IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The Vital Role of CMOs in M&A Success

Howard Breindel

Congratulations. Your company is about to undertake a merger or acquisition, and as CMO, your contribution will be critical to its success. This is because an effectively merged brand is a significant contributing factor to the success of corporate combinations. A 2020 study by McKinsey puts this into perspective: “… our experience and interviews with leading M&A executives indicate that marketing plays a vital role in integration and deal success and should not be an afterthought. Rather, marketing should lead the organization in developing fresh, compelling value propositions and setting the new organization’s brand strategy.” In short, marketing—and the brand that drives it—is key to merger success.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that brand is a driver of merger success, more often than not, brand is not promoted or leveraged to provide unity, clarity and solidarity during this transition. Sometimes there is a lack of awareness of exactly what a brand is. Too many companies change the name of an acquired company, slap a new logo on a combined entity and feel confident they’ve created a new, unified brand. But brand is much more than a name, logo or tagline; brand conveys the reason the business exists and how it intends to have an impact. It gives customers, employees, partners, and, yes, investors, a reason to believe that the merged entity will benefit them.

Leveraging the power of brand to unlock the potential of a merger or acquisition involves a multitude of steps, with many moving parts at each stage. For CMOs, there are seven key imperatives.

 

Get involved early.

Attention to brand should begin as soon as possible after the transaction is announced. This is because at the time the deal is closed, often months or even a year or more later, everyone will want to be fully ready to begin the process of making the combination pay off, whether through accelerated revenue growth, economies of scale or cross-selling. Customers should experience the new brand as soon as the organization is prepared to deliver on the promise of the combined entity, and at every touchpoint, from your website and social media platforms to your pitch decks and advertising. The brand needs to be firmly in place to make all of this happen.  

 

Play well with others.

As CMO during a merger or acquisition, you’ll need to work closely and effectively with a broad range of constituents from both of the combining entities. Territorial concerns are too often a factor impeding this, particularly when both companies have entrenched marketing departments. To avoid outright conflict, reach out early in the process to understand each other’s capabilities and expectations, and to define responsibilities. Establish a dedicated marketing workstream to ensure that marketing goals and operations are carefully synchronized across both entities.

It’s also important to remember that a new brand, critical as it is, is just one element driving the successful integration of two organizations. There are myriad other factors that need to be worked out, including integrating systems, realigning compensation plans, identifying redundancies…the list goes on. An integration management office (IMO) typically pulls all of this together. IMOs are often led by consulting firms (like McKinsey, PwC and Deloitte). As CMO, make sure you’re a part of the IMO, with a voice at the table when key decisions affecting internal and external communications are made. Take an active role in coordinating information gathering between marketing, the IMO and any external communications agencies working with you.  

 

Help your company understand how the market sees the deal.

As CMO during a merger or acquisition, you’ll inevitably be asked to resolve several key questions. Should one brand take precedence over the other? Which elements of both brands should be carried forward into the new brand, and which should be jettisoned? Has the competitive landscape shifted as a result of the combination, and how will decision drivers among prospects change in light of this potential shift?

Avoid the temptation to answer questions through guesswork. The personal and corporate stakes are too high to risk getting it wrong, and it is all but guaranteed that those leading the merger or acquisition will come to the table with biased opinions. Instead, let research guide the way. The customers of both entities will have established ideas of what each company does best, and may even have expectations for what the combination means for them. These perceptions need to be assessed before developing a new brand strategy.  

 

Brand around purpose, not financial engineering.

Several years ago, we created a new brand for two merging professional services firms, both with national reputations. The transaction made perfect sense from a financial perspective: the two firms were long-time rivals with very similar service offerings. By combining, they could grow their share and also achieve significant economies of scale.

But the clients of the two firms were not interested in how the combined entity could become more profitable; our research revealed that they were keen to know how the combined entity, not the transaction, benefited them and, just as importantly, they wanted reassurance that the combination would not result in higher fees or a diminution of service.

Employees of both firms were also concerned that the merger would result in layoffs. The need here, as in every M&A transaction, was clear: how to translate the financial and strategic rationale of a transaction into a compelling purpose that communicates a benefit to both customers and employees. As CMO, you can serve as the “conscience” of the organization, ensuring that a sense of purpose, and not financial engineering, moves the combined entity forward.

 

Get the architecture right.

While a brand is much more than a name, determining what to call a merged entity is a critical step in the branding process. Will one name be retained, while the other is retired? Will a completely new name be developed? Will one company become a subsidiary, retaining its legacy name, even though a single brand will unite the two organizations under one overarching positioning and narrative? This last question leads to another important issue: brand architecture—a strategic tool that organizes brands to help customers access solutions and understand the capabilities of an organization, while allowing the company to shape how it is perceived in the marketplace.

The key point to remember when considering naming strategy is what signal the decision sends to the marketplace and to employees. At its most simple, a completely new name, when executed strategically and effectively, communicates that the transaction is intended to shake things up and be “a sign of change, not just a change in sign.” Consolidating under one legacy name lets audiences know that any material changes to the portfolio, service, or brand experiences will occur in the framework of continuity; think United and Continental. Combining two names into one provides reassurance that the transaction is a merger of equals—this can be very reassuring to customers and employees alike; think PriceWaterhouseCoopers, now PwC. 

Once the corporate name and brand are in place, it’s time to look a level or two (or three) deeper at products and services, essentially extending the brand architecture to encompass all of the combined company’s offerings. Many mergers or acquisitions result in overlapping offerings with their own distinct names. When this is the case, synergies will only be achieved by combining offerings under a single name. When one product has a significantly larger market share, it usually makes sense to retain the name of the dominant product and discard the other. But often, overlapping products will have nearly identical market shares. For these situations, research will help to determine which products have more positive “equity” and should be retained. One advantage of this research-based approach is that it tends to take emotion out of the decision-making process. People at a company are often deeply attached to brand names and reluctant to give them up; data can offer the “ammunition” needed to persuade them to do what’s best for the company overall.  

 

Get everyone behind the combination with one brand-led culture.

Every company’s culture is as unique as the company itself, so mergers and acquisitions always involve combining two distinct cultures. A powerful new brand can help bring together different workforces, mindsets, and cultures, uniting employees around a common value proposition and purpose. Brands, and B2B brands in particular, are built from the inside out, which means that transforming your employees into willing and enthusiastic ambassadors of the combined new brand from the outset will make it that much easier to convince external audiences and deliver compelling brand experiences that reflect the power and value of the new entity.

In integrating two cultures undergoing a merger, the first step is to diagnose both cultures: how does work get done at both entities? Is decision making centralized or decentralized? Are the cultures consensus-driven or top-down? How are people held accountable, individually or by teams? Once these and other key culture determinants are understood, priorities can be set for the integration. The newly combined entity should define behaviors that will maximize the value of the merger. A new strategic foundation will let everyone across the combined organization know where the company is going and what specific behaviors and attributes will help it get there. Identifying influential leaders who can act as change agents and training them in how to model the desired culture and communicate what it stands for, can be highly effective in integrating a unified culture. Finally, success metrics should be created to measure progress and signal any needed course correction.

 

Find the right implementation timing: what’s optimal vs. what’s feasible.

Working on brand before the transaction closes is, as discussed, essential. But launching a brand on day-one isn’t always warranted … or even feasible. The brand and marketing teams from both companies need to carefully understand and plan for all the work involved and the strategic implications of “flipping the switch” versus implementing the brand gradually.

That said, introducing high-level brand elements—including the name, the story, and the visual identity—is ideally done at the time the deal closes. Employees and the marketplace expect this, and delaying it for too long sends a message of indecision and, worse, integration issues. Brand launch events for employees can rally everyone behind the combination at a time of maximum interest … and maximum anxiety. The range of channels to launch the brand externally is extensive, but at a minimum, creating a new website for the combined entity, even a temporary “holding” site or reskinning existing sites to showcase the new brand, is generally a good idea. 

Implementation should begin with segmenting and prioritizing audiences to create a launch and rollout cadence. Which constituents are most vital to the success of the new brand … and the merger? Who needs to know what, and when? Success also depends on carefully assigning roles to determine who within both combining entities is responsible for oversight, materials production, and program management. In almost every instance, multiple external agencies will need to be carefully coordinated, including not only the branding firm but public relations and investor relations agencies.

 

Done right, launching a new brand following a major transaction can be a catalyst for success. The sooner your customers and your employees experience the newly combined brand, the better your chances of beating the odds and emerging successful. As CMO, you need to jump on the process early and take the time to understand what the marketplace and employees are thinking so you can make decisions based on information, not guesswork. The resulting brand could become one of the most significant and valuable outcomes of the transaction.

As Co-CEO of DeSantis Breindel, Howard helps visionary leaders in financial services, technology, professional services and healthcare transform their brands into powerful competitive assets. He can be reached via email at: breindel@desantisbreindel.com or on LinkedIn.

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