Beyond an Online Dress Code: A ‘Look Code’ for Work Avatars & Employee Branding

by cv harquail on November 3, 2009

We need to go beyond dress codes and consider “Look Codes” for the work avatars that employees use online. Online look codes will help employees translate the qualities of their organization’s brand into the avatars they create for themselves.

Organizations should care about their members’ work avatars because these avatars are representing the organization, and its brand, in these online spaces.

Online Dress Codes

When Gartner Consulting released a report proclaiming that Enterprises Must Get Control of Their Avatars, they made six recommendations. Most of the conversation around Gartner’s report focused on just one recommendation, that organizations consider creating online dress codes.

I think that most people focused on the idea of a dress code for work avatars not simply because the idea seems pretty funny. (A dress code for cartoons? Really?) But also, folks have focused on dress codes because dress codes are easy. We know how to do them.

Going Beyond Dress Codes

Online dress codes are easy to employ; simply transfer IRL corporate dress codes (or informal norms) into the online space.

Dress codes address clothing, hairstyles, and cosmetics, but they don’t address other elements of appearance, elements that are important parts of an online visual representation.

Online, what an avatar ‘looks like’ goes beyond how the avatar is dressed. In addition to clothing, avatars have demographic features (age, sex, racio-ethnicity, physical ability) and social features (aesthetics, gender performances). All of these features combine to create the visual image that the avatar presents. Organizational efforts to manage work avatars need to address all of these features.

A corporate “Look Code”

A ‘look code’ is a set of corporate guidelines for the overall physical appearance of employees. Look codes have evolved from retailing, where it has long been the practice for employees who interact with customers to present the organization’s desired image through their appearance. Look codes are all about employee branding.

Essentially, a look code falls somewhere between wearing the brand (with a dress code) and living the brand (with complete visual and behavioral guidelines). Look codes include not only guidelines for what they employee should wear, but also include ‘how’ the employee should look — e.g., “cool” or “hip” or “classic”. It’s in the “how” the employee should look that the qualities of the brand really come into play… since what’s cool, hip or classic is open for interpretation.

Look codes are understood as a marketing tool. They are also seen as a diversity-related minefield.

Taking away physical constraints …

Real people and their self-presentation is constrained by reality. What becomes kind of crazy an opportunity with an look code for avatars is that, online, there are no physical constraints.

  • The visual appearance of the avatar does not need to be realistic.
    The work avatar does not need to reflect the employee’s actual appearance.
  • The visual appearance of the avatar does not need to be human.
    The work avatar can be a non-human animal, a robot-y thing, a plant, a classic 1964 Porsche 911, or anything else really.

Historically, our at-work self-presentation has been constrained by reality. Now, online, our self-presentation is constrained only by our imagination. That’s why organizations might need to manage how members represent the organization, using something as broad as a ‘look code’.

What an online Look Code could look like

Organizations could come up with basic, real-world look codes and translate these into online guidelines. They could require employees to create avatars that reflect the employees’ human features (e.g., age, sex). Organizations could direct employees to project the organization’s brand through other conventional elements of the avatar’s human appearance.

Or, organizations could be a little more innovative.

Think about it: Without the constraints of reality and human-ness, how might individuals express the organization’s brand?


  • Could we have every brandividual at Ford create him or herself as one of Ford’s cars? tachikoma.gif
  • Could we create a non-human species like Mimikko cat-people, or tachikoma, or even something that reflects the aesthetics of a particular (non-Japanese) nation? Could we personalize each version of this non human species?
  • Could we let people make up whatever animate creature they want?

Think about this, too:

What could we learn about our organization’s brand and how each individual might express the organization’s brand, if we let loose our imaginations?

Work avatar image from Amanda Linden at Second Life Blogs

See Also:
Crafting Business Avatars: An Authenticity Exercise
Representing your organization on Twitter: A Logo or a Face?
Why We Want Brandividuals on Social Media


Lucy November 3, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Look code… hmm, interesting.

I love the idea of individuals expressing the corporate brand through their personalised non-realistic avatars, though it would take some thinking through in practice. (How would I show ‘me representing Corporate Eye’ if I didn’t use an image of me?) I really like the idea of discovering more about the brand by doing so, even if only as an internal exercise.

However, my first thought was discomfort at the idea that an organisation might impose an inappropriate ‘look code’ – think of those call centres where non-British staff are given a brief training module in the mores of British culture and assigned a false Western name. This is far from authentic, and patronises both caller and called. How much worse if the company insisted that all avatars were (say) blond and fair-skinned because the corporate headquarters were based in a Nordic country? Or young and beautiful because the company dealt in beauty products?

We do need to be able to distinguish between individuals online, as we do in real life, and at the moment we’ve translated our millennia of face-to-face contact into the virtual world as our best way of understanding this. But it may not be this way in the future, and we need to work out a way of managing this – and of conveying the additional meaning of brand.

It would be interesting to know if there’ve been any studies of how people who meet in real life having first met in Second Life (or WoW, I suppose) manage the connection/disconnection between avatar and reality.
.-= Lucy´s last blog ..Successful Investor Relations Communications on Twitter =-.

Dale Innis November 14, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Wow, that’s creepy and repulsive! šŸ™‚ Let’s force all employees to wear happy-smiley masks, and dye their skins the color of the corporate logo! Oh boy! Hey everyone, this week it’s corporate facial tattoos, so we all look like the CEO! And anyone under six feet has to wear shoe-lifts!

Way to drive out any employee sufficiently skilled to get a job at any less psychotic company, imesho…
.-= Dale Innis´s last blog ..Viewer 2.0: Another reason to love Imprudence? =-.

Tachikoma-kun October 30, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Personally I find this rather disgusting. I’m already opposed largely to the concept of dress codes and think we live in a society where not only is image based discrimination acceptable and institutionalised, but anyone who challenges it is automatically mature.

It’s all about control. Whether you have pink hair or brown hair has zero effect on how well you can do your job – especially if you work in a factory or office where you do not deal with the public(and if you do, it’s just reaffirming the idea that people who look “normal” are to be trusted, which is largely what got us into this economic mess, trusting well dressed bankers).

The idea that even your online presence is somehow controlled by this goes beyond this into the level of cartoon villainy(pardon the pun).

We spend so much of our lives working and so much of our freedom is restricted because of this, not to mention you can’t take off tattoos or hair colours when you go to work. We need to move in the exact opposite direction, not towards it. People such as transsexuals who cannot control that they at some point look different suffer heavily because of the sheer malice of social conservatism, and in general it misleads people as to what professionalism really means.

We need to rely less on “image” given the vast majority of organisations and business do not have notably different image to begin with – it’s what strikes me as especially hypocritical. Having a recognisable brand is imporant, but you’re not going to recognise a company from their dress code, since they’re largely quite similar – with one main thing in common, conservatism. Unless you want to work in Hot Topic or are self employed(and even then you’ll have difficulty since you’ll ultimately have to deal with bigots from other organisations – will people who largely uphold these ideas do business with people with funny hair? Probably not), you are essentially force to be “unexceptional”.

Much like the military forcing men and not women to cut their hair – it was never about professionalism, only about enforcing social conservatism. People need to start to recognise how many loopholes there are in modern society, that are essentially there purely so assholes can make people feel miserable and have a good chuckle about it.

Tachikoma-kun October 30, 2010 at 2:31 pm

A couple of small corrections –

Personally I find this rather disgusting. Iā€™m already opposed largely to the concept of strict dress codes and think we live in a society where not only is image based discrimination acceptable and institutionalised, but anyone who challenges it is automatically immature.

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