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A CMO’s View: Siegel+Gale’s CMO on branding strategy during acquisitions & mergers
What's in a name? Siegel+Gale’s Margaret Molloy tells why branding is so important during major brand acquisitions, mergers and de-mergers.
Mergers and acquisitions are part of the every industry — from Walmart’s recent acquisition of Jet shaking up the e-commerce world to big brands like Unilever buying The Dollar Shave Club, or Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn, giving the software giant a sizable piece of the social media pie.
When corporate giants like Walmart, Unilever and Microsoft buy well-recognized companies, everybody’s branding is on the line, from the company making the acquisition to the brands being acquired.
As CMO for Siegle+Gale, a global brand strategy, design and experience firm, Margaret Molloy has worked with a number of brands through acquisitions, mergers, and even de-mergers, and she has an in-depth understanding of what’s at stake for all parties involved.
In an interview conducted by email, Molloy talks about the role her agency plays in clients’ branding initiatives through the acquisition, merger and de-merging process. Here she offers direction on how brands can manage the transition both internally and when launching new branding initiatives across search, social and digital platforms.
1. Reflect and refresh: Consider the merger or acquisition an opportunity to start fresh — It’s a chance to rethink the name, identity, positioning, brand voice and, most importantly, customer experience.
2. Plan early and plan well: This should be intuitive, but it’s often forgotten or left until it is too late. Create a brand plan that starts even before the merger actually happens.
3. Know your message for each audience, especially employees: You will be engaging with customers, employees [and] investors during and after any merger or acquisition process. Especially in times of change, you need clearly defined messaging for each of your audiences.
4. Identify opportunities to simplify: Use this change opportunity to provide greater clarity, transparency and utility to customers and all other constituents.
Amy Gesenhues: Tell me about a recent acquisition or merger Siegel+Gale helped manage from a branding perspective.
Margaret Molloy: Interestingly enough, a great example is a de-merger, but the same lessons apply.
In October 2014, the Hewlett-Packard Company announced its intention to split into two entities, signaling the largest corporate de-merger in history. The resulting companies would each remain Fortune 100 industry leaders — with HP, Inc. focused on personal systems and printing and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) focused on enterprise IT.
On November 2, 2015, Hewlett Packard Enterprise unveiled its new identity to the world, ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. HPE stands to carry on the legacy of Silicon Valley’s original garage-born startup into the future, redefining enterprise IT solutions and innovating on customer touch points across the globe.
Our HPE work was completed in a compressed timeline of 120 days. Broad-based buy-in was a crucial success factor. The new brand strategy and identity were validated by more than 100 customers and partners, 700 IT decision-makers, and over 250 employees from around the globe.
AG: How was Hewlet Packard’s branding impacted by HP, Inc. and HPE’s de-merger?
MM: Siegel+Gale was tasked with redefining the HPE story for a new era. We created a brand separation road-map to guide all brand-related activities in concert with HP’s Separation Management Office. We also conducted a global market study among employees and key customer sets and developed new positioning strategies for both companies.
To establish a standalone new presence in Enterprise IT, we created a fresh visual identity for HPE that showcases the company’s customer focus and fundamental role in building the future of business.
The resulting identity stems from “The Element” — a concept that transforms as well as focuses the look and feel of the new brand. Our firm undertook a comprehensive program to create design cohesion at every touch point across the Hewlett Packard Enterprise extensive organization ecosystem.
The visual identity, which was created in parallel with the business strategy, tells a story of HPE’s brand promise. We wanted to highlight HPE’s dedication to being a true business partner to customers and delivering advanced technology solutions that transform businesses.
From this thinking, “The Element” was born — a visual platform that could move and evolve with the company. While rectangular in its demonstrative form, it is a metaphor for many things: a frame to create a point of focus, the basis for a pattern, a window on partnership.
At its simplest, the new visual identity is indicative of HPE’s imperative to remain agile, decisive and fast in an ever-changing world.
AG: At what point during an acquisition, merger — or de-merger — should the branding team or agency be part of the conversation, and when should branding strategies be introduced internally?
MM: As much as possible, branding strategy and internal communications should be done in parallel. They need to be in sync, as all sides will need to be carriers of the news — marketing and branding to the outside world, and business decision-makers to internal stakeholders.
As early as possible, branding and marketing executives should have a voice and opinion in the conversation.
AG: What needs to happen on an internal level when managing a brand through an acquisition or merger?
MM: Above all, the brand strategy has to match the business strategy. Understand what is driving the merger, from all perspectives, and let it inform each brand decision.
It is important to appreciate the business ambitions of the combined entity to craft an enduring, high-impact brand. Of course, as brands have long moved from words and pictures to experiences, you must be mindful of articulating and planning for the experiences the new brand will set out to create with all stakeholders.
For larger mergers, this will mean more planning because there are more moving parts. In acquisitions, you need to develop a process of elimination to know which brand prevails, or if a brand is incorporated as a product brand. Research is key: comprehension of the equities you are gaining will lead to a successful plan to integrate them.
Everyone in the company needs to be informed about the business and brand path ahead. A change presents a powerful opportunity to generate excitement about the collective future of the company by making sure your employees understand the story and see the role they play in it.
When employees are informed and ahead of the story, they will know how to communicate that story, and most importantly, know how to live the new brand, with customers and other constituents.
AG: How does branding play out via search, social and digital when a brand is in transition?
MM: The digital side ties back to a deep understanding of the rationale for the merger and the desired post-merger customer experience.
Planning, as always, is essential. As your new combined entity makes its transition, all eyes will be on it. The digital channels are therefore more important than ever in helping tell your new story and deliver the desired brand experience. Your brand communications should be rolled out to social channels in a consistent manner, both through visual identity and through the messaging.
It’s also important to remember that stakeholders and analysts are looking to these channels for signs that integration is going well. It behooves brands to plan and execute these channels with the same precision and strategy as all other parts of the merger.
AG: What’s the most common mistake you see brands make during a merger and/or acquisition? ?
MM: Companies typically assign many resources to diligence for the financial, operational and logistical issues of a merger or acquisition and under-resource the brand aspects of the deal. The implications on the effect of a transaction on the brand is both harder to pinpoint and under-researched. This can be a costly mistake.
The brand’s transition must be carefully considered along with these other areas, otherwise companies may face cleaning up a costly brand mess after the fact.
AG: On a branding level, what’s the biggest challenge for the companies that are being acquired?
MM: The challenge lies in understanding your brand’s positive equities and, ultimately, the brand value. Research gets you to the answer; you must be armed with the facts.
There can often be some hubris for the smaller companies that have done well in one arena and soon find the world is very different as part of a big company. Always keep your compass by knowing where your true value is.
Knowing the true reason you were acquired will help you to articulate and appreciate what is relevant and transferable to the combined company: Why were you acquired in the first place, what did you stand for in the market? Were you acquired because of your product, customer base, employees [or] reputation, or to remove you as a competitor from the market?
The business reality of the acquisition should help dictate the brand reality post-acquisition.
AG: What are the common challenges for a company that acquires a company with strong brand recognition? What can be done to retain that brand’s value and reputation?
MM: From the acquirer’s perspective, understand what you are buying. I cannot stress this enough.
When acquisitions happen, they may appear to have a lot of upside for many reasons, but those assumptions need to be challenged. What is the crown jewel to customers may not matter to new senior management, and vice versa.
After a more thorough examination, you may find the brand does not have exactly the customer base that was expected. There is much due diligence performed around other aspects — financials, logistics, legal, and human resource issues — but often brand, brand experience and what the brand stands for is not well understood.
An acquisition signals the beginning of a new chapter. It can be an opportunity to do something differently, but these changes must make sense.
AG: In recent years, what major acquisition or merger do you think stands out as a deal done right in terms of branding?
MM: Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos comes to mind and illustrates an often-overlooked path for acquisitions: sometimes companies acquire brands and leave them alone, allowing them to operate as before. Sometimes, not interfering with a newly acquired brand can be a smart strategy.
It is important to understand the intrinsic and unique brand equity, especially when acquiring across different business categories, Amazon could have subsumed Zappos, but instead made commendable decisions to allow the continued growth and evolution of the heritage, experience and value of that brand.