As a pioneering technology leader for over a century and with more than four decades at the forefront of digital technologies, ABB has innovation in its DNA. By adding the brand as the fourth pillar of the corporate strategy, the company is setting new industry standards as a driver of the Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. This endeavor is not without its challenges – the transformation must be achieved while strengthening and without disrupting the daily business of 136’000 employees serving customers in utilities, industry and transport & infrastructure globally.
Following his presentation at the meeting of the EACD Brand Leadership Working Group in December, we met Dr. Nicolas Ziegler, Head of Global Brand Management and Communications Operations at ABB, and discussed three factors necessary for a successful brand transformation.
The company brand as management tool
The transformation of a company brand – particularly an established and iconic brand – should never be an end in itself and nor should it be done only for aesthetic reasons. Rather, a brand should be understood as a strategic management tool that impacts business and creates value. Looking at statistically relevant research, brands can positively influence purchase decisions and customer loyalty, have a positive effect on employee recruitment and retention, and correlate with the company’s share price.
At ABB, our Next Level strategy is focused on accelerating organic growth momentum, improving margin accretion and enhancing capital efficiency to deliver greater shareholder value. Core elements of the strategy including: driving growth, realizing ABB’s full digital potential, further improving operational excellence, and strengthening our global brand. Compared with many other large, B2B industrial companies, attributing one quarter of the corporate strategy to the brand is unprecedented and shows the commitment of our senior management to the brand as a powerful tool.
How does a company go about turning a brand from an output-driven visual instrument into a management tool? First, we challenged our brand positioning: is it relevant, credible and does it differentiate ABB internally as well as externally? Asking these questions resulted in a shift of our brand model from a static, print-oriented brand to a customer-focused, digital- first, people-driven approach. This led to the second step, which was a new corporate visual identity. We kept our iconic logo – the three letters “ABB” – but refreshed our corporate colors and corporate imagery, created communication levels corresponding to the internal or external need of the specific addressee, and designed our own typeface, ABBvoice. Third, we harmonized our brand, moving away from silo-thinking in divisions or business units or differentiation on country-level. We are one strong global player
Inside-out and bottom-up
Stakeholders of non-established companies or brands no longer buy mere products or invest in a company. Instead, they buy innovation or invest in a strong, compelling vision. This is not to say that the functionality or quality of a specific product is not important. But in today’s accelerated and commoditized business environment, functionality and quality are assumed by customers; what they are interested in is the wider context – how a company or brand innovates to achieve value-creating synergies with other products.
In this context, every interaction stakeholders have with a brand or a company shapes their conscious and unconscious associations, and impacts their decision-making – be it business- related, for instance, through e-mails and calls, or interactions at trade show or sales meetings, or privately among peers. At ABB, we strongly engage with all employees on a global level with town-hall meetings, calls, interactive content or internal films that give our brand the face of our community, and through brand training roadshows. Our senior managers act as strong brand ambassadors, continuously communicating our vision, passion and commitment. It is important to keep in the mind that a brand cannot be enforced top- down; it must be brought to life by employees. At ABB, we turn our employees into brand heroes with a voice of how our brand takes shape, jointly bringing it to life.
Transforming a company of the size of ABB within a two-year timeframe is ambitious to say the least. And, given the increased workload in our accelerated business environment in the age of digitalization, I would argue that it is not feasible without a solid and comprehensive support structure. After all, strategy is the basis, but there is no transformation without implementation. At ABB, we have set up a three-pillar support structure: people – tools – processes.
People: Our internal core team develops new brand elements, assets and application concepts. Their sparing partners are our over 70 brand experts in the countries, giving feedback on local practices and learnings as well as cascading information to their teams. Our extensive partner network of external experts with specific knowledge and skills supports our employees in concrete projects – from trade shows, to reports, or presentations.
Tools: Our brand portal, a specifically created website, contains all assets, including brand elements, brand principles regarding their application, a media bank and web-2-print service, as well as background articles about the vision and purpose of our brand and its transformation. Our brand portal was intentionally designed as a one-stop shop containing all necessary tools and information. It therefore facilitates the daily work with our brand and is accessible for all employees and external suppliers, such as creative agencies, that work with our brand.
Processes: Our brand transformation started with strategic lighthouse projects in the form of specific high-level events as well as a pilot country. This allowed us to transmit the strength of our transformed brand globally and to set the standard for local implementation. Rather than setting fixed rules and guidelines, we prefer agile principles that allow for local adaption while maintaining the global brand experience and recognition. Our processes show how we tell a compelling, holistic story about the value we create with our seamlessly integrated portfolio of cutting-edge products, solutions and services. While the overarching story remains the same, local chapters add new aspects and focus on the specific needs of our local stakeholders.
Dr. Nicolas Ziegler is Head of Global Brand Management, Corporate Events and Communications Operations at ABB, where he is responsible for the positioning, management, and communication of ABB’s corporate brand. Global Brand Management is part of ABB’s global corporate communications function.