Executing an acquisition or merger can be tricky, and there have been several in the corporate travel space recently. Katharine Farrell of the Dots & Lines consultancy looks back at previous examples of brand consolidation in the industry and contemplates the pros and cons.
May was an interesting month for the corporate travel industry. The news of American Express Global Business Travel’s planned acquisition of Egencia, TripActions’ purchase of Reed & Mackay and Frosch’s acquisition of Valerie Wilson Travel hit in rapid succession.
These came on the heels of a number of other M&A announcements within corporate travel including moves in the technology space. For example, Emburse acquired DVI and Roadmap, TravelPerk bought NexTravel and HRS scooped up Itelya, its invoice management partner.
Some joining of theses brands are more natural fits than others. Whether a seamless or somewhat unusual marriage, however, careful consideration of the brand strategy is critical. On one side of the spectrum is the most conservative approach, no change. On the other, the most aggressive approach, is to build a new brand. Blending the two brands or backing the stronger one are strategies that fall in the middle.
Historical examples from within corporate travel show the pros and cons of each approach.
When Frosch acquired independent travel consultancy TCG Consulting in April 2019, the parties said TCG would “operate independently as a standalone entity.” Synergies cited included the ability for Frosch to offer its clients a broader range of T&E management advisory services and for TCG to access the Frosch client list and its operational capabilities. It noted that both brand identities would remain unchanged.
There are a few reasons this approach can work well:
- Strong brand recognition for both parties
- Successful track record by both brands within different market segments
- Messaging/positioning benefits are realized by remaining separate
In this case, Frosch enjoyed strong brand recognition and success in the TMC space and TCG did so in the travel consulting sector. Meanwhile, by remaining a distinct brand, TCG could promote an “agnostic, client-focused approach.”
While this approach can be the most straightforward, it’s not without its drawbacks:
- Resources may be duplicated, resulting in lower efficiency.
- Companies still must communicate the reasoning behind the acquisition and manage the expectations of their stakeholders.
Retaining both brands isn’t always the best option.
When United Airlines and Continental Airlines in May 2010 agreed to a $3 billion merger to form the world’s largest airline, the entity announced it would retain the United name and Chicago headquarters. The details of the future brand took longer to finalize. Settling on a combination of the two brands using the United name and Continental’s typography and globe logomark, the result is a blended identity. There are a few notable benefits to this approach:
- It reinforces the notion of leveraging the best of both companies moving forward, combining individual strengths, eliminating weaknesses and avoiding an implied winner/loser mentality.
- It can be an effective way to retain some of the acquired company’s identity, particularly when a brand carries strong emotional connections with employees or customers.
The application of the blended approach can vary. There can be a simple combination of names, as with PricewaterhouseCoopers (now pwc) or ConocoPhillips. Or, there’s the endorsement approach, as with “Ultramar, a Travel and Transport company,” now part of CTM.
While a blended approach allows the combined entity to capitalize on the points above, pitfalls can include:
- Significant time to transition to the new brand
- Confusion over the combined company’s values and brand essence
- Turning off stakeholders who have strong, negative feelings towards one of the entities
One way to avoid some of these issues is by going the better brand route, as in the case of Delta Air Lines.
Back The Stronger Brand
Two years prior to the United/Continental merger, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines agreed to combine in a $3.1 billion deal. The new, bigger company kept the Delta name and brand identity, seen as the stronger brand.
This can happen in reverse, where the target company’s name and identity are retained. Or, there’s the temporary approach, where the brands are combined or blended for a period before the lead brand is adopted. In a third approach, the update approach, the lead brand name is retained but a new identity is created.
Benefits to backing the stronger brand include:
- Positioning the merger or acquisition as an upgrade by taking advantage of the high reputational capital of the retained brand
- Generating excitement among employees and increasing the perceived value for customers
Risks associated with this approach are minimal; however, if there is a substantial disconnect between the target audiences the entities serve or the brand essence of the merging companies, it can confuse both internal and external audiences. Repetitive messaging to educate audiences on the reasons for the acquisition and resulting benefits is needed for this strategy to achieve success.
Three longstanding and individually successful hotel loyalty programs became one when Marriott International launched Bonvoy. As of January 2019, it encompassed the Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest programs. In a new brand approach, none of the three brands’ names or identities were retained. While this approach does take a significant investment of time and resources, benefits include:
- Signaling a more formal union
- Generating excitement by conveying the promise and ability to achieve more together than each entity could individually
While these benefits are significant, this approach risks setting up companies’ internal and external audiences for disappointment. If changes portrayed in the branding are not reflected across the company, customers and employees can become cynical. In addition, with this approach all entities undertake risk by leaving behind their well-known and possibly positive brand associations in favor of something new. Overall, however, this option — if accompanied by genuine organizational change — can increase the likelihood of post-merger success.
Things To Consider
There are a few other things to consider to determine the most appropriate approach to branding after a merger or acquisition.
Corporate culture. Don’t forget your internal audience. While it’s important to consider your external customer, employees go a long way in making a merger or acquisition smooth or rocky.
Target audiences. How similar or different are the two entities’ target audiences? This can impact whether the resulting brand can span the difference or there is a need to keep both brands.
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