How a Business Division Can Live in Successful Harmony with the Corporate Brand

By Alan Brew

The planned breakup of GE – once a paragon of modern management excellence and among the country’s most admired corporations – only serves to accelerate the rethinking of what a modern industrial enterprise should look like.

The success of GE’s sprawling business empire was, for more than a century, pointed to as confirmation that large, diversified industrial conglomerates were dynamic and viable business models. No more. The conglomerate is effectively dead. The plan to split GE into three separate businesses is a victory for investors who prefer transparency and focus instead of complexity.

Many corporations are slimming down in response, shedding non-core businesses, and wrapping themselves as tightly as possible in glossy, all-embracing visions of social purpose, sustainability and the greater global good.

GE now espouses its new found purpose as “building a world that works.” This is just a slight variation of EY’s “building a better working world.” Toshiba, the Japanese conglomerate that used to make consumer electronics, now has “an unwavering drive to make and do things for a better world,” and Emerson “drives innovation that makes the word healthier, safer, smarter and more sustainable.”

You get the point – the objective is to bind as many of the diverse parts of the enterprise as possible in a coherent narrative that attempts to make sense of the collective whole. And while it might work on one level for certain corporate audiences, leaders of specialist divisions that do not fit neatly into the corporate narrative often find themselves on the horns of a difficult brand dilemma.

A strong corporate brand can be a mixed blessing

Specialist divisions of a large corporation can often be significant businesses in their own right, vying for business with agile and aggressive independent players in highly competitive, price-conscious markets in which the corporate brand could be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it might help to establish credibility in new markets in terms of awareness and stability, etc. On the other, being part of a corporate behemoth might also bring with it perceptions of remoteness and a bureaucratic, difficult-to-deal-with culture.

Uncertain about the value of the corporate brand, any reference is masked or minimized, depending on what brand guidelines allow. The burden of marketing duty is then pushed down to the product portfolio. Individual products are named, branded and packaged to be as distinctive as possible. But as customers look increasingly for customized solutions to complex manufacturing problems the product branding approach does little to address their needs.

A debilitating vacuum opens up between the corporate brand and the product portfolio which the division is unable to fill. With no clear identity of its own it becomes competitively stalled and weakened in the war for talent and business.

What can be done about it?

Based on our experience with divisions of many diversified global enterprises, we have identified three essentials to successfully living under the umbrella of a corporate brand and being competitively assertive:

  1. Brand equity research. We recommend conducting discrete research among customers and buyers (or specifiers and distributors) of your products to understand their perceptions of the corporate brand. In most cases, there will be some key attributes attached to the corporate brand beyond “stability and global,” for example, that could really help your business and overcome perceived negatives. It is vital to know what can be leveraged positively to your benefit and how they can be utilized in the next two steps.
  2. Identity. A specialist division of a large conglomerate can feel disconnected from the overarching brand story and lost in the corporate pantheon. They lack an identity of their own – a compelling sense of who they are as a business, what they are passionate about and how that translates into a point of competitive differentiation. The creation of a series of core statements – Purpose, Vision and Mission – can have a galvanizing effect on morale and motivate the entire team with a new sense of who they are and why what they do matters.
  3. Messaging Narrative. This is your connection to your world and you want people to know about you. A Messaging Narrative consists of, first, a core narrative that builds on and translates the core statements into a seamless and compelling articulation of who you are, what you do exceptionally well, and who you are in business to serve. The core narrative is where those positive corporate brand attributes come into play. The narrative is reworked as a set of relevant “messages” designed to appeal to specific audiences. As a whole, the Messaging Narrative provides the marketing team with a comprehensive communications armory to distinguish your business in your segments.

While there are more tools at our disposal these are the cornerstones of a successful divisional brand that lives in harmony with the corporate parent. It takes creativity to balance the goals of each but, armed with the proper information and clear objectives, a successful divisional brand strategy can be achieved.