In the construction of a corporate identity for their business, creators of innovative start-ups have to simultaneously highlight their distinctiveness and also show that they belong to a pre-existing category of similar businesses. The objective is to reach “optimal distinction” which means finding a balance between an identity which is distinct from other businesses, and a “group” identity where they can show they belong to well-established business category. This balance is important if starts-ups are to grow their reputation and legitimacy.
To be unique but not too unique, that is the dilemma. A business’s first few years of existence are critical for the construction of its identity. It’s a period when creators make strategic choices which they must implement rapidly so that the business project survives and develops, but whose consequences are difficult to modify over the long term. The aim is to highlight the distinctiveness of the business while reassuring potential customers and partners about its normality. This balance is what’s known as “optimum distinction”. To succeed, a midway point has to be found between being unique, which contributes to the reputation of the firm, and the need to be like the others, to belong to a pre-existing and recognised group or category, which delivers legitimacy.
In search of optimum distinction
The challenge of building a corporate identity is something all new businesses have to face, but it’s even more intense for innovating companies with new business models, ie, a way of running their business which breaks away from existing practices in their sector. By definition, start-ups have no history or track record and are unknown to the general public, who have no frame of reference or benchmarks to rely on when it comes to trust.
What this study seeks to identify is the means by which innovating start-up companies build their reputation and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. To answer this question, we have analysed the way in which four young businesses built their identity. All four had introduced new business models, but each belonged to a different market sector: health, restaurants, digital services and the hotel sector. The results reveal four specific actions that were present in every case: these are storytelling, the use of analogy, seeking accreditation or reviews, and the establishment of alliances or partnerships. On the basis of these results, we have come up with a theoretical model which shows the link between each action taken and its consequences for the business’s corporate identity as perceived by the public, each action tending to influence both the reputation and the legitimacy of the firm.
Self-affirmation and external recognition
The first two actions are the sole responsibility of the creator and are linked to the way the business proclaims or declares itself from the start. Storytelling describes the genesis of the enterprise and gives it meaning. If it highlights individual experience or the personality of the creator, it will have an influence the reputation of the firm; if it highlights a social issue, like sustainable development, it will be more likely to establish its legitimacy. Analogies, on the other hand, allow the firm to explain its contribution by comparing it to other players in other sectors, close to or distant from the firm’s own activity. When the players are from the same sector, we speak of a local analogy whose aim is to build up the firm’s legitimacy. If they are from different sectors, this more distant analogy will result in a strengthening of its reputation.
The two other types of action involve a broader cross-section of collaborators. These actions need to be taken later on because they require more time to put in place and call for a more objective assessment of the firm’s competency compared with other businesses or organisations. A third-party evaluation can take multiple forms, from rankings and prizes to processes of certification or accreditation. In the first instance, the evaluation should grow its reputation, in the second, it will impact on its legitimacy. And finally, establishing partnerships, with the regular meetings that entails, leads to stronger relationships with third parties. This leads also to image enhancement through association, which fosters the firm’s reputation or justifies its membership of a group or a category and thus confers legitimacy.
Consequences to be confirmed in new research phase
The size of our sample and the short period over which the study was undertaken do not allow us to draw any general conclusions about the effects of these four actions. Nonetheless, the replication of similar results in a sample of four businesses belonging to four different sectors does make it possible to offer hypotheses that make a fresh contribution to the theory of business identity, especially in the particular instance of businesses operating an innovative business model in their sector. These hypotheses could be tested in future studies on a larger sample and at a more advanced stage in the development of the business. On a practical note, new businesses engaged in innovation could use them to find pointers on the timing and the actions to implement to construct their firm’s corporate identity.