential to the frameworks for corporate decision-making. The stories transmit shared values and experiences that provide powerful energies in support of sense-making and orientation of choices. As highlighted by Wilkins (1984), stories facilitate

A dual analytical perspective 25 the recall to memory, not just of events and specific information, but of entire values and principles; they also tend to generate shared beliefs; furthermore, they appeal to personally held senses of legitimacy and in doing so stimulate commitment. A good narrative can retrieve personal experiences, share and transmit values, and construct meaning. Ultimately, it can develop understanding of the traits characterising the corporate culture, increase sharing of the most significant organisational principles, and support ongoing assessments of needs and processes.

Telling stories is therefore an active component in the construction of meaning, not just a passive restitution of what happened (Czarniawska, 2010). As Karl Weick (1995) reminds us, organisations are the result of individuals operating in interactive sense-making and learning dynamics. In this context, stories serve in developing retrospectives, constructing identity, and enacting environments of sense that are continuously responsive to social contexts. They are successful in this because they focus on messages both plausible in the current moment and accurate with respect to the past (Weick, 1995). Indeed, all storytelling is inevitably based in the past, applying memory and history in the manner discussed in previous sections.

As we will see in more detail in our case studies, heritage-based narrative processes are central to overall corporate strategies, because they imbue the organisations aims and objectives with emotions, values and experiences, capable of motivating and involving the internal and external stakeholders in the company project. The storytelling process opens up and shares the process of identity development, founded in the past. Drawing on memory and history, the company develops different forms and methods of storytelling, designed to stimulate understanding and interrelation between stakeholders, consumers and the company, including in the collective dimension of consumption (Carií and Cova, 2007). All of these results serve to advance brand image and performance.

In our analyses of 20 Italian companies we find that all of them take a strategic approach to narrating virtuous storylines — constantly applying a mix of tools and actions that go far beyond any casual or sporadic level - and that this is the key to successful heritage marketing, preventing the company’s memory from receding into oblivion and instead capitalising on it in research and development of new directions.


1 Translated from the original in Italian, pp. 11, 16.


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