Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.
William Butler Yeats, from "The Circus Animals' Desertion"

We live in the age of online presence: it's hard to argue that you're part of the warp and weft of modern society if you're not somehow accessible — if others can't find out something about you — on the Internet. This goes even more for companies than for people, since companies are, after all, public by their nature; at least, the ones that do business with or sell their shares to the public are. We've been exploring the online presence of companies recently in the Lounge. The language that companies use to present their public face has piqued our curiosity and we've been thinking about what purpose these self-reports from companies serve.

Most company websites have a bannerline or drop-down menu link called "About Us." Another popular choice is, e.g., "About Acme Widgets" or "Who We Are." Clicking on this link might take you to single page, or to a microsite containing numerous other links, where you can unpack the various components that make up the package of what a company wants you to think it is.  You sometimes have to drill down a few levels from the home page to find this information, and that in itself is an interesting point that we'll return to. We looked specifically at pages in which companies lay out their business and ethical philosophy, or their "values," which is a popular way of characterizing these aspects of a company.

Some companies lay out their values under the banner of "corporate citizenship" — a term that somewhat blurs the line between the corporate and the individual, since a citizen is, by definition, an individual. This point of view, of a company having the qualities of a person, is practical for presenting traits that are typically attributed to an individual rather than a group. It also has solid historical credentials, since corporations as they exist today were originally conceived as a sort of artificial person having a separate legal entity. Finally, presenting the company as an entity capable of holding or expressing individual human traits is useful for companies because it makes them seem more friendly — even befriendable — than they might otherwise seem.

What purpose do these "About Us" statements serve? At first glance, they seem to attempt for companies what an individual's personal profile on a dating site does: they are a way of saying "Here are some reasons why you might want to go out/spend the rest of your life with me" — or in the case of a public company, "buy my shares" or "do business with me." Among these pages you may find the company's mission statement or "vision statement," such as this one from Chevron:

At the heart of The Chevron Way is our vision... to be the global energy company most admired for its people, partnership and performance.

Or this one, a bit more bare-bones, from Cardinal Health:

Our vision
To be the premier global healthcare company.

In both cases we have preserved the italic-flagged emphasis that the companies themselves use on their websites. These two, Chevron and Cardinal, express an aspiration to superlative status, though they both avoid expressing it in language so bald as, e.g., "biggest." Chevron merely italicizes the definite article; Cardinal uses premier, presumably in the sense "first in rank." These language choices exemplify one theme that is invariable on company websites: a preference for gentle, civil, defanged expression. This kind of expression is at odds with the way corporations are often portrayed in public discourse: as impersonal, rapacious, and aggressive. As evidence of this: aside from purely descriptive adjectives (multinational, giant, major), the adjectives that most typically occur before the word corporation (as assayed in the 2-billion word Oxford English Corpus) are greedy, faceless, and evil.

It's helpful to take a step back from some of these pages and analyze their content statistically; for that, we used VocabGrabber to make portraits of a few such pages, all from Fortune 100 companies. Here's one from Procter & Gamble:

For a company that is known chiefly for its hundreds of consumer products, this portrait seems to boil down to a worthy mission: "improve life." Kraft Foods also seems to be right on the money in making the most frequent words on its "Who We Are" page the ones that deliver its message:

Beyond the headline words, all companies are eager to put their best foot forward by cataloging their many achievements and positive attributes: words that occur frequently on almost all company profile pages are community, responsibility, and commitment. A word that almost never occurs is corporation.

Wal-Mart's "values" page is in a similar vein. Whether intentionally or not, it succeeds in making its expanded statement a kind of holographic enlargement of its advertising slogan: "Save Money. Live Better." Even the most scattered attention span, clocking every tenth word or so on the page, would probably still walk away with the right take-home message:

Verizon keeps to a simple message as well — "great value" — even if you miss all the other points on the page that it labels "Corporate Responsibility."

Taken collectively, these company profiles offer a portrait of the corporation that almost glows in the dark. It is curious then that this 1000-watt bulb is sometimes hidden under a bushel, requiring the website visitor to click through several layers of links before getting to the point. In view of the disparity between the public perception of corporations and the way they wish to be perceived, why do companies not shout this information from their rooftops — or in this context, blazon it prominently on their home page?

The most obvious answer is that people do not normally visit company websites to peruse this information: they're there to buy something, contact a service department, apply for a job, or for some other more practical purpose. To their credit, companies probably recognize this and design their main port of entry to enable the user to get where he or she wants to go quickly. But is it possible, too, that corporations are aware of the sort of cognitive dissonance that might result if this sort of information greeted the visitor immediately upon landing on the website? Say for example, that you have exhausted all the menus on a company's customer service telephone lines and found that none of them offer you an option to talk to a person in real time. Do you really want to be told on the website that the company's "commitment is to put our customers first by providing excellent service and great communications experiences"?

The main purpose of the "About Us" species of pages seems to be rhetorical, in every sense of the word — and even with a nod to the classical sense, reflecting Aristotle's definition: rhetoric is "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." But is anyone ever persuaded by these corporate self-reports? It doesn't seem likely: experience is the main basis on which people form judgments, and presumably the basis on which terms like faceless, greedy, and evil came to be associated with corporations in the first place. Presumably, this fact is not lost on corporations — and they soldier on, fighting the public relations battle on all possible fronts.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 1st 2010, 6:47 AM
Comment by: Barry O. (ORANGE Australia)
Most websites are as you said targeted to let the searcher arrive at their destination woth the minimum of clicks. "about us" is good to give a job applicant or researcher some infomration about the company but not the person looking for a specific answer.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 7:17 AM
Comment by: arnaldo G. (Viareggio Italy)
I share Barry O. view
Thursday April 1st 2010, 7:56 AM
Comment by: Alina Wheeler (Philadelphia, PA)
Thank you for your thoughtful article. I recently did a brand audit of 35 service companies, focusing on the about us and the values sections. These statements are both valuable to external audiences, but more importantly to internal audiences, ie employees. What does the company stand for? How is it unique? The most discouraging thing in the audit was that most "about us" and value statements sound like they come from one giant generic word template. A language audit across peers and competitors is a great analysis tool.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 9:14 AM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
I was enjoying the article in general, but oboy!, when I reached the term "cognitive dissonance" I wanted to give a standing ovation.

I immediately recalled the numerous times I've been put "on hold" forever, and been forced to listen to a company telling me over and over how wonderful it is. Thanks.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Radames M. (Staten Island, NY)
With some minor exceptions, all of these "About Us" descriptions are coined by outside marketing companies. Remove the name of the subject company and they all sound alike.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 9:41 AM
Comment by: Edson Lopes (SÃO PAULO Brazil)
Coincidentally and strangely enough, I had the same feeling as Adele C.M. concerning "cognitive dissonance". What a fitting description of the feelings we have whenever we try to make companies stand to their publicized mottos, slogans, and mission statements!
Thursday April 1st 2010, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Scott G.
About Us Sections are for people who care about About Us sections. Yes, that's a bit circular and not terribly deep, but it's really just that simple.

As you point out, most people go to company's sites for some practical purpose. Likely this is related to the core business at hand and that's the focus of home pages, product pages, etc. etc. But what about basic contact info? Or Investors? Or Job Seekers? The About section has plenty of non-rhetorical use. I've worked for a variety of companies and have most often had access to web site usage analytics. About Us sections - as you might expect - get a tiny percentage of overall usage. But in real numbers, it's a non-trivial bit of usage.

While About Us sections may not be wholly standardized in terms of sub-elements, at this point users have some de facto expectations about what might be in such sections. Your post is an interesting wander though possibilities throughout. However, the last paragraph reveals a somewhat disturbing perspective. Besides what I think I've shown to be a false conclusion regarding About Us sections being rhetorical, you seem to have a fairly negative view of how companies handle public relations in general. Perhaps you've missed the purpose of such About Us sections and in so doing, have formed what is at best an incomplete view.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Gasper P. (Aliso Viejo, CA)
Companies strive to express their meaning, or purpose. The "why" of the organization. Few live their "why," or have management teams that spend much time in conversation about how their values may shape their actions. Ironically, the ones that do, seem to be the most successful (Starbucks, Nordstroms). I think one finds much less cognitive dissonance in the nonprofit world where the truth of executing one's mission is the only way to sustain the organization. It is a world where, for the most part, money follows heart. No evidence of heart. No money.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Danielle S. (Pawtucket, RI)
I think most companies use their website as an online brochure. I think there is much more credibility to those companies who utilize 3rd party accolades that speak about their experience with the company. That would persuade me to try one company over another of which I had no previous experience with. From there, it's up to the chosen company to live up to those accolades and expectations they set for themselves.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Michael B. (Saint Paul, MN)
Interesting piece. One other criterion that may be in play is Search Engine Optimization (SEO), through which those who are creating corporate and other business-focused websites write copy to ensure high results rankings for their organizations. In the Wal-Mart example, it may be that the copywriters were instructed to use the words "save" and "money" and "live" or some phrases in which those words are combined so that Wal-Mart listings popped to the top of the results when those words were entered in search engines.

It can make for some strange writing to have too much of an emphasis on SEO considerations, but increasingly, business managers are asking that of their marketing communications teams.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Janice B.
The value of the internet for me is to put me in touch with the tiny, private companies and inidividuals I prefer to do business with. I read their "About Me" or "About Us" pages with great interest. I want to know with whom I am doing business. On those websites they do reveal who they are, where they live, where they were born, their kids, spouses, pets and hobbies, hopes and dreams, their purpose in life and in business. This is what I hope to find on "About Us" pages. The slick marketing and PR image statements are of no value, since as mentioned, you could put any corporate logo at the top of any page, it would make no difference.
Thursday April 1st 2010, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Leonivitch (WESTFORD, MA)
Hello you busy and sooo smart people. You tempted me to sign up and on the first occasion that I explored the site, I was very impressed and promised myself to check-in every day. Yeah, good luck! I have remembered my membership only once or twice. Why? Because I am so busy dipping into the Wikis, Google and YouTube and email. I am stumped. The only thinng left for me is to practice sleeping less. I beg your subscribers for counsel. I need to learn how to squeeze it all in a 24 hour day. I honestly have good intentions but, there is simply too much to explore. For example, you could spend the entire day reading from Arts and Letters Daily -- a wonderful literary site.

Thanks for reading.

Leonivitch says see ya!
Thursday April 1st 2010, 2:02 PM
Comment by: Greenman (Los Angeles, CA)
I work in internet marketing and when I make a sales call upon a company for the first time, I need to know who they are and what they do so I can tailor my offerings to their target and needs. I find that even though I am conversant with the lingo of my business, self-descriptions are generally opaque, obscure and meaningless, using the same phrases and words over and over again (robust, scalable, dynamic, integrated, etc.). It's rare when I can actually discern a company's business model from their own description. Sigh!
Thursday April 1st 2010, 2:07 PM
Comment by: pablo C.
Right down my alley, since years ago -I am retired now- we "helped" companies to express their vision, etc.
Friday April 2nd 2010, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your interesting comments – as usual, they have broadened my perspective. I have also noticed the boilerplate quality of large corporations’ “About Us” pages, while reading with much more interest the pages of small companies and of nonprofits, which seem to be much more homegrown and sincere. I don’t think I have moved much, however, from a somewhat skeptical view. I am reminded of a popular song from the 1990s, called, appropriately enough, “More Than Words,” which has this lyric:
More than words is all you have to do to make it real
Then you wouldn't have to say that you love me
Cos I'd already know
It’s the same sort of thing I was alluding to with the quote from Yeats. Companies put considerable effort into burnishing their images on their websites, but this does nothing to overcome the overall negative view about them that persists in the public mind. If their efforts at actually doing the right thing matched their claims to it, they could banish the image problem once and for all. And they wouldn’t have to tell us how wonderful they were cos we’d already know.
Friday April 2nd 2010, 9:22 AM
Comment by: J. R. S.
Corporate Citizen... That's a tough one. All companies are made up of people -- many of whom check their ethics, and candor at the door to the office. Yet, if we don't ask for a statement of beliefs and practices, how can we expect the people of the corporation to live up to one?

Step One: State your case, your plan, your philosophy. Succinctly.
Step Two: Live up to it... forever.

In the words of an old Coke rep from the 70's, "You have to build the right story and tell it til you puke..."

Bodhidharma said "All know the way, few actually walk it."

So I'm inclined to forgive a little hyperbole in the "About Us" section -- knowing that the desire to live up to it might engender some soul searching and some late night dedication. (Hoping...)

And of course, it might be appropriately placed long after the "About You" section of the site.

"The Cluetrain Manifesto" said that Web 2.0 would change forever the hierarchy and the hyperbole of the standard advertising and marketing universe. Well maybe not entirely, but look at the green shoots of
creativity and outright, straight from the hip honestly that pop up from time to time and you can go back to work with a smile.

At the end of the day, it's a much faster way of finding out more about people you might choose as partners. If they promise too much, Out! If they Boast too much, Out! If they dissemble, Out! And you haven't left your desk. You may still have to make a visit or two, but you have to admire the time saved by "Weeding on the Web."
Friday April 2nd 2010, 11:28 PM
Comment by: Bruce S. (San Rafael, CA)
While the disconnect between companies mission, value and vision statements and the actual operations are all too common, the disconnections aren't universal.
The value of "About Us," and "Who We Are" lies in the integrity of the people presenting such statements, regardless of who wrote them. Too often declarations of intent are cynical ploys used as part of a basket of marketing tools used to convince just enough people just enough of the time to buy the company's product or use their service. But again, that isn't always the intention, nor is it cynical.
There are still in our often harsh and competitive world people who care about the welfare of other people, and exhibit such caring first. Doing so does, I believe, bring such enterprises more business, more money, and more esteem. Doing good, doing right, and making money are not incompatible; they may be rare when found together, but they can be shining example of what is the better angel residing within people.
Sunday April 4th 2010, 7:38 PM
Comment by: logcal
In regard to the term "cognitive dissonance", I suggest that the word "dissonance" should be replaced, because it has to do with sound, not ideas (cognitive). Perhaps, disconnect, conflict, incompatibility might serve as well. If you still wish to give the idea of dissonance, but make the term even more noticeable, you may want to use "clanger" in quotation marks. Any more suggestions?
Monday April 5th 2010, 8:46 PM
Comment by: Bruce H. (Arlington, VA)
When I click "about us," I'm in a hurry. I want a taste, not a meal. "XYZ is a manufacturer of clocks, books and plastic bags, founded in 1979, listed on the NYSE as XYZ. Our hqs are at..." That sort of thing, no more. Like a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn profile or email signature. That little sniff of true transparency will whet or stifle my appetite for more.
Tuesday April 6th 2010, 3:25 PM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
I suggest that logcal google "cognitive dissonance." It's rich and meaningful origins have been overcome by its ambiguity. But it is not merely a cliche; it's a classic. The sanctity of classics prohibits editorial comments. It's ok to improve them. Just try to be gracious about it.
Sunday April 11th 2010, 6:55 PM
Comment by: Katherine F. (Dallas, TX)
@Leonivitch

Hello you busy and sooo smart people. You tempted me to sign up and on the first occasion that I explored the site,
I was very impressed and promised myself to check-in every day.

so... you wanted counsel. my advice is to get word of the day emailed to you. sometimes I can't remember to do even one thing every day, so this way I get some knowledge every day from a relatively neutral source. plus, it's all so well written, researched, and presented it's a huge addition in a non stop world of 'buy this' and 'let me tell you how great this co. is'; speaking of the devils themselves!

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Person, Place, Thing
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