Resonance of metalanguage: shaping the overall image of a corporate organization
Although the public is equipped with such cognitive faculties of making associations and inferences, when it comes to the shaping of corporate images, we are actually emphasizing the overall inference of a particular facet of a thing when we emphasize the practice of “substituting the whole with the part” or “inferring about the whole based on the part.” The public would infer about the professional qualities of all the employees based on the behavior of an individual employee, and infer about the overall quality control of a company’s products based on the quality of a particular product and infer about the quality of the overall environment management based on the information whether a certain corner of a restaurant is clean or not. An important fact about corporate image is that the image is often an overall concept that undergoes a process of gradual change and accumulation. When an increasing number of “parts” and “particulars” are gradually put together, the public’s knowledge about the image of a corporate organization would be enriched, and the concept they thus form would become ever more comprehensive, abundant and integral. Therefore, we can draw the conclusion that a corporate image is the overlapping of a large number of fragmentary bits and pieces of information and the ultimate formation of a grouping of meanings under the multiple effects of resonance produced by the mechanism of metalanguage.
As discussed above, the symbols that convey the corporate image exist in a fragmentary fashion, comprising as it does of the product quality and design, the service and the behavior by the employees, the furnishing of a store and its hygienic conditions, as well as public relations and advertising campaigns etc. The symbols responsible for communicating the information of an enterprise will attempt to shape the profile image of that enterprise from different facets. In this way, when the public are exposed to a certain symbol concerning that enterprise, the corporate image which they derive will be this symbol and its signified, the meaning that the symbol conveys. The image thus formed is actually a profile image, but to the public, that image represents the whole of the corporate image.
We can take the Haier Group as an example. Haier’s employees, products, services and leadership can all serve to shape its corporate image, with each symbol representing one particular facet of that image. As has been analyzed above, the construction of the corporate image is a process of creating mythology. A myth can be divided into two layers, the first being the creation of the signified of a symbol’s connotative signification, and the second being the establishment of the metalanguage. As expressed in Fig. 1.11, the public can infer, based on the behavior of a certain Haier employee, about the corporate image of all the Haier employees as demonstrating a strong sense of professional commitment. This process is what we call the construction of a myth. On the level of connotative signification, the public reach a certain evaluation concerning the conduct of the Haier employees based on their own criteria of judgment. Although the entire process is highly ideologically-charged, it is nevertheless very subtle and unobtrusive and is made to seem natural and spontaneous. Being taken for granted, the “truthfulness” of the judgment seems indisputable, leading to the establishment of a signifying relationship that requires no proof based on concrete reasons. In this way, a metaphor is created. Thus, a signifying relationship between the signifier E1 “a certain Haier employee” and the signified C2 “passion for the job, professional commitment and corporate loyalty.” In the signified C2, a series of “socialized” epithets are artificially transferred onto the signifier and this artificial equation is made to seem exceedingly natural. A new combination of signification (E1R1C1) R2C2 thus comes into existence, and, with this, the naturalization mechanism is fulfilled. On the layer of metalanguage, the signified of E1, C1, becomes another group of signification (E3R3C3) by this time, and this is exactly how Roland Barthes defines metalanguage, namely, its “content layer itself consists of a system of signification.”26 This new combination is E1R1 (E3R3C3). The relationship between the signifier E1 “a certain Haier employee” and the signifier E3 “all the Haier employees” constitutes a relationship of the part and the whole, a relationship we have been discussing throughout our foregoing analysis. When the relationship between the part and the whole becomes a mixed relationship of equivalence, the purpose of metonymy
Figure 1.11 The Mechanism of Communicating the Myth about the Image of Haier Employees is achieved. By this time, the myth has been constructed, forming a relatively complicated structure of signification. However, the intricacy of this cognitive process is precisely what eludes the public completely, who voluntarily replace “a certain Haier employee” E1 with “all the Haier employees” E3, and establish a signifying relationship with C3 - “passion for the job, professional commitment and corporate loyalty.” With this act of generalizing the naturalized individual image into a comprehensive overall image, the mechanism of naturalization is successfully accomplished.
Even when the public is simultaneously exposed to many corporate symbols, it is highly probable that they would not pay equal attention to all those symbols, but rather focus on one or several symbols that interest them as the foundation to form their judgments about the corporate image. Because of this fact, it is particularly important for a corporate organization to highlight some specific symbols which can serve as “strong symbols” and to consciously enhance and reinforce their communication effects. In this regard, we can take “Haier” and “Haidilao” as two examples. For them, “service” has increasingly become their prominent corporate symbols and the public are much more concerned with the quality of their services than with anything else. The profile image thus formed can yield greater communicative impact and increase those two organizations’ competitiveness, constituting the core components that influence the overall corporate image. Of course, during the communication of the corporate image, mass media play an important role in fostering and guiding public opinions. This is particularly true when an emergency situation happens to an enterprise or when that enterprise launches or participates in a certain public event. On those occasions, the particular perspective from which the media choose to cover the enterprise will have a defining impact on the corporate image. This is a point formulated in the above analysis - that the particular symbols chosen to represent the whole of an enterprise will definitely help construct the particular profile image of that enterprise.
It is a gradual and evolutionary process for the public to gain an understanding about an enterprise. As the understanding becomes increasingly enriched, it will contribute to an increasingly comprehensive and holistic concept, with a plethora of “profile images” gradually converging together to jointly construct a relatively complete corporate image. At such a time, the corporate image does not comprise of the selection of a particular symbol, but the selection of a whole range of symbols.
In the communication practice, there used to be a very popular TV series produced by South Korea, which has become a classic example of how to project a national image successfully by making use of the metalanguage mechanism. The attractive actors and actresses, the fashionable dresses and beauty treatments, the elegant and modern living environment, the polite language and humble manners, as well as romantic and picturesque natural landscapes, such a long concatenation of symbols designed to represent the beauty of South Korea are put together to act out a story of emotionally charged and touching story of love and familial affection. The national image of South Korea takes shape, firmly albeit gradually, in the heart of the Chinese audience, producing a tremendous magnetizing appeal that brought huge crowds of Chinese tourists to Jeju Island, the setting in which the story takes place and contributing to the unparalleled boom of South Korea’s tourism industry. But what are the facts? Are all the South Koreans as good-looking as the actors and actresses in the TV series? Are all the other parts of South Korea as picturesque and romantic as Jeju Island? It seems that all those questions were insignificant to the audience; or, to put it in another way, they never deemed it necessary to raise such questions. The only thing that matters is that the national image of South Korea as a “beautiful” country has already been deeply entrenched in their heart and soul.
This principle also holds true for the construction of the corporate image. As far as a corporate organization is concerned, in order to project a particular type of corporate image, it is essential to choose or to create one symbol or a number of symbols that are in keeping with that particular purpose, and to employ appropriate media outlets and marketing strategies to enhance the communication effect of those symbols. Of course, among a full range of fragmentary symbols, their communication outcomes cannot be identical. As pointed out above, each enterprise has its own unique strong symbols and it is precisely those strong symbols that shape the corporate image on different dimensions and impress a diverse audience with a relatively convergent and stable corporate image. In order for an enterprise to possess a unified and relatively constant image, it is necessary to develop, on each level of the metalanguage, a relationship of mutual “correspondence” so that, when a number of metalanguages are put together, the “resonance” effect of meaning can be produced and the overall image of the enterprise is made more appealing. This is what is meant by the principle that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Here, in borrowing the expression “resonance” to describe the cumulative effect of the overlapped metalanguages, I intend to explain that, when all the parts are grouped together into a whole, the overall image of a corporate organization will present a richer diversity of meanings and the audience will be enabled to conceive, through association, more “relationships” that lie beyond the symbols themselves. All those constitute the “soft power” of an enterprise, which can produce a much greater impact that its “hard power” of products and services themselves.
In this connection, the corporate image of Apple Inc. is a case in point. The highly original advertising, the constantly adjusted and evolving logo - “the bitten apple,” the legendary founder of Steve Jobs, the largest Apple experiential store in Asia located on the Wangfujing Street in Beijing, the intriguing design of the product appearances, the user-friendly operating interfaces and the unfailing long lines of Apple fans queuing up outside Apple stores for the release of the latest products, each of these seemingly fragmentary items of symbols carries a message that goes into the making of a profile image of the corporate organization, which is Apple Inc. As shown in Fig. 1.12 and Fig. 1.17, the symbol’s signifier is supposed to be E1, but it engenders the audience’s
Figure 1.12 The Mechanism of Communicating the Myth of Advertising
Figure 1.13 The Mechanism of Communicating the Myth of Logo
Figure 1.14 The Mechanism of Communicating the Myth of Steve Jobs’s Image
Figure 1.15 The Mechanism of Communicating the Myths of Apple Products
Figure 1.16 The Mechanism of Communicating the Myth of an Apple Experiential Store
Figure 1.17 The Mechanism of Communicating the Myth of Marketing
associations regarding a particular facet E3 of the corporation and yields the highly ideological but seemingly natural signified C2. When all those signs gradually congregate, it is conceivable what would be the public’s understanding about Apple Inc.
When put together, all those symbols form a concatenation of symbols that function as a unified whole, in which each constitutes a sub-system that corresponds to and supports other systems. Together, they generate the so-called “resonance” effects, triggering a series of chain reactions in the mind of the public and producing an infinite set of rich significations. As indicated in Fig. 1.18, all these signifiers (all the E1s) point to one signified object - Apple Inc., where the congregation of a full range of symbols suggests “a kind of collective idea of unity which seems like a chain . . . giving off hints at each other . . .”27 This creates a space where the public develops complex and infinite imaginations which combine to forge a richer and more holistic corporate image C2. What is noteworthy is that the symbols about an enterprise are not isolated in themselves. Instead, they have come to create a kind of “intertextuality” as a result of the long-term communication practices, which keep reminding people of each other’s meanings. In his in-depth investigation concerning the mode of existence of commodities in the consumer society, Jean Baudrillard believes that no commodity exists in isolation; rather, they exist in “sets” in which they evoke associations with one another and the consumer will automatically establish a kind of link among commodities, “proceeding from one commodity to another in a logical manner.”28 This same logic applies equally to the actual situation of shaping the
Figure 1.18 The Mechanism of Communicating the Resonance of Apple’s Connotateurs
corporate image. Although the corporate symbols exist in a fragmentary fashion, they actually exist in a web-like structure which allows the public to associate one symbol with another, linking one profile image of an enterprise with another profile image. Under the “resonance” impact of the metalanguage mechanism, additional positive qualities would be ascribed to an enterprise, making the corporate image more stable, more holistic and more adorable. Hence, there comes the birth of a myth.
What really deserves our attention is that there is a precondition for metalanguage to produce its “resonance” effect, that is, there should be uniform frequency of vibration among diverse symbols. When the system of symbols within the web incurs discordances in the frequency of vibrations, their resonance effect would be affected, and would even result in the negative effect of resonance. On the other hand, the shaping of corporate image is a dynamic process, and there are possibilities that the overall corporate image would be undermined at any given moment because of the presence of a negative symbol. Therefore, a positive corporate image entails long-term maintenance and preservation.
As a matter of fact, imagination and association are two most fundamental modes of thinking by human beings. The mechanism of generating meaning as embodied in metalanguage is ubiquitous in our life but is often concealed and imperceptible. It works the same way as Hollywood movies, South Korean TV series and all types of highly lyrical advertising which, for all their spontaneous overflow of powerful human emotions, actually harbor various ideologies and communication strategies. Perhaps the meaning of borrowing conceptual constructs from semiotics to explore diverse phenomena of our society lies exactly here, in the effort to probe into the unknown secrets behind apparent truths. As to how the corporate image is specifically constructed through symbolic methods, this is the subject that warrants further discussions in the following sections.