How To Handle An Identity Crisis


Get to know the other you


I sometimes marvel at how big companies such as Hewlett-Packard lose their way and forget their identities. I mean, HP, how tough is that? Wake up, go to work, invent cool stuff--you know, the way Apple does.

The day former CEO Carly Fiorina unveiled the HP iPod by Apple was the day she conceded to the rest of the world that she didn't have the answer. The day newly named CEO Mark Hurd shows us something that compels us to spend our spare time on www.hp.com is the day he reveals he does.

The reason I bring up HP is because it's impossible for a small company to understand how a GM, HP, AT&T or K-Mart could be so sloppy with its brand. The billions of dollars these companies have lost from product, management and financial blunders is staggering. And much of that can be traced to one thing: loss of identity.

HP once stood for unparalleled innovation and unrivaled ambition. (Think Compaq.) Today? Breadth of product line and complexity of mission. How about GM? Quality and value have been replaced by dealer incentives and the employee discount. Don't know about you, but when I think new car, "employee discount" doesn't mean as much as the Consumer Reports' reliability index or Car and Driver's 10-Best list.

What I am getting at is this: Few things are as important as what Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true."

Whether you are is a question you and your colleagues should ask yourself at least once per month, no matter the size of your company. I like to ask the founders who stay with their organizations if they wound up with the same companies they set out to build. The successful ones always say they have, despite the changes and adaptations they have made along the way. The others? More than a few have crashed and burned after saying, "No, we are something altogether different."

Smart companies are always reinventing themselves, shifting to higher-margin opportunities when once-lucrative businesses run out of steam or become too commoditized. Those that lose their identity and fail to remember what made them successful in the first place often run into trouble. So, if your company is struggling with its identity, remember this: It's not what you call yourself that matters--it's what you do. Consider the case of Advanced Data Systems. (Hell, I'm willing to bet that half of the people reading this have either worked for or competed against a company called "Advanced Data Systems" at one point in their career.)

Why? Well, "Advanced" begins with an "A", which means it comes up high in searches and in directories such as the Yellow Pages. Plus, the shorthand is easy on the ear--ADS--and the underlying impression the moniker leaves you with is generally positive. I mean, who wouldn't want to do business with a company called Advanced Data Systems? Running one, however, has its challenges. For starters, how do you stand out in a crowd? How, for example, does Advanced Data Systems of Bangor, Maine, differentiate itself from Advanced Data Systems of Maywood, N.J.? And how do either distinguish themselves from Advanced Data Systems of Tallahassee, Fla.?

The reason I ask is because by hook or by crook, most of the above have managed to stay true to their roots, despite their less-than-unique names.

In fact, Advanced Data Systems of Tallahassee has been around since 1978 in various incarnations. During the years, it has implemented Novell and Microsoft Windows-based LANs and WANs, among other things. Today, it specializes in imaging and document-management solutions.

Advanced Data Systems of Bangor has been around nearly as long, since 1980. Its specialty: high-end accounting systems. The company is a Microsoft Certified Business Solutions Partner and provides a full range of software-support services to clients throughout New England.

As for Advanced Data Systems of Maywood, it may be the most successful of all the companies sharing its name. A Microsoft Certified Business Solutions Partner as well, its beginnings date back to 1977 with the original goal of becoming the leading independent provider of physician-billing and practice-management solutions in the health-care industry. Though it has obviously made changes to its business model during the years, it remains true to its roots to this day. It not only knows its market, customers and partners, but itself, too.

Whether big or small, or named just like someone else, you can still carve out a unique identity for yourself. Just ask the folks at Advanced Data Systems. Any of them.

T.C. Doyle is senior executive editor at VARBusiness. You can reach him at tcdoyle@cmp.com.