Rebranding and revealing a global leader

Cargill is a global company that provides products and services for agriculture, food, risk management and industrial products. Cargill is also a distinguished American company—large in size but still family-owned after 149 years—that has kept a low profile. As the company sought to reconcile that difference, it led them to a big question: how can this company develop a single brand promise and expression for its large and diverse portfolio of products and services? They had to do it by answering another compelling question: can all its key stakeholder groups, from customers and consumers to NGOs and governments to its 142,000 employees, receive a consistent Cargill message in over 65 countries where they operate? Over an 18-month process, VSA Partners helped Cargill develop a new brand expression and system that showed how a strong brand can unite employees and the rest of Cargill’s nine stakeholder groups through a single expression: thrive.

Each stakeholder group presented a different set of needs and interactions with the Cargill brand: customers demand differentiated solutions, communities in developing countries seek funding for infrastructure, and employees desire meaningful work that makes a difference. That diversity meant the brand had been expressed in a myriad of—and sometimes disjointed—ways. The unifying factor across all groups was that Cargill enabled success, driven by how each stakeholder group measured it.

That broad idea led to VSA’s creation of thrive, a brand expression system that spoke to the value proposition Cargill offered, with a universal relevance across continents, business types and perspectives. At the system level, thrive illustrates the interdependence of industries with global consistency; at the detail level, it understands locally relevant problem-solving situations. “We believe thrive is, at its base, a repositioning of a very successful company that’s historically been decentralized in its message and focused on the products and services they sell,” said Jeff Walker, Partner. “We worked with Cargill to talk about what the stakeholder wanted to achieve and how Cargill could help them do that.”

With thrive approved at the higher levels, the next step was to define it on the ground. VSA worked with Cargill to identify marketing communications teams in all of Cargill’s regions, and again saw the scale of the challenge: more than 300 people around the world, some of whom were integrated in Cargill’s business units and others in centralized corporate functions. Instead of asking employees to spend long hours in a videoconference or pore through a massive manual, VSA and Cargill took the show on the road between June and October 2013.

With workshops in Minneapolis, Amsterdam, Miami, Sao Paolo, Shanghai and Singapore for employees from 38 countries, thrive was introduced in person over two days. Day one focused on developing on-brand value propositions in their own regions and businesses, while the second day centered on explaining its templates, color palettes and voice. “The sharing of the brand strategy, promise and expression system to the worldwide communications teams was a perfect mirror of thrive itself, and everyone came away from it feeling like we had succeeded together,” said Matt Herlihy, Associate Partner, Strategy, who facilitated the sessions with Paul Hillen, Vice President, Corporate Brand, Digital Communications and Marketing at Cargill.

The system launched in September 2013 as an internal program, with everything from brand guidelines and strategy to literature and workplace environments available for marketing teams to download. As more and more businesses began implementing thrive components, Cargill’s worldwide websites began incorporating them as well, with visual cues and distinctive thrive window shape appearing in the footer of every page.

Photoshoots followed, as VSA directed imagery that showed thrive in action across many of Cargill’s industries, including a soybean processing plant and candy factory in Spain and a chicken facility in France. Associate Partner and Executive Creative Director Thom Wolfe led these sessions: “We knew that the success of the system would be directly linked to the quality of its images and their ability to communicate. By capturing the scale, care and skill of these operations around the world—and the Cargill employees who have a stake in them—we could easily and comprehensively show Cargill’s positive impact.” These visual assets, in concert with new color palettes and layout guidelines, formed a flexible visual vocabulary suited for applications ranging from the utilitarian to the sophisticated.

Today, thrive is being implemented in all Cargill businesses worldwide, and VSA has become more than a partner to Cargill. Or as Hillen put it, “A bottom-up, collaborative approach won support throughout Cargill and broke down silos among business units. It was a reminder that not everything can be done remotely—getting on planes and inside meeting rooms to work directly with stakeholders still works wonders—and that helped us unite disparate teams under a common effort. In global companies, the nuances of language 
and culture remain a challenge when executing 
in market, but we can never underestimate the power of a simple idea 
in tackling a complex challenge.”

Get a glimpse at the thrive system by visiting the Cargill website and go in-depth with more behind-the-scenes photos and branded elements at the Cargill case study in our Work section. Starting a conversation with 142,000 employees across the globe is only the beginning; Cargill’s 150th anniversary takes place in 2015, and will show far more visible changes in the organization.