How do you think about your product? As the reason your company exists, or as an expression of who you are? Your answer could mean all the difference between building an organisation that endures, and one that doesn’t.

On January 30th 2013, Research in Motion (RIM) chief executive Thorsten Heins took to a New York stage to unveil his company’s latest “BlackBerry 10” mobile platform. It was an eagerly anticipated announcement for the ailing smartphone maker, whose share price had been free-falling from an all-time high of 230 dollars, to a little over 16 dollars.

But BlackBerry 10 wasn’t the only divulgence that day. Heins also revealed that RIM would be ditching the company name that it had used for the past 28 years, and would now be known simply as “BlackBerry”. His rationale was that his customers use a BlackBerry, employees work for BlackBerry, and shareholders are owners of BlackBerry.

There was only one problem; BlackBerry was synonymous with smartphones, because a BlackBerry was a smartphone. BlackBerry was the product, not the organisation. And if an organisation is defined purely by its product, that leaves it very few places to go.

The market didn’t warm to the phones, nor the new company name. Just eight months after the announcement, BlackBerry revealed that it was shedding 40% of its workforce.

Its share price plummeted to just $8.50.

You are bigger than your product

When Richard Branson was once asked to describe what Virgin stood for, he replied with one word – “fun.” Not a record store, an airline, or a train operator, but fun. This deep understanding of who Virgin is has enabled the entrepreneur to scale beyond an initial mail order operation into a global empire, spanning more than 400 Virgin companies.

Equally, Disney represents far more than just animated cartoons. The 92 year old icon has always stood for magical, family friendly entertainment. Its unique mix of theme parks, retail stores, movies, and even island destinations are all expressions of that ideal.

“Product first is very retro, very 1980’s. We have to put the idea first.” – Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi.

You’d be given a strange look if you asked for a “Disney”, because unlike a BlackBerry, a Disney isn’t a product. Disney has an identity that transcends its product.

RIM was so blinkered by its flagship device, that it had allowed it to become the ultimate definition of its company. And with consumers losing faith in the phone, there was nothing else for them to identify with. BlackBerry merely stood for a BlackBerry. The product that had ignited the company’s growth, was to actually become its downfall.

That’s not very “you”

As the story of RIM highlights, not understanding who you are can paralyse product innovation. But it can also result in you developing entirely the wrong product altogether.

In 1982, people were left baffled when the popular oral care brand Colgate introduced a line of ready meals. The company envisioned their customers tucking into a scrummy Colgate entree over a rival Lean Cuisine one. Unsurprisingly, the product flopped.

Consumers didn’t connect the company synonymous with dental hygiene with the idea of a delicious dinner. Instead, they figured their meal would taste like toothpaste. And a spearmint-flavoured stir fry just isn’t very mouthwatering. People’s impressions of who Colgate is, and what Colgate represents is what caused their new product to fail.

Bic fell foul of the same issue when they introduced a new line in underwear. Nothing screams comfort, more than a pair of pants from a company famed for its razor blades.

Without a well defined identity, anything can look like a good commercial opportunity. Product graveyards are littered with such examples. From Cosmopolitan yoghurt to Kellogg’s streetwear, companies have spent millions developing products that accomplished little more than customer confusion, and a diluted identity.

Products can’t endure, but organisations can

Every product has a shelf-life. By defining your organisation by your product, you are potentially giving it a shelf-life too. Not to mention limiting its possibility and potential.

Try to avoid falling into the same trap as BlackBerry. Don’t think of your product as who you are, but as a creative expression of who you are. Start to describe your organisation without even mentioning your product. For example, Nike never refers to itself as a trainer manufacturer. Instead, its identity is rooted in its unique values, worldview and aspirations, rather than a specific product or functional USP.

Just like Disney would never produce a certificate-18 movie, ensure you use your sense-of-self as a lens for new product innovation. Every product you create either strengthens or dilutes your identity. You have to consider who you are, before you consider what your next product will be. The trick is to express yourself, without losing yourself.

Remember, a great product might get you a few million dollars or even customers, but a great identity could mean building an organisation that stands the test of time.