Lessons Learned When Branding a Global Merger

How do you protect and build on the equity of two strong brands while evolving and managing an organization around a new, integrated reality? Ryan Rieches talks with Rahim Ladha, the Global Head of Communications for BGO, about the creation of a new, unified brand identity and architecture and how they took employees on a journey to successfully launch the brand on a global scale. As a market-leading real estate investment company with over $81 billion under management and 27 offices around the world, cohesion of cultural ideals and marketplace expectations had to be met with absolute precision.


Episode Transcript

[This is an edited version of the transcript. Listen to the full interview by clicking the player above.]

Ryan: Today’s guest is Rahim Ladha, Global Head of Communication for BGO, a market-leading global real estate investment manager with over $81 billion under management. Rahim, welcome to Expert Opinion.

BrandingBusiness had the opportunity to work with Rahim and the BGO leadership team as they were changing the name of the organization, and they needed a new visual identity for the company.

Rahim, let’s begin with the opening question. Why change the name, and why now?

Rahim: It’s a question that we’ve been asking ourselves for the past four years since the formation of BentallGreenOak. When Bentall Kennedy and GreenOak merged, both came to the table with really strong brand identities in their respective markets, Bentall Kennedy with over 100 years of history in the Canadian market, and the GreenOak name with a really strong brand recognition in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. We had this merger of two firms that had these great strengths in non-overlapping markets. Initially, there was a desire to make sure that the name recognition was not lost upon the merger.

So, the use of the name BentallGreenOak was right intentional to make sure that in every market that we were present as a collective firm, but it didn’t take long for our clients, for our stakeholders, for even our employees to just short form the name to BGO.

Ryan: It seems like people tend to shorten names. It typically happens both internally and then with customers as well. So, the transition is very common, and yet initials do not arrive with much meaning. As we went into the process, and started thinking about how to evolve the visual identity, what were your considerations, and what were you trying to achieve in moving to an evolved brand identity?

Rahim: This all starts with the vision of our leadership team that formed around the merger. They had the foresight to see this collective firm as a leader in ESG, a true global fiduciary with boots on the ground in the most important real estate markets in the world, this focus on research and data, all the things that we wanted to be attributed to the brand. So, we took those three to four years to really earn the trust of the marketplace with respect to those different pillars for that to become embedded in the narrative of what BentallGreenOak was. Along the way, the BGO name short form started to have some attachment to those, I guess, that brand narrative as well.

So, we had a situation in which the vision of our leadership from day one was something that we took some time to grow into. We’d finally gotten to a place where I think we were able to express ourselves more confidently as BGO, not necessarily relying on the anchors of the past, but being able to tell a story about present day leadership, and a future outlook that we thought we’d earn the trust of our stakeholders with. That gave us that opening to be able to truly explore a brand transformation to BGO, a name that our stakeholders had given us, and that we finally believed we could build some true meaning behind.

I’ll tell you a little side story. 3-letter URLs are notoriously difficult to come by, and bgo.com was not available from day one. A team of us at BentallGreenOak had been following on the status of bgo.com. It came up that the URL was finally available. Immediately after we took ownership of bgo.com, I shared that with our leadership team, and everyone just had the same expression, which was, “This is the time. We’ve been working towards this. We’ve got this really interesting opening now where we can own the bgo.com name, and so let’s start to look at this transformation more meaningfully.”

It ‘was a big hit with our employees when we signaled to them that their email addresses were going to be shortened to bgo.com. I think we could hear the applause around the world on that one.

Ryan: Right. Well, as you shared, the organization had evolved. You already had a very strong value proposition. So, we really weren’t focused at the beginning at all on evolving your story, but rather matching a visual identity to the strength of your brand. We certainly utilize your vision, your guiding statements, your values, your strategic intent in developing a strategic brief, because we always believe that a visual identity must reflect the belief of the organization of where it’s going in the future. It’s also very important to be able to evaluate potential logo candidates against that strategic creative brief. I think it was very informative and very helpful for us to work with you and your leadership team to develop and spend quite a bit of time on that brief on the front end.

So, maybe you can just elaborate on that a little bit more. After we started developing candidates, and sharing those with you, how were you able to get some internal buy-in from the CEO and other department heads and decision leaders?

Rahim: Ryan, I’m glad you brought that up, because it was time really well spent with the BrandingBusiness team to really dig into the essence of the company, and to understand where it wanted to go forward, I think, resulted in some really strong creative articulations for the brand that we had an opportunity to consider. It’s made trickier by the fact that we are this global form present in 28 cities and 14 countries around the world. So, this visual identity needs to be able to live and thrive in those markets. So, that adds a certain level of complexity to it, but I felt like with your team, we were really able to dive into the specifics of how we wanted to be understood in the market, and that was a helpful process.

From there, it really came back to a conversation around values and how we wanted to be understood in the market. This is the benefit of having taken those three to four years to grow into our identity as opposed to rushing to create something from the onset of our merger is we came to the table with a much more confident stance of who we are and who we want to be. We’d tested that in the marketplace.

What became clear was the visual element of a tree in both the name, the long-form name, and what it’s come to represent in our space. So, there’s the clear nod to sustainability. There’s the strength, the wisdom, the trustworthiness, the longevity that comes with the visual identity of a tree became one of those things that we just latched onto in that creative articulation that BrandingBusiness came up with. It also had this really incredible tie-in with our predecessor brands, which people still feel a tremendous amount of pride with.

So, whether it was intentional or not, it was incredible, all the little elements that went into that tree visual that tied back to the former GreenOak visual identity, the former Bentall Kennedy visual identity, but came with this really clean, contemporary, sophisticated look that we felt represented how we wanted to be understood. I felt like through that exploration with you, it just reaffirmed what I think we came to understand about who we were, and then we just managed to arrive at a really positive place as a result.

Ryan: Hats off to you for moderating a wonderful process along with BrandingBusiness and your leadership team in evaluating the candidates, and which of those really represented the strategic intent of where the organization’s going. We’re really pleased with where we ended up as well. Let’s shift the topic a little bit in terms of… BGO is a very large organization, and like many of our clients, you’re built of a number of different business entities and services. Early on, we had the discussion, “Are we a house of brands, a branded house?” Maybe you can speak a little bit about the power of a masterbrand and avoiding the temptation of creating multiple sub brands with your different organizations and entities.

Rahim: Ryan, this was such an important consideration for us, and it was one of those things that we felt hamstrung by with the previous visual identity for Bentall GreenOak was that it was long, unruly, didn’t necessarily lend itself well to sub-brand creation. What had happened over the past four years is the platform had grown in really exciting ways and in some ways that almost demanded that we had the ability to create these sub-brands that were still tied to a really strong master identity. So, I think when we went through that exploration with BrandingBusiness, it was one of the clear objectives was that we were going to come out with a system, a brand system that was versatile enough to represent our interests as a overarching firm, but still had the flexibility to live as sub-brands in markets or in particular business lines where it was necessitated.

So, some really clear examples, in Canada, we’re a vertically integrated firm. What that means is we’ve got this tremendous investment management capability, but we’re also active in the development space. We’re real estate property managers and leasing service providers as well, and so we do the full range of businesses. You can imagine how that might create some confusion in the same market when the BGO logo is used to represent so many different elements of our business. So, the architecture that we, I think, jointly created with BrandingBusiness was really intelligent in its ability to create these sub-brands around BGO properties.

Ryan: Along those lines, as a leader in the global investment category, there are certain expectations that are upon you, and you already do such a great job in the area of philanthropy and sustainability and ESG. You had a new program called “BGO Inspired” that had its own separate identity, and we talked quite a bit about that. Should it be very separate, or should it be integrated?

Rahim: This one is so near and dear to my heart. “BGO Inspired” is the global philanthropy program for BGO. So, it represents the full spectrum of our relationships with charities and not-for-profits around the world where we contribute to their causes. For us as a firm, it has become a real cultural rallying call.

“BGO Inspired” became the label for our philanthropy program, but there was also a sentiment behind it when employees donned those t-shirts or those sweatshirts that had the name on it was this idea of being inspired by a new sense of purpose or an ability to contribute to their local community in a way that was really exciting and unique. So, being able to take this BGO brand that we’d created, and create the philanthropic arm for it was a real win, because now it’s tapping into something different. It’s that it’s the sentiment. It’s the employee experience. It’s the sense of purpose that people connect to being a part of BGO that we were able to play up in a really unique visual identity.

Ryan, I’ll tell you, similarly, we’ve done the same thing with our employee resource groups. BGO is a firm that takes a lot of time and effort to express itself on social issues, and we have these incredibly active and engaged employee resource groups, the ones in particular, the Black Professionals Alliance, the Asian Network, the Women’s Network, and BGO Pride. Those are four of the ERGs that we have today. Each of them established their own really unique interpretation of the brand to identify these subcultures within BGO that were driving so much of our social mission.

Ryan: Early on in our conversations, we spoke about the importance of internal branding and creating that internal adoption and pride. Maybe we can chat a little bit about the internal training and adoption process, as well as in your specific role, you have the keys to the kingdom in terms of the new identity. I’m sure everybody’s chomping at the bit, wanting to get their hands on it and to begin utilizing it, but it only works if it’s done in a very orchestrated manner, and how you unveil the brand.

Rahim: There was a couple of things we did. I think the first thing we did was we identified the super users at BGO of our brand, and they come in obvious and not so obvious ways. Really, when you get out there to learn how the brand is applied across so many different aspects of our business, you come to find out how important getting this right is. So, we engaged a group of super users, and these were not senior leaders at the firm. These are the people on the ground working every day to represent our administrative interests, our commercial interests, and so making this user-friendly and well-informed for them was absolutely critical. We did what many would think was the opposite.

Instead of identifying a group of the senior most leaders at BGO, and engaging them initially, we went right to the working level, and said, “No, the folks who need this to perform for them are the ones we’re going to talk to first. We’re going to learn their pain points. We’re going to introduce them to where we’re going with all of this so that they’re early advocates for its use.”

What it did right off the top was it got us that buy-in that we need. So when we needed to engage in a mass turnover of our branding in the market or in internal use cases, we’d already earned the respect and the buy-in of an internal community of working level people who make the brand work.

We have always seen our employees as our best ambassadors. So, it was really important to us that we drummed up a lot of excitement around this activity. So, in the weeks leading into what we coined as a brand reveal event, we were dropping hints across the organization, generating some interests. We had a little poster campaign that was a little cheeky across all our global offices, inviting everyone to tune into a global telecast that we hosted live in Toronto.

It was at that event that we did a massive reveal party, and at each of our offices around the world, they all held their own little events as well, but it was where we revealed for the first time, months and months in advance, of when the brand would actually go live the new direction for the firm. It was met with so much positivity, and it was just an affirmation that we’d done this the right way. Even though we weren’t ready to go live with the brand weeks or days after that, we said we were going to take this chance, and share it with them, make them feel like they’re in the know, and not the last to find out about it, which is never a good feeling.

Then all that did was just create a lot of excitement leading up to the final day when we did turn the key, and get the brand in motion externally as well.

Ryan: Thanks for sharing that. I believe our listeners can really value the process you utilize helping getting the view from the super-user’s perspective tremendously valuable, and you can really pressure test the entire system, make sure it’s ready to roll. Then, also, the pre-reveal was really smart. You create a lot of anticipation, excitement, and yet you still had room for the CEO and leadership’s role in launching the brand. I know they were really excited about launching it, and we’ve seen some of the video footage that you shared, but maybe you could speak a little bit about CEO and leadership’s role in launching the brand.

Rahim: We created an anthem video to help employees to articulate what the brand renewal meant for the firm. One of the things we found out very quickly was employees were excited to tell this story to their universe of stakeholders, but didn’t necessarily have the language to do it. So, we took an opportunity to craft a powerful anthemic video featuring Sonny [Sonny Kalsi, co-CEO] that showed the artistic revelation of the brand. The language behind it spoke to what this meant to us, what it means to the people we serve, to the communities that we work and live in, and to the buildings that we’re responsible for managing on behalf of our clients. It became the narration that our own employees could use in their world.

Similarly, it was really equipping our senior leaders from around the world with the right information to be able to transform their presence in their respective markets. A lot of that had to do with some concerted PR initiatives where we were able to tell our story on key initiatives, key business initiatives in our various regions, but showing up as BGO as opposed to BentallGreenOak, and having that be the signal to the market that we’d arrived in this new skin, a much stronger and more confident story around who we are as a firm.

Ryan: Well, I’m glad you placed such a great emphasis on that internal training and internal adoption. Now that the brand is launched, how has the marketplace responded so far?

Rahim: We’ve got a ton of compliments. People really appreciate where we’ve taken the brand. There’s always that fear – “ are people going to know who BGO is right off the top, or will we have created confusion in the marketplace?”  But again, that three to four years that we took to really grow into our identity help to make that transition seamless. The BGO logo is just showing up in so many more places as our business continues to grow, and its public profile continues to grow along with the business that the logo has been just really well received. We’re seeing it on signage. We’re seeing it on buildings. We’re seeing it in press releases and sponsorship plays, and I think people get it.

When you trust in the human instinct to arrive at the right answer for what this logo represents, more often than not, we found that people got it.

Ryan: I’m really glad to hear that. I guess as we reflect back on the process and or the outcomes, what stands out in your mind of what you’ve experienced so far?

Rahim: I think the time that we took to really understand the business, what it stood for and where it’s aiming to go was time really well spent. Anyone who’s ever been a part of a rebranding effort will attest to this. There’s never enough time to do everything that you want to do, but taking the time to get that right actually resulted in a remarkable creative turnaround from your team. We didn’t have to go… You’ll recall this. It was almost miraculous that it didn’t take three or four iterations of creative to find the visual identity that we latched onto. It was actually round one that you delivered to us, that we were able to find a symbol, and turn around and modify it with some minor adjustments to make it really work for us.

I don’t think you get there unless you take the time to really understand the business and the market forces that we deal with as a company so that that goes into the thinking that your creative hand then takes a stab at. I would say that that was time exceptionally well spent, and then really, really focusing in on the employee experience, because they’re the ones who are going to tell the story to the market, to the communities in which we’re active in ways that would be far harder or longer for me to be able to achieve reach with. So, treating them as really VIPs in this whole experience was something that I’m glad bore fruit the way we hoped it would, and it continues to.

The demand now is for a whole lineup of BGO apparel. People want to wear this on their sleeves and on their jackets, and they want all kinds of things to be able to represent the firm. That’s a really good feeling when you know you’ve created something that people want to represent openly on behalf of the firm. It leaves you feeling like we landed in a place that was just right. So, I’m feeling really good about all of this.

Ryan: That’s a great summary, Rahim. Hats off to you in terms of orchestrating and a very strategic process, setting expectations, bringing in the right leaders, the right team members at the right time, the importance of the employees, an orchestrated launch. I guess it’s been, what, now about five months since we’ve officially launched. Is that about right?

Rahim: It is about five… It feels longer than that, doesn’t it? So many things have transpired since then.

Ryan: Having done this now at this level, if there’s any other listeners out there considering an evolved corporate brand, and going through that process, any other final pieces of advice you might offer them?

Rahim: I really think it’s making sure you align yourselves with a team that’s multidisciplinary, that has the understanding of your industry or takes the time to really get deep into it. There’s nothing better than being able to have conversations about brand with a team that just understands your business and the industry in which you operate. That’s often been lacking in exercises that I’ve engaged in, but this is one of those things where it’s just so crucial to getting it right. So, I would say, definitely pick your team wisely, and make sure that they’re invested in understanding your businesses as much as you understand it, but my hats off to the BrandingBusiness team.

Look, I think you came to the table with a team that was diversified, not just in capability, but also in geographic spread. That matters to us too. We’re active in so many different regions around the U.S., in Canada, around the world, and I think you brought some of that capability to the table as well so that when we were discussing ideas or directions, it came with the benefit of you having considered how this might function in various places, in different markets, in different lines of business. That pre-consideration to anything that you brought to my attention meant that we were already working with a pretty refined product, and so really happy with the work that your team put into that. I think it’s just a great thing to always keep in mind whenever you’re embarking on something this important.

Ryan: Well, we really appreciate that kind feedback, Rahim. I think you’ve offered some tremendous insights to our listeners, those who are going through a corporate rebrand.

Rahim: I just think there’s so many exciting new directions in 2024 that we’re going to be taking this brand, and really excited to see it perform in many different ways in the years ahead. So, my gratitude to the entire BrandingBusiness team. It’s been a pleasure working with all of you, and stay tuned for more, because BGO is going to be showing up in some really exciting ways for everyone.

Ryan: I’m sure it will. Well, thank you, Rahim. We really appreciate it.

That concludes our show for today. This is Ryan Rieches, and you’ve been listening to another edition of Expert Opinion, BrandingBusiness forum where thought leaders share their point of view. If you’d like to listen to past shows, or read our blog series, visit brandingbusiness.com. Until our next show, grow your business by defining and living your brand promise.