CMO Grant Johnson - CMO Kevin Ruane
July 16, 2021

B2B Brand Consolidation Done Right

Guest: CMO Grant Johnson - CMO Kevin Ruane - CMO Joshua Leatherman, Emburse - Precisely - Service Express

It takes special care to brew a post-acquisition stew. B2B brands need to determine how to properly blend the newly acquired brand into the established mix without jeopardizing the integrity of the branded house, and without losing the equity and loyal customer base of its sub-brand.

In today’s episode, CMOs Grant Johnson of Emburse, Kevin Ruane of Precisely, and Joshua Leatherman of Service Express share how they’ve successfully consolidated newly acquired brands, reflecting on best practices and mistakes made around the B2B world as companies work to build branded house empires. Tune in for a ton of great tips for B2B brand consolidation, from how to measure the value of an acquired brand to how to protect SEO equity in the process.

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • How 3 B2B CMOs consolidate newly acquired brands
  • How to merge brands without losing equity
  • Common brand consolidation best practices

Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 249 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned

Time-Stamped Highlights

  • [0:00] Cold Open: This is Renegade Thinkers Live
  • [1:18] Emburse’s B2B Brand Consolidation Strategy
  • [9:00] Precisely’s B2B Brand Consolidation Strategy
  • [16:15] Service Express’ B2B Brand Acquisition Strategy
  • [23:30] On the Value of CMO Huddles
  • [25:31] Why Brand Consolidation is So Important
  • [31:08] Common B2B Brand Consolidation Mistakes
  • [34:42] How to Protect SEO Equity During Consolidation
  • [39:00] How to Measure the Value of an Acquired Brand
  • [42:43] Lessons from Brand Consolidation Efforts Gone Wrong
  • [51:15] Top Tips for B2B Brand Consolidation

Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Grant Johnson, Kevin Ruane, and Joshua Leatherman

[0:00] Cold Open: This is Renegade Thinkers Live

Drew: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! If you’re new here, welcome. If you’ve been here before, you know the drill. This is how it goes—today’s episode is from a recording of Renegade Thinkers Live, a livestreaming show about hot marketing topics with not just one, but three B2B CMOs!

In today’s episode, you’ll hear from CMOs Grant Johnson of Emburse, Kevin Ruane of Precisely, and Josh Leatherman of Service Express about how to consolidate newly acquired brands whilst protecting their equity. It’s a common challenge for growing companies, and it’s quite easy to get wrong, even for some of the best and brightest in the B2B world. Be sure to tune in for a bevy of best practices and mistakes to avoid—now, let’s get to the show.

[1:18] Emburse’s B2B Brand Consolidation Strategy

“We had outlined a strategy whereby we would bring our customers along the brand unification journey.” —@grantejohnson1 @emburse Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: I’m your host Drew Neisser, live from my home studio in NYC. We used to say, “Talk is cheap,” which is somewhat ironic coming from a show host. That’s a pause for a little laughter there, but now, we can safely replace that notion with the idea that “Capital is cheap, really cheap.”

Interest rates are at historic lows, SPACs are booming—if you don’t know what those are, look it up—PE and VC firms seem to be flush with capital. The result is that companies are being swallowed up faster than you can say, “Hello, Renegade Thinkers!” and when that happens, you end up with a stew of brands, some of which are tossed out perhaps prematurely while others stick around too long clogging up your messaging.

It’s not an easy process with easy answers and you can screw it up big time as Jennifer Renaud and I talked about in Episode 166 of Renegade Thinkers Unite. She was at Oracle when they decided to drop the Eloqua brand from its website a few years back and sure enough, all the Eloquans out there stopped going to the website, and leads torpedoed.

No doubt there is a need for brand name consolidation. But how do you do this without losing the equity and the business value of the acquired companies? To address this challenge, we’ve got three veteran CMOs with us today.

First up is Grant Johnson, CMO of Emburse. He was also the CMO of Kofax a few years back and the star of Episodes 31 and 32. Anyway, hey Grant, great to see you.

Grant Johnson: Hey, Drew, it’s great to be here. Happy to join everyone.

Drew Neisser: Let’s start with your situation at Emburse. How many brands do you have and were all these through acquisition?

Grant Johnson: Yeah, that’s a great question. It took a while, actually, to complete the list. We have seven brands. The first company was launched—Nexonia—in 2002. And over time—you mentioned the firm—PER private equity firm, K1 Investments, they purchased the entire portfolio. As we got to scale and much larger, we decided it would be more efficient to consolidate the brands under a new master brand, Emburse, which we launched in January of 2020.

Drew Neisser: So, you had these seven brands—you still have these seven brands—and you’ve got Emburse on top. All right. For the moment, we have Emburse is a house of brands, if you will, like P&G with Tide and Pampers.

But it’s got to be challenging to have any kind of economy of scale with so many brands, right? Some of these are the same customers, so how are you weaning people off the original brand and on to Emburse, if you are at all?

Grant Johnson: Well, actually, it’s a two-part answer, Drew. The first part is it was a house of brands, but we had outlined a strategy whereby we would bring our customers along the brand unification journey. When we launched it, we would say “Certified by Emburse” or “Chrome River by Emburse,” which is what is commonly known as an endorse strategy.

But we had always intended that over time it would be a master brand, so fast forward one year from launch in January 2020. In January of this year, we launched the refinement to our brand strategy as a shared brand. Today, across all digital print properties—website, social media—you’ll see the word “Emburse” in front of every brand. So Emburse Certify, Emburse Chrome River, and Emburse Nexonia. Quite frankly, we want customers not to notice any disruption to their business, so we’ve had customers embrace Emburse if you will.

And part two to the question is they’re actually not the same customers. We have a tailored strategy whereby we have small business, medium business, large business, nonprofits, Europe-based brands. We let the customer best fit select the product. And we’re keeping all these brands over time. What we’re doing is introducing all new products under the Emburse master brand. Emburse Cards, for example, or Emburse Pay, our payment products, and so forth. Emburse services like Emburse Audit.

Over time, in the next couple of years when it’s fully a master brand—when it’s Emburse Invoice or Emburse Pay—customers will have had the experience of being on this journey with us and there’ll be no disruption to the business, which is really one of our overriding goals.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I mean, that’s the key thing with all of this. I know a lot of marketers are in a rush to get this done. It’s like, “Rip the Band-Aid, let’s go!” The problem is, these companies have loyalty and people are loyal to the brand and the people at that brand. It’s not an instant transference.

And it’s interesting to me. I interviewed Anne Lewnes, the CMO of Adobe, right after they had purchased both Magento and Marketo, both of them at $4 billion acquisitions. And I asked her, “So are you a house of brands or a branded house?”

And she said, “No, we’re a branded house.” But if you watch what they’re doing, they are migrating. They are not walking away from either Marketo or Magento any time soon. What you’re describing makes a lot of sense to me. You do it methodically; you bring them along. So what’s the hardest part about this migration for you, the CMO?

Grant Johnson: Well, the hardest part is really bringing everybody together at the formulation stage of the strategy. Some of our what we call now “product lines” have founders in them and they came up with their baby, that name. They don’t want to see that name go away. Their customers have become advocates of that brand.

We find ways, both from a visual identity where we have a color palette where each of the product lines has its own distinct color, helps it feel a little bit more unique, and brings that heritage forward. But getting the stakeholders around this, having internal coordination, making sure folks follow a very comprehensive brand guideline that my team put into place—what’s in brand, what’s out of brand, what’s acceptable, what’s not—and making sure that we can have a consistent brand identity and brand expression across all touchpoints. Over time we build the equity at the Emburse level, and we lift up the existing equities and those can accrue to the benefit of Emburse over time.

Drew Neisser: I’m imagining all of these parallel streams, but eventually, they’re merging into the Mississippi.

Grant Johnson: That’s right. And you think about software integration, you think of an Oracle. You mentioned larger companies, Adobe. Over time, you’re not going to have one user interface, but we’re developing a more common user interface so that if you move between apps and you add a different capability, you feel like you’re on the same platform.

If you’re paying a bill or you’re scanning travel expenses—we all get back to travel with your phone—it looks like the same app from the App Store. It’s all Emburse and it’s very consistent for customer experience and those understood benefits.

[9:00] Precisely’s B2B Brand Consolidation Strategy

“The way that we've approached it was to try to find a thoughtful and simple way to establish some product brand families.” —@kruane @PreciselyData Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Let’s move on and bring up Kevin Ruane, who is the CMO of Precisely the star of Episode 217 of Renegade Thinkers Unite, where we really talked a lot about the challenge that you face. Hey, Kevin, how are you?

Kevin Ruane: Good, Drew, how are you? Good to see you.

Drew Neisser: I’m great. Thank you for joining us today. Your situation is quite a bit different from Grant’s in that you had to retire a brand name, so you didn’t have any choice. But there’s a lot of things that you had to do in a six-month period to bring everybody along. Can you talk about some of that?

Kevin Ruane: Yeah, it was an interesting journey. We brought two similarly sized businesses together—a company that I was with called Syncsort, a legacy mainframe business around for many years, with the software and data business of Pitney Bowes. As part of that deal, we needed to cease using the Pitney Bowes brand and mark within six months of the close of the transaction.

We had a little bit of a decision point to make where we felt like we needed a new brand. The Syncsort brand had outlived its usefulness and the brand permissions were kind of limited to the business we had become, which was much broader with a richer set of data management offerings.

We were either going to have to have an interim step of transitioning the Pitney Bowes brand into the Syncsort brand and then ultimately to the new brand, or we could take a really aggressive approach and in a very intense time frame, move both of those towards a new brand, which is what we did with Precisely.

Drew Neisser: This is really interesting because suddenly now you have no equity, right? You had to Syncsort, and you had Pitney Bowes. So, what did this mean? What did you have to do to try to go from literally zero to whatever you had with Syncsort and whatever you had with Pitney Bowes?

Kevin Ruane: On top of that, Drew, both of those businesses had grown through acquisition, so there were a number of legacy brands that sat underneath them. I think it’s a lot of what you and Grant were just speaking about, which is, it’s taking a gradual approach. We had to really understand from that customer’s perspective, from the market’s perspective, what is the equity of those brands that exist?

The way that we’ve approached it was to try to find a thoughtful and simple way to establish some product brand families. What we did was we’ve matched up the Precisely name with some of those product brands that had a particular amount of equity and that our customers really had used and loved for many, many years because the products were great and worked and because they got great support from the businesses that had put those products into the market.

We are trying to really make that connection between things like Precisely and a brand like Trillium, which has been 15 years a leader in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Data Quality products, to make that connection to gradually bring those customers along for the journey and start to build that brand equity in Precisely as a brand that stands for something great and is backed by proven products and expertise that works.

Drew Neisser: As I recall from our podcast, I mean, you had hundreds of little products in there in that mix.

Kevin Ruane: We do. We’ve got 150 products today in the portfolio and many of them are sub-products within some of these larger brands.

Drew Neisser: Which, again, is so challenging from a marketing standpoint particularly in B2B when you’re competing with larger brands, often, to have all these brands. How did you decide—were there some brands that you just sort of said, “It’s OK, we can sort of let this one go?” And how did you make that decision?

Kevin Ruane: Yeah, we really looked and took a focused, hard look at how we’re going to market. Each year we establish about a dozen—we call them our focused sales plays, which are the go-to-market motions around particular sets of products where we make our bets and put the weight of our sales and marketing efforts behind. We really started there. What are your growth products? What are the ones that are most likely to help you achieve plan for the year and over the next few years?

We kind of started there, so there’s a long tail of products that still work or are still used very successfully by customers that we put a little bit less focus on. And it’s okay to let them have their legacy names and brand and continue to drive the value that they drive for our customers. But the ones that we’re marketing on the website and doing our PR around and really trying to make noise in the market with, that’s where we really wanted to prioritize. And I think it comes down to about 20 or 25 key products that get then wrapped into a smaller set of product brand families.

Drew Neisser: So, 25 out of 150. There are some product managers out there—there’s 125 of them if you will—that are going, “Where’s the love?” They’ve got to be going, “Okay, we’re not that important.” That’s part one of this question. Part two of this question is, from a web standpoint, do those brands disappear? You can’t find them on the Precisely website?

Kevin Ruane: Correct. What I would say is with some of those product managers, Drew, I may not be their most favorite person in the world, but that’s okay. That’s the job I’ve signed up for. I think what we’ve tried to do, Drew, is we tried to take a look at it from the customer’s perspective and the market’s perspective. What you find is a lot of these products actually boil down to a set of capabilities that customers are looking for.

If you more market around the trends and the capabilities, you can group things together logically. While you may not see that product or legacy brand name on the website, you’ll see content and materials that speak to the value it can deliver for customers in the broader context of their data management environments.

I think we’re trying to change the rules a little bit because what we found is, there wasn’t going to be an approach, especially because we’re in a private equity-backed model, that drives focus and tradeoffs. We knew we needed to change the game because there was no way that it would scale to support 150 products. And quite frankly, trying to jam that on a website was going to just cause confusion.

One of our big opportunities is a cross-sell opportunity, so the more simple we can make it for customers who have a product and love that product to explore other pieces of the portfolio, that’s a winning formula for us and it just simplifies it for everybody.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, you know, all of this—and I know this sounds ridiculously simple and we’re going to move on to talk to Josh now—but the purpose of a brand name is essentially to say, “Hey, you can trust this product.” That’s it, right? And so the attachment to that name is trust. Anyway, if you have a bunch of names, you’re just making life more difficult. And it’s like, “Oh, wait, what do I do? Is it this one or is that one?”

[16:15] Service Express’ B2B Brand Acquisition Strategy

“The best marketers can do very little to overcome a bad acquisition, right? It's like putting lipstick on a pig.” —@joshleatherman @ServiceExpress Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Let’s bring on Josh, who’s patiently been waiting in the batter’s box here. So Josh Leatherman, CMO of Service Express, star of Episode 179 of Renegade Thinkers Unite. Josh, how are you?

Joshua Leatherman: I’m well, Drew, thanks for having me.

Drew Neisser: Yes. You’re not quite the last thing before we get to the gin tasting, so I don’t want you to feel like you need to rush to that because I know both of us are anxious to get to that. But anyway, what is your situation when it comes to legacy brands in terms of where Service Express is?

Joshua Leatherman: Yeah, so first of all, brand acquisition at Service Express is exclusively through M&A. We’ve acquired a few domestic brands and in January we announced our first international acquisition, so we’re walking through that right now. Most of the brands have been around since the mid-80s or early-90s.

Our philosophy is this: It may sound simple, but it’s actually pretty hard in practice, particularly when you’re private equity-backed and they have an M&A strategy. Good acquisitions make great brands, bad acquisitions make bad brands. Some of the best investments we’ve made for the growth of Service Express or the acquisitions that we walked away from. The best marketers can do very little to overcome a bad acquisition, right? It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

Drew Neisser: Yeah.

Joshua Leatherman: So, we start by ensuring the selection process for new brands aligns well with our culture as a company and our customer-first obsession.

Drew Neisser: Interesting. In other words—I’m trying to make sure I understand this—you want to acquire companies that have good brand value if you will, that there’s equity in that. So we’ve acquired brands that have equity because if they don’t have equity, there are probably other problems. There are probably relationship issues and other things and it’s a very transactional kind of situation. So then, now they’re part of ServiceNow, what are you doing with those brands?

Joshua Leatherman: Service Express.

Drew Neisser: I’m sorry. Service Express. Pardon me.

Joshua Leatherman: That’s okay. But I’ll tell you, Service Express has integrations through ServiceNow with our ExpressConnect product, so we’re big fans of ServiceNow. First, what do we go through when we consolidate the brand? First, we take our time. Our philosophy is don’t break anything, they’re good brands. Again, we’re highly selective in the brands we bring on. They’ve got good equity, so don’t break anything.

As soon as we announce an acquisition, we co-brand. We put a lot of resources behind announcing a new acquisition. There are press releases, there’s earned media, social campaigns, customer communication. We don’t want to lose the association that we’ve created in the PR initiative between the two brands, so we co-brand right away. Everything from social profiles to email signatures to customer billing statements, we make sure that we leverage those opportunities to build the association of brands.

From there, we’re looking at two things. One is story, right? For every good acquisition, the Service Express story evolves. Even if in nuance, the acquisition strengthens how we can serve our customers, it increases our capabilities, be it features, geographically, whatever. We want to understand and articulate how the story has evolved. We do that oftentimes through traditional brand architecture.

And number two, we look at segments. How have our segments changed? Are there new ICPs or ideal customer profiles to go after? New accounts or prospects of verticals to go after? We go to work on defining the new total addressable market that the brand will need to build awareness and affinity for.

Drew Neisser: It’s really interesting to me, and there are so many things I want to dive into on that. A lot of the things that you said make a lot of sense that I just hadn’t thought of them in necessarily that order. But how that acquisition enhances your story—can you give an example, a specific example of that with one of the acquisitions that you did in the last six months to a year?

Joshua Leatherman: Yeah, so our most recent acquisition is Blue Chip. It’s our first international one. They are based in the UK. Blue Chip opens up additional services that we can offer that provide great value to our customers. They’ve got some intellectual property there that we can leverage and build into the story, so we’re working through understanding exactly how that translates to our domestic customers and how what we do translates to our international customers now with Blue Chip.

Drew Neisser: In an ideal world, obviously, the acquisition strategy is that one plus one equals three, so there’s some cross-sell, up-sell, expanded. So now that you have an international, in theory, if you had a customer that wanted to go international, you could service them in a way that you couldn’t before.

This all sounds methodical and great, but at what point do you say, “We’re still investing in brand that we acquired a few years ago and our dollars are getting diluted.” How do you make sure that we are still building one big brand versus lots of little brands?

Joshua Leatherman: Yeah, so Service Express is a platform brand. We are a platform company. We focused on building the best company and the best brand that we can. Our goal is to make sure—and we’ve built a good brand like Service Express. It’s easier to move companies from legacy brands or brands that they love to a company that people are excited about.

When Disney bought Pixar, it was easier—Disney has great properties; Pixar has great properties. It was easier for Disney to bring them over because they had built a really good platform company and a master brand. Oftentimes, we start with the customer, not the marketing. When moving a customer from one brand to another, we try to identify quick wins with them.

Nothing builds credibility more for a brand than identifying areas the new brand can provide immediate value. And that’s not just marketing, right? It’s marketing making sure that we’ve got a seat at the table. But service plays a role in this, sales plays a role in this, product plays a role in this. We’ve got to make sure that we bring all the teams together.

[23:30] On the Value of CMO Huddles

“@CMOHuddles is a really high-caliber group of very passionate CMOs committed to their business and to helping each other.” —@grantejohnson1 @emburse Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: This is a great moment—if you don’t mind, listeners, I’d like to plug CMO Huddles for a second. CMO Huddles was launched in 2020 and it’s an invitation-only subscription service that brings together an elite group of CMOs to share, care, and dare each other to greatness. One CMO described a huddle as a cross between an expert workshop and a therapy session. Grant, Kevin, Josh, anything you want to add about CMO Huddles from your experience?

Joshua Leatherman: I would just add, that’s how you grow as a CMO. I love CMO Huddles because, at Service Express, we do a lot of R&D, which is rip off and duplicate. We learn what’s working really well at other companies, what other great CMOs are doing. We understand what’s applicable to us and we bring it back to our organization. And CMO Huddles is a great way to do some R&D.

Drew Neisser: I love it. I’m going to have to use that as like marketing. CMO Huddles, come for R&D. Grant, Kevin, anything else you want to throw in there while we’re here?

Grant Johnson: Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s an intense therapy session, but I would say that it’s a really high-caliber group of very passionate CMOs committed to their business and to helping each other. We can share best practices and try new ideas out and actually don’t try things that have already proven not to work. It’s very pragmatic and helpful.

Drew Neisser: I love it. Love it. Love it. All right, Kevin, don’t want to put you on the spot here.

Kevin Ruane: Happy to agree with Josh and with Grant. CMO Huddles has been terrific. It’s the connections you make and it’s not just connecting on the huddles, but it’s some of the connections you can make on the sidelines. There’s no topic that you could want to dive deeper into that there’s not someone with great expertise who’s happy to share it, so it’s been terrific, Drew.

[25:31] Why Brand Consolidation is So Important

“In an attention economy where consumers are just inundated with so many brands, it can be difficult for anyone to keep them straight...” —@joshleatherman @ServiceExpress Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: What we’re talking about now with all of us is the notion of brand consolidation. It’s interesting, Josh mentioned Disney. If you go to the Disney Channel, you actually see they are and they have been for a long time a house of brands. There’s Disney, but there’s ABC, there’s Marvel, there’s Pixar. And they have not walked away from those brands because those brands have tremendous equity. And also, Disney itself, both as a parent brand and as its own brand has its own limitations.

In B2B, however, where you’re fighting for every little bit of share of voice that you can have, let’s just talk about why it’s so important that we get to brand consolidation and why Kevin is trying to build Precisely and why Grant is trying to build Emburse. What’s so important about building these solitary brands?

Kevin Ruane: I would add, Drew, I think there are only so many resources that you have. If you spread them too thin and across too many areas, you just won’t make an impact. Even some of the most notable names in our industry really fight for that mindshare. I mean, it’s a noisy marketplace.

If you can’t get that focus to make one brand stand for something great and really put your energy and resources behind it, it’s going to be a really tough road. There’s I think just the simplicity of it, a focus that brings. For a business like ours, it really is what’s necessary to unlock that cross-sell opportunity that we think exists between our customers, but it also really alliance to support the strategy.

Joshua Leatherman: I agree with Kevin. More brands mean more resources that can detract from demand marketing activities and the growing list of priorities that marketing is responsible around the field for. I just think the volume and velocity of new brands that are being created—our buyer is the IT buyer. It’s amazing how many new companies and new brands are popping up. In an attention economy where consumers are just inundated with so many brands, it can be difficult for anyone to keep them straight, so I think it’s important for companies really to put as much of their resources behind as few brands as they possibly can.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. Grant, anything to add to that?

Grant Johnson: I think we’re all in violent agreement. One of the philosophies I formed a long time ago is, in branding, especially in tech branding, you want to make it easier for customers to make choices, to understand your offering. We’ve all talked about ICP and value props. If you’ve got this proliferation of brands and their confusion and overlapping, you’re making it harder for customers. We all want to win in the marketplace, so simplify actually increases sales from a branding perspective.

Drew Neisser: It’s so important, can we pause on that? Simplify improves brand sales opportunities. Just in case anybody listening does not know what an ICP is, it’s Ideal Customer Profile. Now, is there a downside to the branded house approach? I mean, Have you lost any customers because you retired a brand?

Joshua Leatherman: As we’ve retired brands, we’ve not lost customers. But again, we’ve taken our time with it, right? We’ve followed the lead of the customer and the brand that we’ve acquired, so we have not experienced really any loss of customers.

Drew Neisser: Interesting. I’m sure that’s not something that you necessarily would want to even talk about. One of the things that I think people hope will happen is that these sub-brands will represent a certain segment of the market. But it just gets clumsy from a site architecture standpoint.

I think the thing that Grant mentioned is this is all about time and the absence of it. We just don’t have that much time to carve out, share a brain with our target audiences. So, yeah, we’re a big believer in the branded house approach and trying to consolidate even in these circumstances.

[31:08] Common B2B Brand Consolidation Mistakes

“There's not a one size fits all formula. It's knowing when to retire a brand versus when to continue to bring folks along for that journey and make that transition.” —@kruane @PreciselyData Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Let’s get back to the topic at hand and let’s start with some mistakes to avoid. Anybody have some things they can share in this area? What are some mistakes that you’ve seen that can happen?

Kevin Ruane: I think for me, Drew, it’s the timing piece we were talking about earlier. It really is. For me, there’s not a one size fits all formula. It’s knowing when to retire a brand versus when to continue to bring folks along for that journey and make that transition.

There have been times where maybe it’s felt like we’ve moved a little bit faster than we should have and then there are times, especially in a highly acquisitive environment—Josh can probably speak to this—where you don’t move fast enough and then this brand debt builds up over time as well. Just trying to find that right balance of the timing is, for me, the struggle that I wish there was a better formula for.

Drew Neisser: Let’s dig into that. Are you looking at brand tracking and you’re seeing the number going up here for your main brand? How do you assess this moment of, “Okay, we can retire now?”

Joshua Leatherman: From our perspective, we work with the acquired brand and we set a time frame, then we over-communicate. We over-communicate with internal stakeholders, and we over-communicate with the customers of the acquired brand. Everybody knows that, first of all, the brand association has been built and it’s not a surprise to anyone when the website changes over, when the logo on the masthead changes over. It’s not a surprise to anyone, so we overcommunicate.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. There’s a big rule. No surprises for your customers. And that’s the thing—in these things, it feels like the customer can easily get lost. The PE firm’s building up value, so what can they do for it? They can sell the company off. The customer can get lost and that feels like something. Grant, any thoughts on other mistakes to [avoid] or when you know it’s time?

Grant Johnson: Yeah, I think it was touched on before that you have to communicate to all the customers, to have them become part of the larger entity, and you want to be open-minded. I remember one brand integration I did where we only had in our color palette blue and yellow. Kind of boring, and they had a more vibrant purple. We thought, “Hey, we could amend the color palette.”

We’ve got a much richer color palette with Emburse, so by design, we wanted to include these seven brands so that they had some expression. But you want to bring the people along from the acquired company. You want to be sensitive—as the others have said—about timing and communication and making them feel part of the larger whole because they can imbue some additional associations and energy to your brand that you want to leverage.

Drew Neisser: It’s funny, we haven’t talked about employees in this a lot, and you’re right that those employees that you did want to keep through the consolidation, their connection—at least their door in—was to the acquired brand. Now you’re saying all the shirts that they have and hats that they have are no longer relevant or they’re relics, so employees are a big part of this. Customers are a big part of this.

[34:42] How to Protect SEO Equity During Consolidation

“Google is like the stock market. Its data is changing every day, and someone needs to be finely attuned to those changes and what it means for the website.” —@joshleatherman @ServiceExpress Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: When we get to the website—and this is really an interesting one I need your opinion on. Let’s say you’ve acquired two brands in the last six months, you’ve got to map out a website strategy, and you’re thinking that your goal is to have one website. How do you make sure that you don’t lose your customers and the SEO value from the sites that are being retired?

Joshua Leatherman: That’s exactly what we’re going through now, Drew. First of all, we will not do it on our own. It’s a mistake that I see companies much larger than us making. Google is like the stock market. Its data is changing every day, and someone needs to be finely attuned to those changes and what it means for the website. Service Express is benefiting from years of equity that we and our teams have built. It’s like compound interest. Only time gives you the gift of that equity.

As marketers, we have a fiduciary responsibility not to break that and not to wreck it. We will work with people who are experts, who understand custom redirects, the importance of that, the backlink strategy, short-tail keywords, long-tail keywords, what it means for the website integration. We will not do that by ourselves.

Drew Neisser: Right. You need an outside expert. I’m curious if any of you have done this where you didn’t lose a step because almost every relaunch of a website ends up with some SEO dip, but have you had a success case where you ended a website, you merged it with yours, you did all the redirects, and you didn’t lose any site traffic?

Grant Johnson: I can’t say I have, honestly.

Drew Neisser: It’s that hard, right? It’s that hard. So, chances are you’re going to lose something. It’s just a question of not losing everything and protecting that equity. Any other thoughts on making sure that—because the SEO value really is money in the bank that you can lose. Any other thoughts and how you can keep that and yet eliminate websites?

Kevin Ruane: Drew, what we’ve found is—and this a little bit of a generalization. Typically, we’ve done this quite a bit and we like to merge into one website. For us today it’s the precisely.com site. We usually find that there’s a core set of pages that are doing the most work for a website. Again, utilizing some of the outside expertise that Josh mentioned as well as some of the folks that I’m fortunate to have on my team, we do a pretty good job of focusing in and getting a handle on what those pages are.

Our strategy is then to recreate those pages in terms of topics and keywords on our new site and then redirect from the old pages to signal to Google this is where this great content you’ve been rewarding is going to permanently live going forward. It’s not perfect. I agree with Grant. You always give a little bit, but I feel like at some point you have to take your medicine and then you start to get that cumulative effect and the benefit over time.

Drew Neisser: And you’ve seen it at some point in time. In theory, you’re going to be stronger because you did this consolidation, but you’re going to take a hit is basically what you’re saying. And part of that is, Kevin, as you’re describing it, it sounds like you get 70 or 80 percent of the goodness from the old site, but you’re going to lose it because some of that’s just so long-tail stuff, you can’t do it all.

Kevin Ruane: That’s exactly right, Drew. And I think over time, you start to catch up and you hope you build from there. But absolutely right. I think there’s just a little bit of a reality, at least in my experience, that you have to face. You take that medicine and then you start building back from there. But you can preserve I mean, you really can preserve a good chunk of that value with a thoughtful approach like some of the things Josh was mentioning.

[39:00] How to Measure the Value of an Acquired Brand

“If you start to see the overall Emburse go up and say one of those sub-brands is diminished, as long as the aggregate is higher, then it gives you a little more confidence.” —@grantejohnson1 @emburse Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Let’s say you’ve acquired one of these brands. It’s in your portfolio and you’re just not sure how strong it is. I’m wondering how you go about assessing and measuring the strength of these brands so that you make sure. I’m curious, Grant, your thoughts on that.

Grant Johnson: There are lots of ways to do it. We’ve actually developed a proprietary framework because we’re trying to bring the brands along to where they help us build equity at Emburse. You can do it formally by talking to customers directly, unaided/aided awareness testing, brand tracking testing. But you can also do what I call a proxy for measuring it. You look at a variety of things around awareness and perception, coverage, reach, engagement.

That’s what we’ve done. We’ve amalgamated those various measurements and have it over a quarterly tracker and we can see what goes up or goes down.

To your point, Drew, if you start to see the overall Emburse go up and say one of those sub-brands is diminished, as long as the aggregate is higher, then it gives you a little more confidence—especially as other customers are adopting the branded house, the master brand—that you can move away from that one a little bit more quickly. But you do want to have some objective measures in addition to subjective judgment.

Drew Neisser: Interesting. You have a brand health proxy which is made up of a number of fairly easy-to-measure things whether it’s site traffic or share of PR or maybe it’s some site traffic pages. But whatever those little proxies are…

Grant Johnson: Promoter score, customer sat—there are lots of ways you can get a sense of your brand affiliation and strength, exactly.

Drew Neisser: And then you track those. Then in an ideal world, you see one go up and one go down, but the net is higher and therefore you can start to say, “We’re doing what we set out to do.” Any other thoughts on that, Kevin or Josh?

Kevin Ruane: Yeah, we’re probably not quite as sophisticated as Grant is. We rely very heavily on our customers and going out and speaking to customers. We do some surveys of customers and prospective customers as well just to get a sense. But yeah, that’s probably been the approach that we’ve taken.

Drew Neisser: And Josh?

Joshua Leatherman: Yeah, I would agree with Grant. I think qualitative feedback is just so important. Too often we try and find all these objective metrics and those are helpful and they’re useful. But your customers will tell you if a brand is frustrating, if it’s confusing, if it’s not defined.

The problem with metrics, objective metrics, is it’s like asking how much smoke is in the bar. Do you measure it by the number of smokers, by the number of cigarettes in the ashtray, by the number of ashtrays on the table?

All those different ways can help to measure it, but you really have to settle on one end or two. Digital reputation is important for us. Gartner Peer Insights. Glassdoor. Our reputation online is very important because that’s the voice of the customer, but I would never neglect the qualitative side of things by just getting in front of customers and asking.

Drew Neisser: And by the way, is it good to have smoke in the barn or bad smoke in the barn as we’re measuring this?

Joshua Leatherman: Bar. I’m dating myself to back when you could actually smoke in the bar.

Drew Neisser: I knew I was missing something.

[42:43] Lessons from Brand Consolidation Efforts Gone Wrong

“It is really important to define the brand and help the customer understand what the roadmap in investment for the brand will look like.” —@joshleatherman @ServiceExpress Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: Well, this is the moment in the show where we ask: what would Ben Franklin say? One of the things I’m going to suggest is that Ben might not say “Rip the Band-Aid” based on this quote: Let all things have their places, let each of your businesses have its time.

Let’s not rip the Band-Aid and drop the legacy brands without at least a careful migration strategy. All right. Thank you, Ben. Amazing to have you join us here.

We’ve all seen it where brands have just hung on. They just don’t go away and they’re still a tiny bit a part of it. I guess we’ve sort of covered this idea of when you know it’s time. Have you ever been in a situation currently or before where you actually retired a brand when it was a little too early?

Joshua Leatherman: I have not, but I have been the customer of companies who have retired brands way too late, or they did a really poor job and it taught me how not to do it. They did a really poor job of defining the roadmap for the brand and it conflicted with—Salesforce does a lot of great acquisitions. I don’t know if I can name them here, but they do a lot of great acquisitions. When they acquired Pardot, it was a mess.

It was like their red-headed stepchild. They did not define the roadmap. We didn’t know if they were going to make investments in it. It was competing against their marketing cloud. And they’ve done tons of great acquisitions really well, so this was one that they had just missed on, and it really taught me as a customer that it is really important to define the brand and help the customer understand what the roadmap in investment for the brand will look like.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I think that’s, by the way, really fair game to talk about other companies and brands that have done it. It’s funny, and I think Salesforce has been obviously a hugely acquisitive company, but it is interesting that Oracle acquired Eloqua and Adobe acquired Marketo and Salesforce acquired Pardot. These are all three tools that do the same thing and all of them—with the exception so far of Adobe and Marketo—stumbled. And that’s just so interesting.

Part of it is—and this gets back to some of the things that you said, Josh—the community… I went to Marketo Nation. I danced with these people for hours and this is a really fun, connected group. They believe. They’re Marketoans. I mean, they are part of this community. To take away that—because they’ve been trained, they’ve been certified, they’re part of it—is a big deal. And I think that’s part of this affinity that we’ve been talking about.

That’s really an amazing state to get to as a brand to have this kind of affinity. Very few brands get there. So anyway, just an observation in this. I wonder from your standpoint, gents, if you’ve seen in some of the brands, even the smaller ones, where you have that kind of dedication to the brand where there’s really a true community built around it?

Kevin Ruane: I’ve got an interesting one for you, Drew. We formed a partnership several years ago with IBM supporting their business-to-business integration products. We do some development and support work with them, and they had moved for that line of products to the time where the Watson brand was so hot and all the rage.

They had branded at Watson, and since we’ve been working with them over the last couple of years, they’ve actually gone back to the brand of Sterling, which was the original name of the product line, because the customers just never could move on from it.

They love that brand and it’s been one of the strategies that have really made that a healthy and thriving product line by bringing it back to Sterling and moving on from Watson despite that being all the rage not too long ago.

Drew Neisser: And you suspect that’s because there was a strong community? I can’t remember what Sterling did. They had also acquired SugarCRM. I think [that] was their Eloqua-type product. What was Sterling, just out of curiosity?

Kevin Ruane: This is particularly the business-to-business collaboration and integration products. It’s a great product and the customers who used it, it worked and they loved it, and they just really didn’t want to let go of it. To IBM’s credit, they recognized that and they made the shift back and have certainly benefited from that.

Drew Neisser: It’s so interesting because IBM is this—I mean, it is the ultimate branded house. I mean, they have made everything, every acquisition has a whole blue washing group that comes in and builds around it. There was a case where the Sterling brand was stronger than IBM. That’s fascinating.

Grant Johnson: Well, I’ve got an IBM anecdote because I was acquired by IBM in 2006 at FileNet. And exactly as you said, blue-washed. They said, “We’re going to take your website away in six months. You’re not doing a billion revenue, you’re not at [inaudible] level, and therefore you’re going to go away.”

I said, “Well,” I was talking to the CEO, “but we’re producing 2,000 leads. Do you want those to go away?” So fast forward, 18 months later, the website was merged. They weren’t going to do it in six months because there are those pragmatic considerations, as you said, about community and customers and demand you’re generating. You can’t just simply merge. It all becomes additive.

Drew Neisser: Yes, exactly, it becomes additive. I mean, it’s just fascinating and this is why this is so challenging, and I wanted to talk about this. You acquire these companies because you want the business value, right? What you want are their customers. What the customers want is the connection that they had to the brand and, obviously, the product or service. It’s so fascinating because the goals are not necessarily aligned in any given acquisition.

Let’s say that we’ve started to get rid of some of these brands. How are you making sure that your prospects and customers can still differentiate? You still have these offerings that were named that. What’s the branding strategy or sub-brand strategy? Is it all just descriptive names?

Kevin Ruane: I think, Drew, that’s what we’ve tried to do. We’ve tried to be clear about what the products are and what they do and trying to align as best as we can to some of the industry terms that the analysts and others use. And again, speaking more to the capabilities that align to the needs of the customers and the market trends.

Grant Johnson: Yeah, I would just add—one of the things that I’ve done that I found has helped is to create a brand hierarchy and naming conventions. In addition to what products are at the brand level and what are at the descriptive level—you might have a number of sub-brands and the master brand and then everything else is at a different hierarchy or level.

Us as consumers and our customers can retain maybe a couple of levels. You can’t have 20 things being equal. As Josh mentioned earlier and Kevin as well, you have to have this priority—where are you going to get the revenue from, where is your growth—and get behind those brands or those product lines. But everything needs some logical structure. Again, helping customers make decisions to differentiate, choose your products, choose among your products. All that, I think, helps.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, it’s funny—I’ve been on B2B websites where I’ll see brand, I’ll see a secondary brand, and then I’ll see a feature that’s branded and I’m thinking, “Wait, what? This is like going back to the days of Certs and a sparkling drop of Retsyn?”

As a B2B customer, you just can’t get there. I mean, you can get there, but you want to get rid of it because it’s not helping you.

[51:15] Top Tips for B2B Brand Consolidation

“Get customers, get employees, get partners involved early and often. Let them in on the secret.” —@kruane @PreciselyData Click To Tweet

Drew Neisser: We’re going to recap now with some of the biggest lessons learned. Just real quick, Grant, lead us off—in this process for you, what’s the biggest lessons learned?

Grant Johnson: Well, bringing everybody along on this journey. So first of all, internal, you have to have a realistic consolidation and integration timeline. As was said earlier, communicate, over-communicate.

You need to celebrate milestones and successes. You want to reinforce the progress you’ve made and make sure customers are coming along with you on that journey so they’ll embrace your change.

And actually, change management itself is something not to underestimate. We all get comfortable, just like with friends, with brands, so just bring the groups along, all the stakeholders together in an iterative fashion.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, Josh, lessons learned.

Joshua Leatherman: Yeah, I think the big one is brand strategy, brand integration is not done and should not be done in the boardroom. There are so many more stakeholders that you need to bring along and we’ve talked a lot about timing, collaboration, and communication. It’s making sure that marketing is leading the charge in this collaborative process and not railroading or just coming up with a plan independently.

It’s also about quick wins. What are quick wins that continue to build equity within the brand for customers? For employees of acquired companies? Like how can we be helpful instead of just coming in and being a bull in a china shop?

Drew Neisser: Right. I love the comment about the boardroom. It’s so important because you’ve made the acquisition, let’s rip the Band-Aid, let’s do it. We’ll put it on a three-month timetable and go. And we know that’s problematic. All right, Kevin, last licks.

Kevin Ruane: Get customers, get employees, get partners involved early and often. Let them in on the secret. In the case of Precisely when we revealed a new name, let them in on the secret. People want to be in the know.

And just no surprises with customers. Bring them along for the journey. You don’t want to put a shock to the system. You want to reap the benefits of getting everyone behind the effort and building that excitement and momentum.

And you can do that in a way that doesn’t wreck any kind of a big reveal. It can actually generate a lot of momentum and goodwill and feeling for people out of the gate.

Drew Neisser: I love it. All right. Well, we’re going to bring our customers along. We’re going to bring our employees along, and we’re going to do this methodically. And we’re going to make sure that it’s a little bit of fun, too.

Show Credits

Renegade Thinkers Live is produced by Melissa Caffrey. Our botanical expert is Nicole Hernandez. For show notes and past episodes, please visit renegade.com, home of quite possibly the savviest B2B marketing agency in New York City. I’m your host Drew Neisser, and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.

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