How this global CMO tackled bringing 28 companies under one brand

Global chief marketing officer of NTT, Ruth Rowan, details the brand strategy and framework she adopted to help bring NTT's portfolio of companies under one umbrella brand
Ruth Rowan

Ruth Rowan

If there’s one lesson NTT’s global CMO, Ruth Rowan, has learnt since being tasked with rebranding the group’s 28 businesses under one umbrella, it’s exceptions shouldn’t ever hold you back.

“There are always exceptions, but if you hold the rest of the business back because of them, it’s difficult to get anything done,” she tells CMO. “But exceptions are important. And when you have them, it’s vital you’re communicating clearly with people involved.”  

One small but significant example for NTT in becoming one branded entity has been migrating employee email addresses.

“Some parts of the business are not as straightforward, and some of that is linked to the existence or not of a central HR system,” Rowan says. “By just saying ‘we’d love to have migrated you by this date but we’re not able to and this is the reason and here’s the timeline’, people have generally been receptive. If you don’t communicate the reason, people can read all kinds of things into it.”  

Being transparent and overcommunicating why certain things happen at certain times is one of three key objectives established by Rowan and the NTT team as they strive to build one global brand. The others are a commitment to not damaging the business in any way, or that sees client relationships go backwards; and not breaking the law by ensuring integration is legally and regulatory compliant.

On 1 July, NTT officially unified the capabilities of its owned 28 companies, including Dimension Data, NTT Communications and Arkadin, under one brand, creating an $11 billion London-based business with 40,000 staff in 70 countries. The ambition is to make NTT one of the world’s top 20 brands, alongside other shining technology brands like Cisco and Oracle. The main driver for holistic integration was clients, Rowan says.

“Increasingly, clients were asking if can we make it easier to do business with the NTT family – can we start to provide more technology services but with one contract and one service desk, for example,” she says. “In any industry, you’re looking at how to increase share of wallet and build a client experience that is as optimal as possible across multiple parts of the business.

“When we you’re 28 companies with 28 different ways of engaging with clients, we were still different businesses - however much the largest clients doing multiple transactions saw us coming together.”

In integrating into one NTT, the first thing Rowan and her team did was work to understand current brand values and perceptions through copious amounts of research across clients, companies and markets.    

“We made the decision very early on that it made sense to bring together under the NTT brand, with the dynamic loop and that hero brand. That meant understanding the brand promise and framework of NTT, but also what the brand means and what is the experience,” Rowan explains.  

“All our businesses have different heritage and capability areas, with different geographies, markets and client groups. We have brands like Dimension Data, a global brand with a strong reputation in systems integration and managed services that’s seen as trusted and grounded in a South African heritage, but that’s also strong in markets like Australia. Then there’s NTT Communications, one of the brands outside Japan that has a strong Japanese heritage and is very strong in the telco market with a reputation for quality products.

“A smaller brand like Arkadin is well-regarded in the conferencing and cloud communications market but not really known outside of it. So it was a complicated process. We had to look at the legacy but also the future of the brand we wanted to build.”  

To go forwards on brand strategy, the team went backwards into the NTT archives. While NTT as a business has been around for about 120 years, the brand in its current guise was established in 1985 when the Japanese organisation was privatised.

“What we found was beautiful and as relevant today as it was 35 years previously,” Rowan says. “That brand work in 1985 was founded on three principles: Firstly, that the company would always listen to its clients. This is reflected in the visual NTT logo loop, with the centre loop representing the voice of the client.

“The second thing we stood for is constantly moving forward and being innovative. We want to also make sure we’re dynamic,” Rowan continues. “Innovation is at the heart of the company, and we’re one of the biggest investors in R&D in the IT&T industry. We again felt that was really relevant but needed to be expressed and explained.”

The third piece is NTT’s purpose of making a difference to communities it exists in by understanding how technology can make the world a better place. All of these values are now informing stories from across the company portfolio to bring this brand vision to life.

“We realised we stumbled on some magic with those insights and if we could connect our brand as we launched it to those, it’d be a solid strategy and great way to engage employees, articulate to clients what we are about, and give us great foundation to build a brand on,” Rowan says.

Alongside the strategic work was how to operationalise brand change. “You can do great strategic work but if it doesn’t execute, there’s no point,” Rowan says.

“Our CEO, Jason Goodall, said very early on he wanted to make sure we changed the brand in a way that’s not superficial. By that he meant don’t just take logos off buildings and put new ones on, or change business cards. It is about ensuring employee and client experiences at the point we change the brand are also noticeably different. Emails had to change, back-end systems branding had to change, and the integration needed to be there.

“Importantly for clients, the people talking to them across our company also needed to talk through them what this meant. We needed them to articulate why it was changing or at least explain the roadmap.”

Rowan’s team created an MVP for rebranding to help. “We stepped through and said by this date, will we be comfortable, or is it this date. That allowed us to see rough timing of brand change based on client and employee experience,” she says.  

“Increasingly for any CMO, but particularly for B2B, it’s critical everyone play a role. We don’t own the entirety of any experience – whether it’s client, employee, vendors or suppliers. It’s collaboration between multiple teams.”

This has seen Rowan working particularly closely with both NTT’s new HR lead and CIO to ensure alignment to the same plan around employee experience. As she points out, rebranding is also highly dependent on colleagues in all countries understanding what it means for them. This is where those three overarching principles come in.

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“One thing that’s been very interesting for us is there are different requirements about what needs to be in place in that country before you can do something,” Rowan says. “In Switzerland, for instance, you can’t change business cards or a logo online until a new legal entity carrying that name is registered. But in other countries you can.

“We had to communicate very clearly that it may well be all companies are going to change their brand from 1 October, but in your country, if it’s illegal to do that, it’s important you don’t. You don’t want the first thing to happen with the new brand and company be that you’re seen to have affectively broken the law.”

Other elements in the change program include weekly meetings with colleagues across the business to ensure alignment.

“Having 40,000 colleagues migrating to the new company email isn’t something you do overnight. We’ve had to work closely with IT colleagues to understand the migration roadmap of certain teams email addresses, and the practicalities in some parts of the business of not being able to do that as easily as others,” Rowan says.  

Up next: The back-end integration work, what the marketing playbook is about, and the important leadership lessons Rowan learnt

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Back-end integration work

Well before rebrand work commenced, NTT had been building group-wide blueprints and preferred vendor relationships to achieve alignment and consistency around platforms. But again, things can switch overnight.

“Some things take a long time – the contracts in place with legacy vendors can run for up to three years. It’s sadly not as simple as just turning the switch on 1 October; it’ll take 2-3 years in some instances to finish the integration,” Rowan comments.  

“A great example is the websites. We have 28 different businesses using websites for very different things. Sometimes it’s just an online library of what the company does with some nurturing capability; some websites are very transactional and feeding the majority of leads going into the business. Making sure we migrate in a way that maintains existing business, builds equity but enables us to migrate 28 different Web platforms, will take 2-3 years.”

What’s more, while some businesses in the family are managed services and derive revenue from annuity streams; some are counter opposite.

“That’s why the principle of do not harm is so important. Our intention is to grow our business as we do this and make it easier for clients to do business with us as a company,” Rowan says.  

“We have great best practices around the organisation and we’re trying to adopt those across the new company, and we’ve also identified some ways of working that do need to change. We are quickly standing up a common blueprint, not just for technology but an operating model on how we work, standards we sign up to and how we want to operate in terms of client and employee experience.”  

Marketing playbook

On the marketing execution front, meanwhile, keeping everything switched on while the rebrand rolls out and is embedded is vital. One thing Rowan describes as “lucky” was following up official news of the global rebrand on 1 July by rebranding Dimension Data’s existing Tour de France sponsorship and technology partnership to NTT, kicking off five days later.

“It was the fifth year of that partnership, and that gave us the platform to quickly communicate with all the market but also many clients and people, that the brand had changed,” Rowan says.

This was supported by advertising in media such as The Economist and microsite explaining what NTT was, as well as an ebook on the technology NTT supplied around Tour de France.

“It was a simple, quick way of communicating the launch of NTT internationally and in this case, the migration of DiData to NTT as a brand. We used that sponsorship as well to engage a lot of our employees to do client engagement work over July and August to communicate the change,” Rowan says.  

For the next six months, the emphasis is on increasing visibility. Rowan says the market will see the NTT brand everywhere, all aimed at articulating NTT’s global proposition in areas of the market it plays in.

“We are in an unusual position in that NTT has been around for 120 years and in its current form for the last 35. It’s not a new brand and depending on which tally you look at, it’s in the top 50 technology brands globally,” she says.  

“But one of the challenges is where NTT is known outside of Japan, it’s known as a Japanese telco. Our business proposition is not that – we’re a global tech services provider. So we have to make sure we’re not only building the brand, but building it for what we want to be famous for and the attributes such a brand needs to have – the impact on society, fact we’re very client-centric, and are innovative.”  

Fortunately, existing activity globally can help communicate the brand ‘launch’. Rowan notes the recent ‘hello’ campaign as another way of introducing the market to group NTT.

“As we balance with our long-term objectives, very quickly you’ll start to see a stable of stories that represent the brand we are trying to build, against those core pillars of our framework,” she says. “We all know content is king, and brands are built on stories and by people.”

Green shoots

Seven weeks after launch, NTT has seen a huge amount of interest, led by the Tour de France activation, and Rowan sites increases in traffic to website and microsite.

“Early indications certainly indicate it’s being received positively,” she says. “We are also obsessively monitoring employee satisfaction – we do a pulse survey daily monitoring how engaged people are, how they are feeling, and what they are worrying about. And we’re having regular client conversations to test the messaging, understand what we need to explain, reprioritise what messages we put forward to better engage and in our campaigns.”

From 1 October, all countries will be rebranding, and full leadership appointments will be announced.

“Then we’ll ramp up client-facing activity to make sure all clients understand what is changing but importantly, what’s not changing,” Rowan says. “We often get that balance wrong as marketers – we get so excited about the new things, we forget to focus on the things that fundamentally stay the same.”

Leadership lessons

Through the work so far, Rowan says one lesson she’s learnt is around the importance of people.

“The strength and ability of any organisation to get things done is your people,” she says. “If you can be transparent about what you’re trying to achieve, and clear on what you can be clear on, bringing people together and empowering them to do the world and input, is the most powerful thing you can do.”   

The second lesson is you can never communicate enough. “In marketing and communications, we often get a bit bored with our own message and like to move on quickly,” Rowan admits.

“One thing I’ve seen, particularly when you’re dealing with a complex integration like this one, is it takes time for a message to be heard, and to be understood. Then it takes time for you to listen to the answer.

“There is always that slight disconnect when you say something to someone – as simple as migrating a website means different things to different people. You need to understand what’s been understood.”

But equally, you have to be ambitious. “If you don’t have ambition, you’ll end up compromising too much - whether it’s on a deadline for launch, or clarity of the message you think is important,” Rowan concludes.

“People need to be heard, but as a leader, you have to have that ambition. Otherwise the compromise ultimately won’t work for the company.”

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