You’re the CMO of a $22 billion company and your boss asks you to launch a top-to-tail branding effort. Who’s the first person you call? Your favorite agency contact? Your most trusted team member? A recruiter? When Toni White, CMO of Synchrony Financial, was asked to rebrand the GE Capital Retail Finance business – certain to be a long, exciting and career-defining journey – the first person she called was her mom.
Bolstered by her mom’s vote of confidence, Toni was ready for what was sure to be a wild ride as far as brand efforts go. The goal was daunting. Build off the reliance, trust, and recognition imbued in GE’s storied brand, while creating a new and distinctive brand that resonates with multiple constituencies – consumers financing purchases like TVs and refrigerators, their retail partners who offer financing through Synchrony, their employees, and prospects.
Getting To Work
Toni chose brand consultancy Interbrand to help lead the effort. Rather than the more leisurely 18 months for a traditional rebrand, or even 12 months for a faster-paced effort, she needed the brand ready to launch in just nine months to align with the company’s Initial Public Offering. That meant working fast, doing things in parallel that normally would be done sequentially (like gathering employee and customer feedback) and enlisting people from across the organization to engage in the process and provide diverse perspectives and expertise.
Getting Buy In
A critical element of the re-branding was picking a new company name and logo. Toni quickly learned that picking a name for a company is like naming a child. It’s highly personal, and everyone has an opinion. From the surfeit of names that she and her team considered, they narrowed it to five, which they tested with employees, customers and partners. Synchrony Financial was the clear winner. Toni and her team learned that getting employee and customer feedback early and often turned out to be good for buy-in, and also accelerated the process.
Given the size of the organization and the many constituents that would need to promote the brand, employees were also given early and frequent hints as to what the brand would look like, what attributes it would represent, and how it would reflect the core of the company. They did this cleverly, through puzzle pieces that were sent to employees over time, each holding a clue that was core to the brand that was being developed. When they were able to complete the puzzle, they already knew the story. This had the dual purpose of building enthusiasm for what was to come, but also a way to solicit feedback on elements of the brand that needed adjustment.
The trust factor is an essential element in financial services today, particularly for consumer loan grantors who suffered the harshest blow to their reputation in the last recession. This issue is more complex for Synchrony, as the brand is presented as an option to consumers through their retail partners. As with any launch, branding Synchrony required telling their story through images, logos, URLs and tag lines, and good old-fashioned advertising. In this case, Toni and team had to find the right balance between referencing its GE heritage and launching a stand-alone brand focused on the future.
To introduce the Synchrony Financial name and brand, the tag line “Engage with us” appeared across broadcast spots, and also in more personal media like digital, out of home, and C-suite business press like Forbes and The Wall Street Journal. Surprisingly, the airport was a great place to capture the various constituents and earn their trust. And when it came time to rally the internal troops behind the new brand, broadcast TV helped to stoke pride and reinforce what the company does best – being deeply engaged with its partners. Now the references to the company’s heritage are more muted, though its 80-year history is still an important part of the story and the foundation of its enduring purpose and values – Bold, Responsible, Passion, Driven, Caring and Honesty.
Building a brand from scratch within a year taught Toni and the team a lot. Here are some of her most important learnings:
• Recruit smart people from across the enterprise. The first thing Toni did was to recruit resources from various areas of the company to capture diversity of thought. Not just marketing folks either. She chose individuals who worked in the call centers, sales leaders who manage client relationships, finance and investor relations leaders who talk about the company in the marketplace — to become a part of the brand team. She sought a mix of experience, function, and tenure to get the broadest representation of the company from the start.
• Buy-in has to happen early. Even with a widely sourced team, there needed to be a plan for engagement across the company and every touch-point. So much of the business is customer-facing that the brand needed to be firmly embedded in everyone’s mind the day it launched. The puzzle pieces that teased out the brand helped people join the journey in their own way, and taught them the language they would use without a forced mandate on the day of the switch-over. Launch events at every site bridged the transition in a fun way with giveaways and branded items, and messages and materials describing the evolution of the brand. A brand “vault” provided easy and immediate access to logos and images, templates and usage guidelines, and enabled employees to order business cards and branded apparel and supplies.
• Weave the present and the future together. In such a short time span, it’s important to start from the strength of the existing brand and capitalize on that message in the transition. Many folks wanted to make a clean break from the past, but that past was strong and helped build trust. Toni and team balanced the need to embrace the past and use this to convey strength and trust built over the years, with an aspirational, fresh dynamic brand still focused on delivering for cardholders and partners.
• Begin the journey to the next stage of the brand. Remember that the brand will evolve and needs to work across the business. Early on, the Synchrony team started talking to customers and developed an enterprise platform with their advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, about why the company exists and what the company does for customers to help them get what they need. They found that what people value most, that they pioneer the future and get people what they need, turned into the “What are you working forward to?” theme line (see their video creative here) that links people to the things they aspire to. This next stage makes an emotional connection with each of Synchrony’s audiences and brings that concept to life.
The birth of a “new” company with $22 billion in market cap and 80 years of history is a challenge. How did Toni do?