[su_pullquote align=”right”]Par Yuliya Snihur[/su_pullquote]

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.

[su_spoiler title=”Méthodologie”]The approach chosen for this qualitative study draws on the field of multiple case-by-case studies. Yuliya Shilhur selected the four most innovative businesses in terms of their business models in four different sectors, from a representative line-up of 165 firms chosen at the start. The results were obtained by studying 620 pages of documentary sources (both internal and external) supplied by the firms and 29 interviews with inside sources (founders, employees) and external ones (investors, clients). The study was published in February 2016 in the review, Entrepreneurship and Regional Development, under the title “Developing optimal distinctiveness: organizational identity processes in new ventures engaged in business model innovation.” [/su_spoiler]

By Gaël Gueguen

Basing itself on results for Tour de France cyclists, this study shows that cultural differences between team members have no effect on performance, an observation which may also be valid, under certain conditions, for the workplace, where of the issue of diversity remains a subject of ongoing debate.

To what extent can one transpose certain well-known management concepts (such as team work, strategy, rivalry, etc.) to a sport, e. g. cycling, so as to better understand how it works, and, by extension, further our understanding of company life? A first attempt to answer that has been made in a study by Gaël Gueguen (assessed particularly in relation to the number of nationalities involved), that questions whether the cultural diversity of teams taking part in the Tour de France has an impact on their results.

Diversity as a risk for team unity

High level sport necessarily draws on the best resources, whether human or material. A high level team will seek out the best possible athletes for a given budget and thus attempt to recruit in the world market. In the case of the Tour de France, where the internationalization of teams has intensified in recent years, there was a notable reduction in the number of exclusively national teams entered by traditional ‘cycling’ countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands between 1987 et 2009, and a corresponding upswing in the number of teams comprising five and more different nationalities. This trend is continuing: in 2015 for the first time, a South African team included two Eritreans. This globalization of professional sport, however, is not without risk: cultural diversity can lead to coordination problems (problems of mutual understanding, for example, when different languages are spoken within a team) and have a negative effect on racers’ team spirit (differences in values or attitudes). This question is all the more crucial in cycling, a discipline where the vital need for sponsors and the international nature of competitions sometimes requires that foreign sportsmen be recruited simply because their countries are targeted by the sponsoring brands.

Cultural diversity has no negative impact on performance in cycling

Should we take care to only include sportsmen of similar cultures in high level teams, or can we drop the idea? Wouldn’t a group focused on a specific task requiring rare complementary resources and coordination in competitive situations (exceptional climbers, sprinters, ace cyclists, highly versatile leaders and so on) be weakened by too wide a diversity among its members? It would appear not. Cultural diversity has no impact on sports results. Cycling team coaches can select a cyclist for his worth regardless of nationality without worrying about strong cultural differences. A possible explanation for this is that the professionalism of cyclists and their managers compensates for any coordination problems. . Indeed, since everyone’s efforts are supervised and synchronized by a chief coach, the roles of all team members are clearly defined, and regular training also helps transform each cyclist’s tasks into a perfectly mastered routine.

From cycling to the world of business in a single step

A company is rarely made up of homogeneous human resources as regards gender, age, experience, nationality, salary, etc. Do such significant differences increase the performance of work teams or not? Analysis of studies on diversity in the workplace show contradictory results. Diversity of team members can in some cases, for example, increase creativity and improve decision-making (since the clash of different opinions can spark good ideas). In others, however, it can negatively affect unity, trust and communication with a corresponding increase in tension and conflict. Can the observation that diversity and performance in cycling appear not to be related, help us to better understand what is happening in the corporate context? No doubt, but only under certain conditions. The Tour de France competition is somewhat particular which makes it hard to generalize, firstly in that members of professional cycling teams are extremely specialized, and then that, in this most important cycling event, teams of only the nine best riders among the thirty-odd under contract compete with each other and not the entire group (which would, however, be the case for a company).

Nonetheless, the methodology used can easily be transposed for a study of the impact of cultural diversity in teams of top managers on the performance of multinationals. This is of interest now that more and more firms are diversifying their executive boards as they expand internationally. In a multinational company such as L’Oréal, for example, the recruitment of managers from different countries is considered to be the principal factor behind successful product-launches in emerging countries. To limit a ‘Tower of Babel syndrome’*, multicultural teams are organized around a leader who, through experience in a variety of countries, knows how to handle inter-cultural tensions.**

* Coordination difficulties arising from different languages spoken within a team.
** “L’Oréal Masters Multiculturalism” de Hae-Jung Hong et Yves Doz (Harvard Business Review, juin 2013).


The article “Diversité culturelle et performance des équipes sportives de haut niveau : le cas du Tour de France”, by Gaël Gueguen (Management International, 2011).

Practical applications

Although cycling is a somewhat particular activity, especially given that all its participants are highly specialized, the results of this research may be applied to the workplace provided that certain conditions are met. In groups comprising team members with clearly defined roles and specific tasks it may be stated that neither cultural diversity nor other differences such as gender, origin, age or education have a negative impact on collective performance. As with cycling, a specific team culture that transcends cultural boundaries may well arise.


I analyzed the results of 487 teams (4,375 racers) taking part in 23 Tours de France between 1987 and 2009 in order to determine whether cultural diversity harms performance. The study was based on several factors which allowed me to determine the cultural heterogeneity of the teams (based, primarily, on the number of countries represented). The aim was to compare the performance of teams of cyclists (their results) with the level of cultural diversity via a linear regression analysis intended to measure the strength of the relationship between a series of independent variables and one requiring explanation.