Reflections on corporate identity and the perspective of semiotic cognition

Is there such a thing as “corporate identity” in our world?

On entering any of the McDonald’s restaurants worldwide, one cannot fail to be impressed by the stylish decoration emphasized by the red-and-yellow color scheme, the clean windows and tables that make up a congenial environment, relaxing and pleasant music, warm and hospitable services, not sumptuous but speedy and convenient snacks consisting of hamburgers and potato chips. In a flash of seconds, all those elements serve to imprint the corporate identity of the McDonald’s in the consumer’s heart and mind. The case of the McDonald’s proves that “corporate identity” is by no means an abstract concept; it is something real, visible and tangible, something which exists in the daily life of ordinary people. As long as the public enters a relationship with any manifestations of a given corporate organization, they would form some sort of impression about that organization and then reach a certain judgment and evaluation. In this process, corporate identity comes to be established. In this sense, we can say that corporate identity does really exist. Meanwhile, a corporate organization’s efforts to set up a corporate identity system (CIS, consisting of three sub-systems of corporate mind identity (MI) system, corporate behavior identity (BI) system and corporate visual identity (VI) system) also testifies to the fact that corporate identity is something that can be identified and perceived. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that corporate identity does exist.

But the fact is that, although corporate identity exists in the human world just like concepts of beauty and vogue, it is not the kind of objective existence that is constant and independent of the subjective will of the human beings. This is because no identity or image comes into existence of its own accord; it exists in the perception by the subject of the object. This leads to the fact that, temporal, spatial and contextual dimensions being different, the perceivers would come up with conflicting perceptions and evaluations even regarding the same organization and corporate identity would mean quite different things to different people. Even within the same spatiotemporal dimensions, different people with different status, positions and cultural backgrounds would interpret corporate identity differently. More importantly, as the denotation of the concept “corporate organization” is infinitely extensible, this means that the structure of the corporate identity is open and dynamic and that all specific and real details related to this structure are inexhaustible, uncontrollable and unpredictable. Hence, corporate identity exists in the intangible consciousness of human beings, without an objective physical vehicle that is definite, complete and unified. In this sense, we can also say that corporate identity does not really exist; at least, it does not possess an absolute objective existence. Therefore, strictly speaking, corporate identity possesses an existence which is both subjective and objective.

The purpose of undertaking those philosophical speculations is to bring corporate identity into the conceptual framework of the semiotic logic - to examine the formation and communication mechanisms of “identity” or “image” from the perspective of semiotic theory. In this way, our discussions of a whole range of issues concerning “identity” or “image,” such as corporate identity, national image, racial identity, city image, will not simply be confined to empirical analysis on the tactical level, but will penetrate into the inner texture of the matter and rise to theoretical explorations on the level of communication mechanism.

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