Caterpillar: Let your personality determine your voice

Most faceless, image-deprived business-to-business marketers would love to be in the position that construction-equipment giant Caterpillar was in 10 years ago. But to Bonnie Briggs and her colleagues, the company’s communications path was headed toward potential brand erosion and customer confusion.

Briggs, who serves as manager of corporate identity and communication for Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar Inc., knew the company’s long-standing image and identity were in danger of coming apart at the seams, one stitch at a time.

“Everyone wanted to do his or her own thing,” she says. “We had newly decentralized divisions creating product names by the hundreds, logo contests proliferating among employee groups, even people adding elements to the corporate logo. It was totally out of control.” Especially popular were innocuous, seemingly innocent acronyms, which usually included the word Caterpillar. Unfortunately, when you put them all together, the company’s primary brand asset disappeared.

“Nobody wants to play logo cop five days a week. We had to develop a way to enable thousands of Caterpillar employees to do their jobs without undermining the strength and integrity of our corporate image,” Briggs says. So a decision was made to enlist the help of key people from the New York offices of brand consulting firm Siegel & Gale. Scott Lerman, Larry Oakner, Jim Johnson and Kenneth Cooke worked closely with Caterpillar’s brand identity, communications and public affairs managers to create a program that ultimately became known as “One Voice.”

A lot of initial effort went into defining and focusing the Caterpillar personality and its key attributes. A list of 20 words, including such adjectives as strong, reliable, genuine and serious, was assembled to help focus the mental picture people have when they think of Caterpillar. The One Voice team looked at other critical issues, too, like core competencies, primary audience needs and the company’s essential business purpose.

These were not easy discussions, of course, but the team felt it was important to capture and define that sense of one-ness and voice before it was lost. They also recognized from the beginning the need to give operating-level employees the freedom to exercise judgment and pursue opportunities without having to deal with a stifling manual of do’s and don’ts. To do this, they created a three-tiered system of guidelines.

The first level was called “Uniform” standards, which is the one usually found in a corporate identity standards program: logo usage, corporate colors, typefaces, package designs and so on. These standards are considered, for the most part, inviolate and are not to be ignored or tampered with.

The second level is called “Shared/Related” standards, and includes guidelines for dealing with shared or related graphic formats like Web pages, technical manuals, newsletters and product-oriented collateral materials that have a family look.

The third level is “Singular” standards, where the only guideline is making sure the communication effort fits the Caterpillar voice. This covers ads, capability brochures, direct mail, trade show graphics and other one-of-a-kind marcom programs. Obviously, this level is the most difficult to administer.

To facilitate understanding and implementation of the One Voice program, and to ensure buy-in among Caterpillar employees around the world, the company has conducted a series of training seminars. “Our basic seminar was originally two full days,” Briggs says, “but now we offer one-day and even half-day sessions for special groups.” Since the first seminar in 1994, more than 10,000 Caterpillar employees and advertising agency personnel have gone through the basic training programs.

Seminar attendees are exposed to copywriting and graphic image techniques that will help them successfully weave the Caterpillar personality into their communications efforts. For example, they study ways to achieve greater strength with photographs by cropping closer on a key aspect of the overall shot. They learn how to look for unexpected views, angles or lighting to increase drama and stopping power. They emphasize the importance of actual job site shots vs. studio or plant shots. And they discuss using real employees in pictures rather than models.

In copy, employees are encouraged to use active verbs and strong adjectives to convey the company personality. The seminar covers the need to make each sentence clear, concise and relevant, and more importantly, covers the need to write from the reader’s point of view. (Boy, don’t we all wish we could put a few people through that part of the seminar.)

“We don’t tell people to use yellow and black,” Briggs says. “We just ask them to consider which combination of words and visuals will best demonstrate our ability to solve customer problems. When copy and graphics don’t match who we are, it simply confuses the reader.”

When you think about it, many aspects of effective marketing communications are covered in the basic One Voice seminar. Plus, attendees learn who they can contact for clarification or approvals in unusual situations. The result: Bonnie Briggs and her staff are no longer spending all of their time as logo cops for Caterpillar’s 69,000 employees.

“It’s not that we don’t have problems anymore,” she laughs, “but rather that thousands of people throughout the company are now aware of what we’re trying to do and how to go about it. Most of my calls now involve appropriate challenges and legitimate exceptions.”

Another significant result of the One Voice program is that Business Week ranked the Caterpillar brand 79th in its 2002 Top 100 Global Brand Scorecard, ahead of such consumer brand powerhouses as Burger King, FedEx and Polo Ralph Lauren. In conjunction with Interbrand and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Business Week placed an asset value of $3.2 billion on the Caterpillar brand.

And largely because of the One Voice initiative, Caterpillar today has been able to maintain its master brand approach. Like many other enterprises, they learned the hard way that not only do customers have trouble remembering new names, but they don’t know what those names stand for. Now when legitimate reasons emerge for creating a new name, it’s done so with a realistic understanding of the investment requirements and the associated risks.

The primary purpose of a brand is to build an expectation, and customers know when the name is Caterpillar, the product is likely to be durable and powerful. In the construction equipment and diesel-engine business, that says a lot.