The historic $16 billion merger between SBC Communications and AT&T, announced in January 2005, brought together a regional communications company and a truly national and international provider to create the nation’s largest communications company.
While SBC had completed acquisitions involving larger price tags and more employees, none was more important to the future of the company than the AT&T deal. SBC was not—as it had in previous mergers—simply bolting on a new wire-line company from a different region. Rather, it was shedding its regional status altogether, becoming a new kind of company and—not insignificantly—re-branding the entire enterprise with the name of the acquired company.
And while the AT&T brand had a historic legacy, the 130-year-old company was also seen as older and less dynamic, and had some negative associations, including poor financial performance, a series of business failures, and a recent decision to no longer market its services to consumers.
In addition to managing the overall communications around the merger, SBC’s longtime agency Fleishman-Hillard was asked to re-introduce an iconic American brand: “the new AT&T.” The team was tasked with making the AT&T brand relevant again in communications and now entertainment, especially to a younger generation that did not grow up with the famous icon.
The decision to re-brand the company would impact every stakeholder group and require changing the name of the acquiring company, its ticker symbol and its mark. It would require re-branding buildings, customer collateral, websites and company uniforms—a massive communications assignment, and a highly sensitive one.
The team had to research key attributes of both brands; secure third-party endorsement for a hotly anticipated branding decision before the public announcement was made; prepare tailored but consistent communications to a diverse group of stakeholders—employees, customers and stockholders of both the acquiring and acquired companies; and all the while maintain the secrecy surrounding the newly designed AT&T logo, which would be unveiled at dozens of employee rallies and media events planned for three days after the merger closed.
The communications served as the foundation for positioning AT&T as the company that would set the industry standard in communications, entertainment and service for the 21st century.
The communications campaign had several objectives: to educate key audiences on the brand change and rationale behind the decision; tom position the new AT&T as the premier communications and entertainment company; to generate pride and enthusiasm among employees for the new AT&T brand; and to build enthusiasm for and generate media coverage of the new brand advertising campaign, which was the largest in company history.
AT&T’s key audiences included employees, customers, shareholders, marketing partners, suppliers, community stockholders, media and analysts. The challenge was to ensure that all were reached with timely and consistent information on the decision to adopt the new AT&T brand and that the strengths and attributes of both the SBC and the former AT&T brands would transfer to the new AT&T.
The PR team’s deep research and planning guided all program elements. It included research to help determine which brand to select and planning to ensure that the brand decision and unveiling were as effective as possible. The corporate communications department worked closely with advertising and the SBC agency partners and branding experts on all key branding decisions.
The corporate communications team initiated a comprehensive process to determine and validate the branding decision through existing research from SBC and AT&T, new studies, and in-depth interviews with focus groups and more than 2,000 business and residential customers, employees, financial and industry analysts, policymakers and media. The data collected helped the team understand the positive and negative perceptions of both brands, determine the key attributes of both brands that resonated with these audiences and helped shape the brand messaging.
Research also helped conclude the brand decision should be rolled out in three phases.
The first step was to brief third-party brand experts and analysts. Following the executive-level decision to brand the newly combined company AT&T, the corporate communications team quickly provided background to and secured the support of thought-leader brand experts to reinforce and validate the strategic significance of selecting this brand.
Next came the brand announcement, with corporate communications, advertising and other key business units worked closely together to introduce the new AT&T. On October 27, the decision to keep an American and global icon alive by branding the new company AT&T was announced internally and externally, with an information blitz involving overnight media outreach, a b-roll feed featuring executive interviews, executive media briefings and an internal video with AT&T CEO and chairman Ed Whitacre explaining the decision to employees.
On November 18, , the day the SBC-AT&T merger closed, the corporate communications team announced in a news release that the company would retain the pre-merger AT&T’s “T” ticker symbol and would unveil the new company logo the following week.
On November 21, following a series of pre-briefings of key national media, the company unveiled the new AT&T brand mark with a full media campaign on the first official day of business. An overnight pitch team spanning the globe began reaching out to broadcast media at 2 am to share a satellite b-roll feed featuring the new mark, the re-branding of an iconic service truck and an interview with the CEO.
And on December 29, ahead of the holiday media franzy, the team conducted a round of pre-briefings with national media to drive coverage of the new AT&T brand advertising campaign. Through an elaborate online sitelet, sneak peeks were offered to show off the new campaign, including TV, print, Times Square interactive, online and outdoor advertising.
On New Year’s Eve—chosen as a symbolic date to introduce a new company for a new era—AT&T officials launched the brand advertising campaign—“Your World. Delivered.”—featuring the song “All Around the World” by British rock band Oasis and a vibrant color palette to represent the “sights and sounds of optimism” that represent the new AT&T, accompanied by another PR push to media outlets nationwide.
The communications team coordinated 43 logo-unveiling events across the country attended by thousands of employees, other key stakeholders and media, generating a significant amount of positive coverage. Employees had an opportunity to celebrate the past, but were also encouraged to look ahead. The team also produced a hardbound book for employees and stakeholders that stirred excitement about the future of the new AT&T while also celebrating the company’s rich history.
AT&T intranet and corporate websites were developed in advance of the merger close to reflect the look, feel and positioning of the new AT&T brand and went live the day of close. The logo was added the morning of November 21, coinciding with unveiling events.
The team continued to tell the story of the new AT&T brand into the New Year, leveraging the multifaceted, yearlong branding campaign, top-tier sponsorships and the extensive company re-branding initiative, which included more 50,000 vehicles and 6,000 buildings.
The effort secured positive endorsement from leading brand experts and analysts who helped carry the brand decision message forward to media and customers.
The resulting campaign was a success on almost every business dimension. During the first quarter of 2006, AT&T won more than 36,000 contracts with companies across the world and nearly 75 percent of all deals that the company competed for globally. In 2005 and early 2006 the new AT&T was upgraded by 15 sell-side analysts, representing 40 percent of the analysts who cover the company.
CEO Intranet letters detailing the AT&T brand selection and new logo were among employees’ most requested pages in 2005.
As of December 2006, the overall branding campaign, featuring both advertising and earned media, had moved the needle in how consumers and businesses perceive the new AT&T. Unaided brand awareness of the new AT&T had more than tripled over the course of the year. Unaided advertising awareness had more than quadrupled over the same period. Nationally, 68 percent of consumers believe that AT&T delivers technology that is relevant to their needs.
Media strategy and aggressive outreach generated extensive positive coverage and brand validation of the new AT&T with nearly 700 stories worldwide, reaching more than 13 million people.