A couple of weeks ago, I attended Sage Summit 2011, Sage’s first combination partner and customer event. I’ve been attending Sage partner, customer and analyst events for several years, observing and commenting on its ongoing attempts to unify it’s corporate brand across multiple small and medium business (SMB) solutions. Earlier this year, following Sue Swenson’s retirement, Pascal Houillon took over the reins as CEO of Sage North America. I was interested to find out how Houillon plans to deal with what has seemed like an age-old dilemma at Sage North America: having many strong individual SMB brands (think Peachtree, ACT!, Timberline, etc.), but a relatively weak Sage corporate brand.
The Sage North America Branding Challenge
Over the years, Sage North America has added a myriad of SMB-oriented accounting, ERP, CRM, HR, payments and industry-specific solutions to it’s portfolio. In most cases, these solutions brought large groups of loyal customers with them. Sage has undergone many identity-building initiatives in the past, including co-branding all of it’s individual solutions with the Sage master brand in 2009, developing capabilities to seamlessly integrate Sage CRM, ERP, HR and other applications, and a concerted corporate-wide initiative to make customer experience it’s top priority. But, for the most part, Sage customers have continued to identify more with their individual brands, ala Abra or MAS, instead of the Sage moniker.
This has not only hampered Sage’s traditional cross-selling efforts, but it also threatens Sage’s Connected Services strategy, which provides Sage customers with online, connected services (both from Sage and Sage partners) that integrate with on-premise Sage solutions to provide additional functionality.
Clearly, for Connected Services to achieve it’s goals, Sage needs to make sure that, for instance, Sage Integrated Payments Solutions are the first stop for Peachtree or ACCPAC customers looking for payments solutions that integrate with their accounting software. In addition, without a strong corporate brand, Sage is at a disadvantage when going up against competitors such as Intuit, Microsoft or SAP.
Tackling the Branding Dilemma Head-On
Houillon wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room. At the opening keynote of the partner session, his first announcement was that Sage NA would embark on a phased approach to drop individual product brand names (again, think ACT!, MAS, Peachtree, etc.) in favor of the Sage brand. So for instance, Sage Peachtree Pro, Complete, Premium and Quantum would become Sage 50 Pro, Complete, Premium and Quantum.
Note the word “phased.” This re-branding won’t happen overnight, but take place over the next 12 to 18 months. Sage has lots of products and in many cases, product overlaps. It will most likely start with entry-level solutions, such as Peachtree and ACT!, and those products that have a well-defined space within the Sage line-up.
As important, along with the re-branding, Sage will ramp up existing efforts to create a more consistent user interface and experience among its products, and make it easier to integrate them. For instance, Sage will be incorporating Sage Advisor (first available in Peachtree), which provides in-product assistance to help guide users through tasks, resolve error messages and find functionality as needed, into more of its products.
Needless to say, all of this re-branding talk caused quite a stir among partners, press and analysts. In many cases, partners have invested a lot of passion in an individual brand–in many cases, partners had been selling the individual brand long before Sage acquired it. They have legitimate concerns about making the brand switch, and the new investments they’ll have to make in marketing collateral, web sites, etc. However, in subsequent sessions, Tom Miller, Sage NA’s channel chief, noted several programs already underway at Sage to help ease partners through the transition.
We (press and analysts) also raised a lot of questions about the risk of eroding brand equity that they’ve built up over the years for the individual brands. Several analysts also worried about the blandness of using a numbering system for product names (as noted in both Denis Pombriant’s and Paul Greenberg’s posts on the topic)–which I’m not crazy about either. And of course, there’s the problem that some products overlap with others–such MAS and ACCPAC.
But, after listening to the Q&As and debates, querying Sage execs one-on-one, and talking to Sage customers (most of whom told me they had no problem with rebranding), I think Houillon has made the right decision.
Short-term Pain, Long Term Gain
No doubt that Houillon’s decision will produce some short-term pain, probably most acutely felt by channel partners. But what’s the alternative? Former CEO Sue Swenson stepped in to stop the bleeding, but major surgery is still necessary for Sage to make a full recovery. In the long run, Sage needs to reset, refocus and re-energize the company for growth–something it hasn’t seen much of recently, for these key reasons:
- Although all Sage execs appear on board with the change, I’m sure that there are at least a few that have resisted the corporate call. This is just human nature–either inertia, the fact that an individual brand is doing fine as is, or that some people like to run their own little empire without a lot of corporate oversight. The rebranding and what’s underneath it–common look, feel and experience–should help shake out execs that are idling, and foster a more innovative and collaborative environment. Ultimately, this should yield more value for customers and partners.
- A strong corporate brand is key to the success of Sage Connected Services. Connected Services enable existing Sage customer to easily tap into add-on online services that give them additional functionality. Sage has about 50 connected services already available and coming soon, spanning HR, payments, payroll, tax, sales and marketing functions. For example, Sage offers a dozen Sage Payments Solutions as connected services to Sage ERP and accounting solutions, and several sales and marketing connected services for Sage CRM solutions, such an e-marketing service, as well as business information services via Hoover’s. But, if customers don’t self-identify as Sage customers, they may not even look at Sage Connected Services when needs arise.
- Sage needs a strong corporate brand to help its cloud offerings take off. Sage already offers SageCRM.com, ACCPAC Online, SalesLogix Cloud, Sage Payments Solutions and Sage Intergy on Demand (for healthcare) and Sage Billing Boss as cloud solutions, and several more are on the way. As more companies look to the cloud to deploy new solutions, on demand offerings will increasingly erode the sales of packaged software. Sage needs a strong brand to compete in this space and capture new customers as they turn to the cloud.
Or, as Benjamin Franklin said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
What Sage Must Do to Pull It Off
That said, Sage will face many challenges along the way. Here’s my take on what Sage must do to increase the odds that it will be successful:
- Facilitate the branding change for partners. The biggest concern I heard partners voice was about the money and time they would need to spend to accomplish re-branding. Sage needs to make it fast, easy and low- or no-cost for partners to re-brand their web sites, marketing collateral, etc. at every step of the re-branding process. Given Sage’s history of providing partners with innovative tools and programs, I’m confident that it will be able to develop and roll out do the same here.
- Put more emphasis and resources to make sure that changes beyond product name changes are achieved. Develop and provide Sage employees, partners, customers, press and analysts with a clear vision and solid plan for what the Sage portfolio of the future will look like. Sage has already made good inroads on integration across product lines, and needs to continue investing here. But other areas are fuzzy. For instance, when and how will it bring a common interface to different solutions? What’s the roadmap to roll out Sage Advisor technology into different solutions? In cases where there is product overlap, how will it rationalize this?
- Make the Sage brand stand for something and stand out. Simply using the Sage name to brand all of its products won’t be enough to get new customers in the door. What can the Sage brand represent? IMHO, Sage should piggyback on the Firm of the Future education it’s offering partners. This workshop helps partners analyze their existing business models, understand and navigate change, and build a plan to create a new business model to succeed in a changing world. Why not take this a step further and help its SMB customers become Firms of the Future? In almost every industry, SMBs are grappling with changes wrought by a global economy, increasing volatility and new technology. Everyone sees the change coming, but few even know where to start to get ahead of the curve and position to capitalize on it.
No one ever said change is easy. But change is inevitable and for Sage, essential if it is to thrive and grow. Sage has taken a big first step is in the right direction, now it just needs to keep moving ahead.