First off, this really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. According to a BuyBizSell’s survey, over 500,000 business change hands each year, and the gaming industry is no stranger to this type of action… consolidations and mergers are a constant source of discussion within our community.
So say the above happens…. as executives in charge of marketing for your property or company, what is your next step? Indeed, the list of compelling questions coming from a merger with competitors and non-competitors are numerous… What is the regulatory impact? What is the impact on the customer? How will we integrate systems and policies? What happens to the existing brands?
For the sake of staying in my own lane, let’s look at the question of the brands. With every consolidation, there’s a chance companies will acquire brands that are completely different from their existing core. Some may be stronger than the ones they started off with, and some may be much weaker. How do you decide which ones to keep, which ones to transition, and which ones to polish a bit? And, how did you handle a consolidation of efforts when you have a portfolio of numerous different brands?
To start on a positive note, buying an existing brand helps you skip all the steps to building a new brand and the costs associated with creating and launching something novel. If the business you are buying has trademarked slogans and elements that resonate with the customer, you’ve already covered a time consuming legal process. And if those trademarks resonate on a national scale, then you have something that could strengthen your existing operations.
But even if this is the case, at some point you will have to come up with a unified and integrated brand marketing strategy for the entire portfolio. Here is some advice on how to make this process as painless as possible.
Establish a corporate DNA: A successful portfolio integration will indeed share DNA, but to first understand this, you must define the company vision… your corporate DNA; a step that will help determine if a new brand can be easily integrated. This could also open your eyes to leveraging a brand you had thought of as a strong contender prior to this examination.
There are some casino brands in our industry that have already established strong and easily recognizable public personas…the data-driven company, the fun and friendly one, the one creating great resort getaways. Just to name a few. Take an (honest) look your company. What is your mission? How are the brands focused on the mission? Better yet, ask your customers what they think you’re trying to accomplish and how well you’re doing that.
It’s also a great idea to get an outside point of view on your brands and your mission. As owners of these great brands, we can often fall in love with the concepts we create and lose sight of the reality. Additionally, over time, the brands shift, often becoming something altogether different than what we originally envisioned, a phenomenon that someone outside the branding team will be more likely to catch.
Your agency should be a key part of the team, not only because they will take the journey with you but because their daily efforts expose them to brands in and out of the gaming industry. The insights gleaned are an advantage to us as brand managers.
Create categories that promise a distinctive experience: Now that you’ve taken a good hard look at your brands, spoken to customers and have some in-industry and comparative industry insights, you can start to understand the clear categories of experiences and start to develop a clear vision for your brand portfolio.
Consider the Marriott acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts portfolio in 2016. Marriott had to understand the categories of brands they had as a new company: luxury, upscale, etc. They had to ask questions of how well utilized the brands were and how well known they were to understand which brands they would move forward with. Le Meridien was a brand with an international name but rather underutilized… was it worth keeping and expanding or would they change the flag to something like Renaissance, which Marriott was building as its upper-upscale brand? The questions you ask about your brands will determine which you keep, which you change, which you update or modify and which will be put away in the legal files for some future use.
Don’t break anyone’s heart: You must always be mindful of the employees that have worked hard to bring the brands to life prior to your entry onto the scene. There was a time when companies would acquire ongoing operations and instantly deem them “our brand” without understanding the heart and soul that kept the brand alive enough to become attractive for purchase—the employees.
Additionally, as the heart and soul of the brands, these employees can give it life or let it wither and die. True story: at one place I worked, we thought of dusting off the Lady Luck brand; but the initial reaction we got was dubious at best. Basically, the most common comment was “we got rid of that a long time ago.” Once it was becoming reality, some of the folks around at that “got rid of it” time suddenly started remembering what a great experience it had been. Quite frankly, no one could remember why it had been put away with the legal documents. I never asked why the team chose to get rid of something that seemed to be working because I know what it’s like to be in love with your brand to the point where you think the only option is to rebrand an acquisition to the one you know like your own name.
Operationalize your brand: Your brand has to be more than the logo. It must live throughout your operations. When you can’t see a difference between what you say you do (marketing) and what you actually do (operations), that’s when you know you have a truly great brand. When evaluating the brands you are now working with, determine which best tell the story of the experience and ensure those brands can deliver on the promise you are making to customers, employees and stakeholders.
Brands are built from the bottom up: Let the transition begin. This does not mean merely changing logos…or that you must put a logo on everything that doesn’t move fast enough to get out of the way. Remember the employees. This isn’t about handbooks and training sessions. Tell them the brand stories that will become lore on your gaming floor. Then let your casino properties start to breathe on their own and figure out how to live it at the local level.
I can’t stress this enough. One of the biggest mistakes I see is thinking it’s about colors, logos and slogans. You must stay focused on the experience, day it and day out, and discover how to deliver that experience consistently.
Common threads: A final consideration I want to point out is about the brands that are going to be woven through and across differing experiences, like your buffet brand or your players card. These rebrands are often considered obvious steps, but you have to think about how those brands may differ by location. If you don’t understand those nuances, you will quickly find you have one brand that has a variety of different meanings because of the operations themselves are different.
Deciding what to do with a new portfolio of brands says a lot about the company and its vision for its stakeholders. It only seems right that this process be well-thought and appropriately executed.
This column originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Casino Journal.