History, it’s said, is written by the conquerors. Brand stories, you might say, are written by the acquisitors.
Imagine a world in which media and content brands acquired other media and content brands. Imagine, for example, Star Wars acquiring Star Trek. (Shudder.) We might be treated to this: “May the force live long and prosper in you.” Or imagine Chewbacca taking orders from Captain Kirk as Han Solo defies Spock:“Never tell me the odds, Spock!”
Yeah, it’s bad. But this happens every day in today’s content and marketing world. Whether we call our strategy the brand story or the content strategy or thecontent mission, our work to define an overarching set of narratives, themes, tone, and value through the content we create for customers is likely to be totally upended after an acquisition or merger.
In almost every company I’ve had the pleasure of working with, when an acquiring company, Borglike, assimilates another company, it changes the stories to meet its own aims. Most of the time this change is capricious at best. It repositions the content to satisfy its own politics, teams, or budgets. Or, worse, it merges the content together (as above) and just assumes that “together” it must make even “more sense” than before. “It is just the ‘company information’ after all.” Sigh. And occasionally – this is the scenario I’d like to explore a bit further – the acquired company inherits all the bad-story attributes of the acquisitor, and opportunity is lost.
Here’s an example, and a true story.
Geeks out there will remember Speakeasy. The company started as a cybercafe in Seattle in the mid 90s and quickly became a beloved alternative ISP. If you didn’t have the resources to have a custom domain, a speakeasy.net address gave you a bit of instant “geek cred.” To this day, the SpeakEasy bandwidth test is a benchmark for geeks to test their broadband connections. Mike Apgar, one of the founders of SpeakEasy, took that business to a startup called Ookla after he left the company in 2011.
I started my own buyer’s journey with Speakeasy 13 years ago when I signed up for home DSL service here in Los Angeles. In 2007, geeks around the country winced when it was announced that Best Buy was going to acquire Speakeasy. They went from beloved brand to (at best) GeekSquad status overnight. How would the story and content change? I kept the service – mainly because it was the only one that worked in my neighborhood – but I watched the tone change and the messages became more corporate.
Three short years later, Best Buy decided that the ISP business wasn’t for them, and a company that would eventually be called MegaPath (yup, it really sounds like a supervillain from a Disney cartoon) acquired the ISP formerly known as SpeakEasy. At this point, all semblance of Speakeasy was gone. The communication changed again.
Now, in a sense, the information available and sent to me was the same, but thecontent was different. Merged. Impersonal, cold, lifeless. Late last year, just when I thought the situation couldn’t get worse, a company called Global Capacity acquired MegaPath. Now the information itself changed as well. The monthly communication went from “Hello, Robert Rose, here’s the information for your monthly statement [list of charges and a few friendly links to the online portal]” to (I’m not even making this up) “Greetings, attached is your invoice [attached PDF and a full four paragraphs of safe-harbor statements about the acquisitions].
Here’s the thing. The business didn’t change this. People purposely changed this. There were meetings. Whiteboards were used. People nodded in agreement. Then somebody else with authority said, “Yes, this is better than what we had before.”
Mergers and acquisitions are a way of life in business, and becoming more so. The first quarter of 2015 is the most active in mergers and acquisitions in eight years. Chances are increasingly high that we will have to manage a content strategy into a merged entity. If our confidence is high that this is a possibility (on either side of that equation), we should really think this through.
Challenges in the areas of revenue, sales, legal, scalability and even culture are all very well recognized in the mergers-and-acquisition process. Leaders of those business functions are often the most valuable part of the acquisition process, and are treated as such.
As content strategy and content marketing become an increasingly large part of business differentiation, I believe that content strategy leaders will become just as valuable.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.