The voice of dependability

When I’m asked to give an example of a highly focused b-to-b brand, I usually say Caterpillar. You don’t have to know anything about construction equipment to know their stuff is rugged and reliable.

But you might be surprised that fifteen years ago the company’s communications experts were fearful the path was headed toward chaos and confusion. Their carefully crafted identity was coming apart at the seams, one stitch at a time.

“Everyone wanted to do his or her own thing,” said former manager of corporate identity Bonnie Briggs. “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.

“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 said. So they enlisted the help of New York brand consulting firm Siegel & Gale, who worked closely with Caterpillar’s in-house 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 team felt it was very important to capture and define the company’s sense of oneness 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, a three-tiered system of guidelines emerged.

The first level was called “Uniform” standards, and is the one we usually find in a corporate identity standards program: logo usage, corporate colors, type faces, 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, tradeshow 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, a series of training seminars were conducted. “The basic seminar was originally two full days,” said Briggs, “but later we began offering one-day and even half-day sessions for special groups.”

Today, most training is done online. 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 communication 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 versus studio or plant shots. And they talk about using real employees in pictures rather than models.

In copy, the use of active verbs and strong adjectives is encouraged to convey the company personality. The need to make each sentence clear, concise and relevant is covered, and more importantly, the need to write from the reader’s point of view. (That part alone would be worth the price of admission.)

“We don’t tell people to use yellow and black,” Briggs said, “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 is that communications staffers are no longer spending their time as logo cops for Caterpillar’s 100,000+ employees.

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 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.

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