Blog | Hugh Kennedy 11.15.17

Marketing the Merger: Three Ways to Use Post-Acquisition Marketing To Employees’ Benefit

Recently I was on my way into a meeting to talk about some branding work. The branding director of this company told me there was a lot of confusion among employees, since the older and better-known part of the company had been sold to a Chinese consortium (which had decided to keep the original brand name for the products), while the lesser-known part had been renamed to align with its European parent. Which, naturally, had a whole new strategic direction it wanted its newly acquired employees to get behind.

Even without this briefing, though, the problem was writ large in front of me. Walking in I had to pass between two signs, one for the Chinese holding company, one for the European parent company. The product identity for what 99% of the world knew by name was nowhere in sight. I tried to put myself in the shoes of an employee with ten or 15 years’ experience there. Where did I work now? What were my marching orders?

Was it any wonder that engagement and recruiting were both a struggle?

If you hadn’t noticed, M&A continues to define late capitalism. Companies are still sitting on enormous piles of cash (in Jersey and elsewhere), debt costs are still rising slowly, and scale for competitive advantage continues to be the name of game.

Despite much evidence to the contrary, though, the integration of systems, applications, and databases tend to get far more serious attention after one company acquires another than the human capital. Typically, there is a brief flurry of “We are one company” posters and a handful of “town meetings” featuring canned softball questions fielded by the CEO with his human factor turned up to 11, but this quickly goes away and leaves people to figure things out on their own. Which typically means that employees go back to defend their own turf, pay lip service to new lines of reporting, and start connecting to a lot of people on LinkedIn.

What can your marketing group do when it finds a partnership or merger barreling toward it? Here are a few guidelines based on 25 years of experience trying to fight the good fight.

  1. There is one thing you can agree on. It’s called the Customer. The only group more likely to feel shafted by an acquisition than employees is customers. I regularly interview customers who tell me that it was months or more than a year after their supplier was acquired that they are paid a visit by a new account rep. Their questions rightly abound: What are your plans for us? How much attention will you pay to us now? Can we still speak to management directly? Will you be more or less reactive to our needs? Marketing has to design experiences that activate the group that ultimately pays the bills, and do it over the long term. It’s still rare that I talk to a customer who is delighted with the post-merger picture. Imagine what an opportunity this is. Seriously.

  2. Don’t market at employees: involve them. I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve put some stinkers out there over the years, based on the well-trodden Day One idea of fanfare and a canned video and an ice cream bar. And...we’re done. Much more successful is an approach that gathers concerns and anxieties from both sides, then lets employees run much of the show. Can you present the germ of an idea that they can build on and make their own to build consensus? Can you engage them in creating something that becomes the centerpiece of the campaign? Can you build a campaign that lasts more than a quarter and grows rather than shrinks in momentum? Think in terms of a three-act play rather than a skit.

  3. Honesty will set your employees (and earnings) free. Companies of a certain size are terrified of saying the wrong thing, often forgetting that their smaller constituent parts (and younger selves) broke through the stock photo clutter by being what we all are: human. I recently saw a post-merger brand video that was 95% uplifting adjectives. It could have been for a software company or a pest control service or a grocery chain. It left me seething, which I’m guessing is not the emotion the CMO was shooting for. It did the worst thing in my world: gave Marketing a bad name. Imagine how interesting it could have been if it had laid bare employees’ true anxieties and fears, explained what was keeping the CEO up at night, and spoke to what everyone needed to do to pull together? Imagine if it had asked for ideas and then followed up on them?

My impassioned plea: Don’t let your post-merger communications become forgettable dredge. It’s so easy to phone it in and set the wrong tone. Be real and human about it. Give your agency the same freedom.

Whenever I am assigned a campaign to rally the troops, I often flash back to my very first employee outreach campaign for a golf ball company that wanted to tell its employees that as a result of a merger, “Your benefits are changing!” My creative director at the time half-kidded, “Why don’t we just show an illustration of someone in a hospital bed as the Before and someone lying on a sidewalk as the After?” There was an almost audible cringe in the room, but she had a point I always take with me: without the people, a company is a bunch of rooms filled with machines and software. Embrace the inspiration of that challenge. In the long term it’s good for everyone.

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