By Jeff Walker
Companies across all industries go through mergers—they’re one of the largest, most inherently transformative changes a business can ride through. These changes can spur sink-or-swim situations, and savvy business leaders should view these times as an opportunity to act differently. Mergers also inherently question brand, the conduit that communicates how businesses think and act. Brands that simply try to muscle through can be damaged, as this action implies the merger isn’t meaningful, which simply isn’t true.
When you go through a merger, you’re creating new equity based on the convergence of different companies, all with their own outlooks, ideals and ways of behaving. To do this effectively, companies need a solid brand communications plan that’s swift, clear and decisive, reinforcing the business decision that has already been made and charting an optimistic course for the future.
With this in mind, the following thoughts serve as guideposts on how to communicate so your company can emerge from a merger as a stronger brand.
1. Deploy a solid communications plan
All brand stakeholders—be they employees, customers, investors, competitors or the media—pay extra attention during mergers. A high-level communications plan can reward this attention with action. Start by rolling it out to your employees. They’re the first people who will believe in, understand and promote your company’s new brand; you have to get them on board in order to successfully get through a merger. A second-tier communications plan rollout can speak to your company’s competitors and the media.
Regardless of audience, a communications plan helps get everybody on the same page, combats rumors and lays out the change to come. It’s also an ideal medium for talking very directly—and in writing—about why the merger is necessary and how its ensuing redirects will help the company chart long-term success. Laying out the broad-stroke details will set the tone for clear management and will help spark ideas about how employees can take meaningful action.
2. Build confidence from uncertainty
During a merger, questions and anxiety from key stakeholder groups are inevitable. Companies need to act fast to address concerns so that both internal staff and external audiences feel more at ease—direct and consistent communications are key to demonstrating confidence. Acting fast also means being comfortable talking with key groups, even if all details are not 100% defined. Taking your stakeholders along for the ride and involving them will begin to convey the new, combined company’s strength and spirit. At the same time, it allows leadership to iron out harder issues and think through changes with more specificity over time.
3. Foster participation
Remember, mergers are a two-way street—they shouldn’t be dictated solely from the C-suite. The entire organization, from the CEO to the newest employee, will be affected and will have suggestions for how the new company, its culture and its value systems should be shaped. Harness these ideas by encouraging input across the entire organization. This requires establishing clear communication pathways that allow for real feedback. Depending on the size of your company, this could mean organizing an all-company town hall, setting up a live online event, and engaging mid-level managers so that they can uphold communications among individual teams, leadership and the wider organization. Involvement across the organization will help everyone feel valued, help mitigate doubt and ill will, and generate feedback that can be implemented as the merger takes place.
4. Be transparent
Give stakeholder groups a line of sight as to when they can expect key decisions to be made and operationalized. This timeline should lay out the change at launch, three months, six months and one year. For example, if you’re changing your company’s identity and it’s ready at launch, but a deeper expression system is planned for three months later, set that expectation. Giving visibility calms nerves and creates confidence that the merger—and new company and brand—are being well managed.
5. Find your voice
Clear, distinct voice and tone are great arenas to begin to reflect the potential of the change you’re working to roll out. They are one of the first major touchstones used to establish a new cultural foundation; they should be used to set the expectation of what communicating will be like in the new company’s culture. This applies to all companies, whether you’re working on being more human and nimble or bold and fast. Finding your voice and tone is a way to accelerate positive perceptions around the merger and lay the foundation for the brand’s new position and expression.
6. Lead the way
Although collaboration and consensus are key to getting brand stakeholders to enact change, massive participation can often derail launch timing. Using a smaller “swat” team to drive and kick off decisions will be more effective. The blue sky window that mergers bring along stays open for a limited time. Take advantage strategically, and you can change your business and brand for the better.
Jeff Walker is Senior Partner at VSA Partners. With expertise in directing major brand and strategic design initiatives, Jeff Walker leads client teams serving leading companies worldwide. Jeff’s 20-plus years of experience include guiding strategy, brand and design work for VSA’s relationship with GE for more than a decade. His work for Goldman Sachs, USAA, Wilson Sports, Cingular Wireless and IBM have encompassed global brand identity and naming, brand systems, advertising, package design, collateral, environments and stakeholder communications in both consumer and business-to-business engagements.
To reach Jeff directly, firstname.lastname@example.org.