If corporations were individuals, they'd have the highest psychiatrist bills on the planet. Hardly anybody loves a big business at the best of times, and when trouble hits it doesn't take long for disdain to turn into disgust. Just ask Exxon, the latest target of credit-card slicers and late-night comics.

And now, as never before, the traditional public-relations woes of the mighty are taking on international overtones. Given the global nature of modern commerce, it's possible these days for a fat cat to be vilified simultaneously in 87 languages. And so corporations have begun to invest millions of dollars in programs designed to bolster their images far beyond their own frontiers.The immediate impetus is the coming integration of 12 European nations in 1992 into a unified, barrier-free market of 320 million consumers, 75 million more than in the U.S. Suddenly, what they think of Colossus Inc. in Barcelona will rank with the view from Biloxi. And the result has been a bonanza for a handful of companies specializing in "corporate identity" projects.

The typical American executive, confronting this need to be appreciated in a baffling variety of foreign cultures, is reminiscent of the sad-eyed Arab potentate in an old New Yorker cartoon who complained to a companion, "None of my wives understands me."

It's not just an American dilemma, of course. Asian and European companies, too, are scrambling to position themselves for the changes they see coming in 1992. To take advantage of these and other far-flung opportunities, corporations that once took pride in hometown ties are rushing to transform themselves into non-chauvinistic multinationals. The Financial Times of London recently predicted that overall spending on corporate identity and design projects will exceed $1.5 billion this year. Four leading American firms are sharing significantly in the pie: Anspach Grossman Portugal, Landor Associates, Lipincott & Margulies and Siegel & Gale.

As the imminent changes in Europe make clear, the worldwide competition for markets is intensifying, and shakeouts are expected in many industries. Already there is widespread evidence of major European and American corporations changing direction, acquiring businesses from one another and forming joint ventures that blur existing images and create the need to establish new or revised identities.

Unilever has sold its Dutch and West German transport companies to Federal Express. Westinghouse is backing away from mature products in Europe, such as electrical equipment, and concentrating its resources on growth markets, such as refrigerated trucking, defense electronics and environmental controls.

Siemens of West Germany and Britain's General Electric have bid $3.1 billion for Plessey of Great Britain, a deal that would form an electronics firm with the mass to compete with America's General Electric. AT&T is building a microchip plant near Madrid in a joint venture with Telefonica, Spain's national telephone company, and is forming a joint venture with the Italian telephone equipment maker, Italtel.

As Ken Love of Anspach Grossman Portugal put it to me, "The reshaping of Europe for the watershed of 1992 is in full swing. Corporations of all sizes are getting ready, restructuring and establishing stronger, more aggressive identities."

While the economic war for a newly unified Europe is the headline cause, the corporate-identity game has in fact been booming throughout the 1980s. When Burroughs merged with Sperry, an employee contest produced the name Unisys, a brand-new brand name intended to produce a brand-new corporate loyalty. On the other hand, the First National City Bank of New York went back into history for its new, internationally neutral name, Citibank; it had been founded in 1812 as City Bank. And Consolidated Foods, which analysts long considered as boring as its name, switched to the globally recognizable name of one of its products, Sara Lee. The new, presumably friendly lady has been buying up European companies like a native.

More and more companies have been heeding the advice of management philosopher Peter Drucker, who contrasted the world's growing political fragmentation with its growing economic integration, concluding that "a global strategy is appropriate to our times." In the 21st century, the last thing a corporation's image may tell you is where its chief executive lives. Which is often, from the CEO's point of view, a darned good thing.