There are plenty of Irish SMEs out there that are doing brilliant things and have a vibrant culture – but you just would never think it from looking at them. However, because they may be trading quite well, they don't appreciate how much not having a vibrant brand hurts them.
But in terms of that first impression of potential customers, partners and employees - and morale of existing staff - it really does cost them. Even in industries that are not traditionally highly branded, the cost of coming across as 'dowdy' are high.
CJK is one of Ireland’s leading electrical engineering firms, founded 21 years ago by Conor J. Kearney. Apart from having one of the best nicknames going (Chilli*), Conor has built a very successful company with an incredible culture.
Soon after I starting to work with Conor and his team, I knew that they had a great story to tell. But they weren’t telling it much at all and their brand looked outdated. At the time, it didn’t seem like that much of an issue to senior management. Business was good and the construction market was rebounding well. Their main issue was being able to get enough skilled staff to meet contractual commitments.
But there was a second underlying issue. When Damien Petticrew joined the company as MD, they undertook a strategic review. Having come through a savage recession, they feared what might happen the next time. They could be exposed unless they did something about it. They realised that they would be better protected if they had climbed a tier in the industry and had a great brand by the time it happened. Whilst I had been telling them their brand was letting them down, now they wanted to do something about it.
Getting to the brand fundamentals through the branding process
I introduced Joan Tallon (MD of Bossanova, a brilliant branding and design agency that we work closely with) to the team and we worked together to remake their look and feel. An often-underestimated by-product of our branding process is its strategic value. We ask some fundamental questions that force clients to think about their company. The upshot is that senior management gets on the same page as far as their vision of the future, their culture and their brand are concerned - hugely valuable in and of itself.
Along the way we identified a few things that make the company special – specialisation, a flat structure, a caring attitude and a bit of craic – that needed to be brought out in our messaging.
A fresh look changes everything
The new identity involved custom lettering and the dropping of the word 'engineering' from their name. A fresh palette complemented the new style. We told them to have the confidence to just be CJK. Why? Because it facilitated a cleaner, sleeker look and they were already known to those that they wanted to be known to. Theirs wasn’t so much an awareness issue, but a perception one.
Prospective customers now view the company differently on first viewing. Whilst reputation and word of mouth are critical in this industry, it certainly helps if your brand reinforces a positive initial impression rather than diminishes it.
But the new look also engenders a greater sense of pride amongst their team. When they see their brand being represented professionally and smartly, their employees feel better about their company and their decision to join and stay with it.
Culture is often the differentiator
Many business owners really struggle with the question ‘What makes you different?’. They therefore struggle to create a narrative that enables them to occupy a distinct corner of their customers’ brains. In this instance, we had a great answer to that question.
Many of CJK’s competitors do electrical and mechanical, whereas CJK specialise in electrical only. They also employ their own staff to a far greater degree than others do, in a world heavy with sub-contracting. Crucially, this means they can guarantee their quality. A new website clearly positioned them as the specialists in electrical engineering and brought out this competitive strength.
But it is culture, supported by a flat structure, that truly sets CJK apart. The company founder sits beside the trainees. No airs, no graces - but it actually reflects a down to earth ‘caringness’ that is at the heart of everything.
Since starting the business 21 years ago, CJK have always treated their staff well. Not just in the sense of paying them fairly and giving them good working conditions. They go beyond that. They want to know that you as an employee are okay, that you are in good shape mentally and physically. And if there is a problem they will help. And if you want to get on, they will absolutely help you with that, making out a plan for your career and paying for further education.
This video really brought home what it is that sets CJK apart.
As it happens, ‘caring’ makes business sense
The beauty of that is that they have very little staff turnover. People don’t leave them, because they can’t be sure they’d get the same level of support elsewhere. And that means that they have the same people managing their clients year on year. So, they get to understand their clients’ businesses very well and become part of their team. Which means their clients stay with them. Which means they get great references, which means they win new business.
‘Tis powerful logic, made more so because it reflects how they go about their business every day. And shielded from the charge of cynicism by the fact that they have been doing it since they started 21 years ago.
With a little craic along the way
However, they leaven it with a bit of craic along the way as well. Because that also reflects who they are. Here’s the invite we did for their 21st birthday party, hosted by Dr. Gunther Grun aka Barry Murphy. Which took a bit of balls for an engineering company to run with.
Two birds, One rebrand
The new look, messaging and enhanced content and social activity means their recruitment pressure is greatly alleviated and they can now grow as planned. But they are also primed to survive the next economic shock by having elevated their position in the market with a strong brand.
But don't take my word for it. Here's CJK MD Damien Petticrew's take on it -
"It was a calculated risk for us and there was a fair bit of debate amongst the senior management team as to whether we should take the leap. However, I am glad to relate that we are now unanimous that it was absolutely the right thing to do. We now have the platform to create the future that we want to create."
It’s great to be a part of their story, but I also think there are important lessons in it for many Irish SMEs who feel that they are not truly reflecting the great work and cultures they have created.
*Chilli Con Kearney