Concealing or Revealing the Family?

Evelyn R. Micelotta and Mia Raynard, both of University of Alberta, published “Concealing or Revealing the Family? Corporate Brand Identity Strategies in Family Firms” in Online First in Family Business Review. Professor Micelotta and Professor Raynard kindly shared their process in writing the article.  

Who is the target audience for this article?

Evelyn & Mia: In this research we investigated the extent to which family firms leverage on the familial component of the business in their online communication strategies. Our study explores the diverse ways in which family identity is manifested in the visual and textual content of official corporate websites. This paper sheds some light on a relatively overlooked area of family business research, i.e. marketing – an area with the potential to provide numerous theoretical and practical insights. On a practical level, our study offers suggestions to managers and owners in family businesses (as well as their advisors) regarding the strategies available for leveraging their firms’ historical legacy – potentially using it as a source of competitive advantage.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

Evelyn & Mia: Well, our school (University of Alberta School of Business) provides a very stimulating environment for studying family business. It hosts a center of excellence, and offers a number of high quality, seminar-style courses for doctoral students interested in developing expertise in this area. Actually, we got interested in family business research while taking one of these doctoral courses, taught by Lloyd Steier. We began to think about how family firms communicate their corporate brand identity after hearing (repeatedly) the tag line for AC Johnson, proudly stating that they are “a Family Company.”

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

Evelyn & Mia: Yes, indeed. First of all, we were fascinating by the incredible longevity of the companies in our sample. Existing research has placed a great deal of emphasis on the family firms’ struggle to survive and how succession can be a very stressful experience. Although these are real issues for family businesses, the picture can not be complete without looking at companies which have survived for more than 14 generations! Given the longevity and historical richness of these companies we would have expected more homogeneity in the communication of their brand identities. We found that family firms are indeed extremely heterogeneous entities. Particularly interesting was the fact that not all of the firms in our sample of oldest family firms leveraged on the familial component of their businesses – despite it being a unique feature that could serve to differentiate them from competitors.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

Evelyn & Mia: We greatly appreciate the opportunity to share our work in the Family Business Review Special Issue on marketing activities in family business firms. We hope our contribution will help to increase exposure to this blossoming area of research and will provide stimuli to further stimulate the ongoing conversation between marketing and family business scholars. Practically, our findings also have important implications for both family business owners and marketing directors. We highlight that there are various strategies and tactics family firms can draw on to leverage on both family identity and corporate heritage. Thereby, we show how firms can employ each of these strategies to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Even as companies change, and face more volatile and competitive markets, the family remains a potential source of distinctiveness, which can be leveraged in order to gain a competitive advantage.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

Evelyn & Mia: We are both doctoral students so our research interests are still a ‘work in progress.’ We are both intrigued by entrepreneurial dynamics.

Evelyn: This study reflects my broader interest in exploring how organizations contribute to create systems of cultural meanings.

Mia: One of my main research interests lies in the intersection of family and market institutions. I am interested in the (oftentimes) difficult task that family firms face in their attempts to balance competing pressures stemming from familial obligations and those of the business.

How did your paper change during the review process?

Evelyn & Mia: We are indebted to the editors for their encouragement and constructive comments, and also to the anonymous reviewers who have really helped us to improve the paper. The theoretical framework evolved in quite a substantial way, which required numerous trips back to our data and further refinements to the paper. The rounds of revisions helped us to really capture the essence of our argument, clarify our key constructs, and helped us to push our theoretical contributions further. The final product (if there is such a thing) is only mildly identifiable to our original submission. We strongly believe that the review process has improved the paper immensely and we are very grateful for that.

What, if anything, would you do if you could go back and do this study again?

Evelyn & Mia: We acknowledge the study is not immune from limitations. Although we are pretty happy with it, the study could have been further  in the identification of other potential factors that are likely to influence the choice of strategy pursued by family firms – in addition to attributes of products or services, size of the company, and geographic dispersion. That being said, we provide a number of practical insights to family firms regarding the strategies that would be better suited to their particular circumstances and their firm’s characteristics.

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