Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) have become a part of our everyday corporate lives. In fact, the last five years have seen $3.5 trillion in global deals completed annually, with that trend expected to continue.
Every merger inevitably transforms the businesses involved. Given that reality, how can today’s CMOs and their marketing teams prepare for this inevitability and influence the outcome for the better?
The AMA recently brought together four marketers with experience in this arena to discuss insights for marketers facing this challenge. From the discussion, the following key themes emerged:
- Check your ego at the door and work back from what serves your customer best.
- Come to the union with respect for the other side.
- Find the commonality.
- Light the spark that guides the way.
- Timing is everything, regarding integration and communications.
The panel speakers were Phil Clement, former CMO of Aon, a company built on multiple acquisitions; Jodi Navta, CMO of SMS Assist and former CMO of Coyote, which was acquired by UPS; and Linda Bartman, COO of Trunk Club, which was acquired by Nordstrom.
The panel was moderated by former CMO Jennifer Fondrevay, who navigated three multibillion-dollar acquisitions as a head of B2B marketing at Nokia, Asurion and Apollo Education Group before launching Day1 Ready, an M&A consultancy.
All four marketers agreed that “a merger and acquisition is a traumatic experience,” as Clement put it.
“If you think about it, it’s an unnatural act,” he said. “Two companies who have been doing their own thing suddenly coming together? Marketers may feel that nobody’s caring about the brand but frankly, I suspect other departments equally feel forgotten. The key is keeping the customer you serve as your focus.”
Fondrevay agreed. “As a marketer, you have to check your ego. In my first acquisition experience, Navteq was a B2B player while Nokia was B2C; we had different marketing approaches and cultures. We had to learn to speak each other’s language, so making the customer our central focus helped guide our decision-making.”
Bartman concurred, adding, “We used research extensively to help both sides get behind a plan of action. Trunk Club researched how we served the customer base that Nordstrom did not and how Nordstrom served their customer base. We both had a way [of serving customers] that could be brought together.”
The marketers stressed the importance of approaching the merger with respect for the other side.
“In our case, it was the coming together of two really strong brands with a core set of values,” Navta said. “Coyote is a market leader in logistics and had a strong, start-up challenger brand culture and UPS is a very strong established company with tremendous brand equity.”
Over time, she said, both sides realized that each could better leverage the story of the other. Coyote remained separate but added the moniker “a UPS company” to benefit from that association while continuing to operate independently.
In Aon’s case, as the acquiring company, Clement said they looked for ways to entice people in the other company to join them.
“We intentionally emphasized Aon [Gaelic word for ‘one’] and we partnered with Manchester United so we could talk about Aon United,” he said. “Your most important audience is your internal one. We wanted everyone feeling they were part of one company, one brand.”
Pragmatically, it’s also crucial to find the commonalities that can make the merger work from a business point of view.
“Big companies usually acquire smaller companies for their ideas and speed [to market],” Bartman said.
“Trunk Club had the start-up mentality and Nordstrom is a mature business,” she said. “Nordstrom looked at Trunk Club and asked, ‘How can we gain an understanding of how to move and make decisions quickly and maintain that pace?’ Trunk Club looked at Nordstrom and asked, ‘How can we get more rigor around our process so that we can make better, more informed decisions?’”
That can create conflict at first, she noted, but that’s the point. “An example is Trunk Club saying, ‘We’re launching a new product in two weeks,’ with Nordstrom wondering, ‘You’re doing what?’ But that tension can be good and result in better decisions.”
Navta agreed. “We were merging a 100% millennial culture with a 100% non-millennial culture. You could have had one buttoned-up culture just looking quizzically at the other jeans and T-shirt-oriented culture, but we quickly learned we shared core common values,” she said.
“We accelerated face-to-face meetings and had people from both sides go on the road together on joint sales calls. It created an almost familial culture where the millennial workers felt proud to teach what they did and vice versa.”
The marketers also noted that timing is everything when it comes to integration and communications.
In Nordstrom’s acquisition of Trunk Club, Bartman said the company purposely moved slowly on bringing the two companies together because their operating styles were so different.
“You need a new operating strategy,” she said. “You need to step back and assess what you can really learn, particularly process-wise, that help you scale and grow. You need to make sure you have clarity on that before you integrate or the integration can be disastrous.”
Added Navta, “Your communications need to provide a clear framework for how you are putting groups together and why. It may not be completely fleshed out but the framework helps people know you have a vision. Coyote owned the communications when UPS acquired us and that turned out to be critical. We knew what was going on and were able to share that information in a way that made it clear how things were being done.”
Lastly, it’s important to recognize how important the CMO is to the success of the merger.
“As marketers, we’re sensitive to people’s experience at every point of their journey with the brand,” Fondrevay said. “The same skill set serves the needs of a company going through M&A. By thinking about the employee experience through the change, we can help optimize every touch point to galvanize the workforce and get them behind the new vision. That is our gift as marketers.”