business

How's This For A Change?

A marketer prescribes a total makeover-for itself

Moira Shanahan was planting tulip bulbs in her yard in suburban Atlanta on New Year's Day, 1997, when she began mulling over the state of her 12-year-old company. By any measure, NewsLetters Plus seemed successful--a fast-growing, $10 million business, whose 48 employees helped big companies hone their sales strategy and image.

But what did Shanahan see? A dull, tired company name that didn't reflect the firm's expanding services; a shabby, overcrowded office that inhibited employees' creativity and did little to inspire clients' confidence; a top-heavy management structure that pushed clients and creative staff further apart; a company that had grown so much and changed so fast it was facing an identity crisis.

Then Shanahan had an epiphany. "We'd been so busy helping clients hone their marketing messages and sales techniques that we weren't making the time to apply our own advice to ourselves," she recalled.

She resolved that it was time for her company to undergo a head-to-toe makeover, one that would reflect its broadened focus, which now went far beyond newsletter production to include sales training and strategy, as well as content development for Web sites and intranets.

SWAT TEAMS. Over the next 22 months, Shanahan and her staff reinvented NewsLetters Plus by rethinking all aspects of its business and the image it projected. Then they resorted to nearly every device in the marketer's tool kit to communicate those changes to clients. When the metamorphosis was complete, even former clients were surprised--and gave them a second look.

It was a familiar drill for Shanahan. She frequently recommended to clients that they overhaul their identity with steps that range from changing a company's name to rethinking its mission. It's something thousands of businesses of all sizes do every year to get out of a rut or raise their profiles.

To jump start the process, Shanahan often suggested a company retreat. So, in May, 1997, she staged a 3 1/2-day "Morphathon" for a handpicked group of 11 employees from all levels. They met at a whimsical pink marble mansion-turned-bed-and-breakfast in rural Tate, Ga., to discuss "who we want to be as a company when we grow up," says Shanahan.

Activities alternated between grueling meetings to hash out sales strategy and offbeat efforts to spur creativity. In one such workshop, Vice-President Janet V. Reed was told to bring in something that she felt symbolized the company. "I brought a stewpot because I see us bubbling over with ideas," she says. By the end of the weekend, they had reached a consensus: Their company needed to be "larger, smarter, world-class, edgy, and aggressive, the best of the best," says Shanahan. Everyone was assigned to SWAT teams to tackle different aspects of the makeover.

Because of the slow trademarking process, the highest priority was choosing a new name. "Every time we were pitching for new business, I felt like we had an uphill battle to prove we could do more than newsletters," says Shanahan, particularly when it came to reaching companies outside of her region.

"RAINMAKING." The name game began in earnest early that summer as employees competed for $100 rewards for the best suggestions. One afternoon late in November, Shanahan reviewed a list of proposed names from her staff. One, Braindance, jumped off the page. "Braindance was jarring, but I kept coming back to it," she says. To her, the name melded two concepts: brainstorming and "rainmaking," or bringing in business. "It had an energy and playfulness that I liked," she says.

To test it on clients, Shanahan turned to a marketer's classic, the focus group. The result? They split 50-50, either loving or hating it. But once they viewed the accompanying graphics and the tag line--"Marketing Muscle"--75% favored the name, including the biggest and best clients. Finally, her executive team chose Braindance, 7 to 3.

Although some clients and executives urged her to adopt the name right away, Shanahan waited. She wanted to roll it out in concert with an even bigger step--a move from suburban Tucker to Atlanta's bustling Midtown neighborhood in September, 1998.

In the spring, the company bought a dowdy 1950s-era two-story, 16,800-square-foot building on Peachtree Street for $1.6 million and spent an additional $1 million to renovate it inside and out. It's big enough to hold twice the current staff and boasts 13 spiffy conference rooms. Airy, wide-open spaces sport bright colors, curved corrugated metal walls, and skylights.

CHEERY SPACE. In keeping with the egalitarian spirit Shanahan sought, she nixed private offices and eliminated management layers, reorganizing staff into industry-specific strategic units.

Clients already see a difference. Before, employees labored in dark, dreary quarters and in three separate buildings. Now, says Marika Bitetzakis, a senior manager of product development for American Express TRS Co., she can find everybody she needs in one bright, cheery space that encourages creativity. "Energy spills out from everywhere," she says.

Shanahan tried to create a sense of suspense and excitement about the "new" company during the renovation last summer. First, she covered over the covered over the large "For Sale" sign in front of the building with her own eye-catching one-line ads that changed weekly. They featured such puzzling phrases as "The adventure begins" and "Ideas spark." She also launched a series of direct mailings to 5,000 prospects (including some former clients), with postcards bearing the same one-liners and, later, boxes of logo-emblazoned promotional goods announcing the firm's relaunch. Pete Kalison, sales program manager for Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Southern U.S. region, had hired Shanahan years earlier to do newsletters for Apple Computer Inc. He called as soon as he received his box. "I had no idea her company did all these other things," Kalison says.

Observing all the activity from her office across the street, competitor Ruth P. Doering, 39, executive vice-president of Ketchum/Crescent, was impressed. "Braindance did a great job of building the suspense, and this campaign allowed them to retell their story," she says.

The anticipation climaxed in an elaborate publicity blitz. To celebrate the new name and move, Shanahan commissioned a local artist to handcraft 30 metal sculptures of the company's logo--a head with rays and arrows shooting out to suggest an active mind, for $80 apiece. She and Reed hand-delivered them to clients. For added pizzazz, Shanahan's public-relations firm, which handled media publicity for the launch, got the mayor to declare Sept. 25, 1998, the day of the ribbon-cutting, Braindance Day. That attracted extensive local TV coverage and helped the city publicize the migration of exciting young companies to the Midtown area. At 5 a.m., Braindance employees, with the police department's blessing, spray-painted a stencil of the new company name and logo on local sidewalks.

MEDIA BUZZ. Like most complete image makeovers, this one was costly. It absorbed a good six months of Shanahan's time, which she might have spent getting new business. Sales were flat at $15 million last year, vs. typical annual growth rates of 25% to 30%. In direct costs, add on $350,000 spent on the retreat, advertising, PR, and marketing; $2.6 million to buy and rehab the building; and $500,000 for a new computer network and other technology. To maintain the buzz about Braindance, Shanahan has doubled her promotions budget, to 4% from 2% of annual revenues. She ran her first national ad in a marketing magazine this month.

Is all the fuss and expense worth it? Image consultant Joey Reiman, president of BrightHouse Ideation Corp. in Atlanta and author of Thinking for a Living, says a true makeover--one that both inspires customers and invigorates employees--can work wonders. But slapping on a new name for a quick fix is a waste of time. He says Braindance took the right approach: "A makeover has to be multidimensional. Everything a company does communicates: the name, the brand, the address, the employees, and the experience."

For Braindance, anyway, the strategy seems to be working: Giant travel insurer Travel Guard International of Stevens Point, Wis., hired Braindance in January to do all its marketing in a six-figure deal. And Sun Microsystems has begun to throw more national business Shanahan's way, too. At this rate, she expects to recoup her investment in less than 12 months. That's an astounding return--and a sure sign that makeovers can be more than skin-deep.

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