Even without the economic downturn, Frederick L. Kohnke knew 2009 would not be a record year.
His company, Staffmark, formerly CBS Personnel, had been piling up acquisitions since 2004 and the commercial staffing firm was operating under three names. Clients and employees had questions about the brands, leading to distractions, longer processes and an inefficient use of time.
“Progressive companies have great strategies, they’ve got great people, and they’re able to tactically get things done very decisively and quickly,” says Kohnke, president and CEO. “Speed wins in our business. Multiple brands definitely at this stage in the game would have slowed us down in terms of where we’re ultimately headed.”
From a growth standpoint, Kohnke knew he had to give the $1 billion company and its 1,000 employees, who are spread across more than 300 locations, a single company identity. So Kohnke, along with an appointed team, set out to unify the three brands — CBS Personnel, Staffmark and Venturi Staffing — under a unified vision, mission, values and name. What ensued was a nine-month planning process that included employee and customer buy-in from the beginning.
“The key thing is, No. 1, engaging a cross section of all stakeholders,” Kohnke says. “I think there needs to be an explanation, which is the process we went through (with) our employees and customers, as to why we were going through this process and what the benefits would be to them, to all stakeholders, before going through the process and making the decision.”
The early buy-in paid off when Staffmark rolled out the new brand in 2009. Now, nearly a year after the announcement, Kohnke’s focus is moving the company higher on the top 10 list of staffing companies.
“I would like to think we’re well beyond the buying-in side of it,” he says. “We don’t even look at what was. We look at what is and what will be as a company.”
Do your research
With such critical decisions before you, it’s important to identify the key stakeholders in the process and get buy-in early and often. In many cases, that buy-in means asking for their advice and feedback on where the company stands and where it should be going.
“This is not something — a decision — that can be made in a vacuum,” Kohnke says. “Just to any CEO out there looking to rebrand, this research was absolutely essential. It’s really critical when going through this process because, No. 1, you get great input, you see things that you otherwise may not have thought of because you’re always looking for land mines. We’re also getting very important buy-in from all of the stakeholders.”
Since the critical questions and concerns about Staffmark’s identity were coming from employees and customers, the company sought out those two groups in researching its ultimate direction.
“It was important to take a look at who are the drivers of our business, who are our stakeholders, what comprises our constituency — it’s all about customers and employees,” Kohnke says. “Then we segmented each of those groups to get the best (feedback).”
A crucial step is making sure you’re basing decisions on thorough information. Single out large and small clients, tenured employees and newer staff, and more importantly, identify subjects that span all geographies. And if you’re combining multiple brands, look equally within each brand.
“If you ask enough people in different cross sections of the constituency, whether they’re employees or customers, there will be very few items that surface post-implementation,” Kohnke says.
Once you’ve established your research base, assemble a list of questions that will move you from point A to point B. You should think about the reasons you decided to rebrand and what you see as the overall outcome.
Staffmark started the conversation with: Which brands have you heard about? What is your perception of the brand? What does the brand mean to you? If you are serviced by one of the three brands, how is the service level?
Part of the process is asking the tough questions and gauging the effect that eliminating or changing a brand will have on employee morale and customer satisfaction. Important pieces of the puzzle are: How important is a local brand? Will the customer leave if the brand is changed?
With such a large undertaking, it’s important to develop a system that isn’t convoluted for gathering information. To make the process easy for all involved, schedule conference calls or focus groups and make sure everyone that is part of the implementation has a chance to hear and collect feedback.
Kohnke didn’t want to leave missing details up to chance and hired a consulting firm to guide Staffmark through parts of the rebranding, including collecting research.
“A lot of changes have to happen simultaneously; you can’t repaint it with broad strokes,” he says. “You have to get down to the smallest detail, and that’s where this constituency and these focus groups, which were largely done telephonically, was very, very important for us to collect the information. (Do) not make it so comprehensive that it becomes burdensome, but ask on-point questions with enough open-endedness to hear what’s on people’s minds.”
Put a plan in place
To successfully execute any project, the key is making sure there’s an owner.
“Often it’s very difficult to implement something on time and with perfect clarity when it’s sort of management by consensus,” Kohnke says. “There has to be a single driver.”
Kohnke settled on his vice president of communications, looking for someone who could communicate well with him and the rebranding team assembled from all areas of the company.
“It’s good to have some knowledge of the process, maybe even (someone who has) been through it before,” he says. “Also (it needs to be) someone you have confidence in that is detail-oriented but can also look at it from a macro basis to make sure that all things are considered.”
When you’re rebranding, there are many elements to consider, including both what goes into the plan and how it gets executed.
“My advice to any CEO going through a rebranding is take the opportunity to redefine their company in the context of mission, vision, values,” Kohnke says. “It was a great opportunity for us to take those elements of three companies and put them into one.
“It’s an opportunity not just to focus on a brand [but to] focus on the rewrite and definition of who you are as a company and what do you represent.”
When it comes to defining a brand and the future of the company, sit down with your team, and from your research, identify the aspects of the company you want to simplify, along with what are the key characteristics and drivers of the company that will take you to the next level. The ones that rise to the top of your list should be those with long-term benefit and profitability.
For example, going with the newly acquired Staffmark’s name instead of the original Cincinnati-based company’s CBS Personnel was based on using the brand that was most widely known.
“You have to take a look at the larger, long-term good of the company,” Kohnke says, acknowledging some decisions will be painful. “You weigh the longer-term good against some of the shorter-term concerns. We feel that we mitigated those short-term concer
ns very well with an excellent plan and even better execution at the local level.”
The execution of the rebranding is critical because so much happens simultaneously, especially once the announcement is made. One of your first steps in the planning process needs to be a timeline of not only what needs to be changed but when it’s going to happen.
“You take each one of the areas of change [and] you identify what has to be done, who is going to drive it, what are the timelines, what do you expect the return on investment, what resources are needed to make the change,” Kohnke says. “And then my job is to make sure it gets done and follow up. The important thing — I can’t stress this enough to any chief executive officer — is the communication.”
While you may not be driving the project, you must keep a close eye on the timeline and maintain constant contact with your team and consultants to keep the process on track.
Roll out your plan
Imagine employees’ reactions when they opened an e-mail joking they would soon be working for Fred Staffing. Throughout the planning process, Staffmark employees routinely received e-mail teasers to build excitement about the rebranding and to put circulating rumors to bed.
“The climax of excitement really occurs after a long process of these feeds,” Kohnke says. “We felt it was important to keep it in front of them so when it happened, they were ready for the big call.”
From the initial news of the rebranding to the final announcement, you have to keep your stakeholders engaged in the process by building anticipation and squashing rumors. Use e-mails and even staff or client meetings to communicate, without giving away exact details, what it is you’re doing, why it’s being done and how it will individually affect stakeholders.
For Staffmark, that meant explaining to employees rebranding doesn’t mean downsizing and explaining to customers they’d still be served by the same staff. For all constituents, it meant more resources.
Kohnke and his business unit leaders, all of whom were a part of the rebranding team, developed a plan that sent questions or concerns directly to them to be answered. From there, they determined whether the questions warranted individual answers or companywide clarifications.
You need to be prepared to deal with employee chatter throughout the process, but an important place and an easy way to cut down on noise is by making the final announcement to all employees at once.
“To tell everyone at the same time, everyone feels equally important to one another,” says Kohnke, who unveiled the new brand during a companywide conference call. “They’re appreciative of being part of that communication. There’s no bandying about of rumors or speculation.
“I would highly recommend that, and you can’t leave that to a committee, you’ve got to do that yourself.”
Everything must be in place so that once the announcement is made, employees have everything they need to immediately start the transition and can contact clients with details.
Staffmark sent rebranding kits to each location the day before and, partly to build suspense, told employees they would have to wait to open the boxes until the unveiling of the new brand. The kits were filled with T-shirts, mouse pads and other trinkets, but more importantly, they included descriptions of the company’s new name, mission, vision and values.
“The plan has to be done,” Kohnke says. “Basic communication materials have to be provided; there’s got to be some training that quickly has to occur — for example, phone-answering etiquette and providing every employee with information as to why the change was made with an idea that just continues to follow through with that great excitement of the change.”
And that’s just the start. Once the announcement has been made, you need to increase your level of communication and visibility in order to answer follow-up questions and deal with any resistance from employees and customers, notably those involved with an old brand.
“Just get out there and talk to your employees face to face. Don’t sit behind a desk,” Kohnke says. “So get out there, talk to customers and make the pitch face to face.
“I was the guy who was on the other end of the conference call, I’m now here face to face, and I’m interested in hearing what you have to say. In some cases, it takes some time for them to acknowledge (the change), but at least being honest with them, being specific with them and, again, overcommunicating is something we felt that was very, very important.”
How to reach: Staffmark, (513) 651-3600 or www.staffmark.com