How an outside-in approach drove a 40-year-old brand's transformation
When it came to launching its new brand identity, 40-year-old National Instruments—known since June 16 as NI—had to make ample use of its new slogan, "Engineer Ambitiously."
Despite almost a year of research and preparation, the global tech company had to pivot, rewriting the launch plan in 30 days after the pandemic struck. NI’s first CMO, Carla Piñeyro Sublett, put it this way: “At the core of this statement is ambitious problem-solving.”
Sublett discusses how NI navigated the 11 months it spent researching, creating and training employees on the meaning behind the new brand.
How long did the rebrand take?
All in, it’s been about 11 months. It's been a very lengthy process, but a very thorough one at that. The first order of business was actually to build a team to do the work. I didn't want this to just be a marketing exercise, so our head of HR, our head of R&D, our head of sales, the CEO of the company and the brand team worked with an outside agency to do this work. The other thing we did to inform the work was take an outside-in approach, to really understand the landscape of the market and what our customers needed and what was happening in the industry.
What steps did you take to develop your brand strategy?
We spent a solid six months on brand strategy and messaging before we fell in love with a creative concept. We did research by speaking to more than 900 customers, partners and analysts, both on the investor side and on the industry side. We spoke to our founders, to stakeholders within the business at all levels, to new NI employees and to long-tenured NI employees. We really wanted a cross section of all of our stakeholders.
After months of research, our agency, Gretel, came back to us and said, 'You've got two options. One is very rooted in who you are, so it feels safe and it's comfortable. The other one is rooted in your heritage, but actually a big bold step into the future.' It challenged our strategy. That, for me, was one of the biggest moments of the process because it really did inform the strategy of the company.
What is the new strategy?
The language is “Engineer Ambitiously.” Our technology enables some of the greatest innovations in the world, but at the time we were an extremely un-sexy, dated company. We knew we needed to modernize the brand, the company and how we operate, but as we got further along in the work we realized, 'Oh, wow, it's our category that needs modernization'. That was really the moment that we realized we were long overdue to catch up to our customers and what they were doing.
Especially thinking about the times that we're in right now, everyone needs to be engineering and re-engineering their lives ambitiously. You could be a business leader [and] I even joked that I could say this to my children if they came to me with a problem. We really want it to be a term that resonates and can be adopted regardless of whether you're an engineer. At the core of this statement is ambitious problem-solving. What was super fascinating is that it translated into different languages, so folks really latched on to the fact that it resonates everywhere. We got the feedback from our global peers to keep it in English, and that was fascinating too.
Was there debate about changing the company name?
Interestingly enough, NI had a lot of equity. A lot of our customers refer to us as NI, so it's not as tough as it would seem. We're a global company and the term “National” doesn't really apply to us any longer, so NI was just a logical conclusion. At one point we were considering changing the name altogether, but the agency really strongly discouraged us from doing that because there was so much equity in NI in particular.
How long did it take to orchestrate the name change?
It probably took us about 60 to 90 days, cross-functionally, to assess everything. We pulled together a cross-functional group—about 70 people across manufacturing, IT, finance, legal, etc.—into a room, shared all of the creative, had them brainstorm in terms of all the different things that we had to consider for the name change, and then we began to do work streams. We started to do things like simplify the number of vendors that we used and streamline the packaging for our shipments. It was super fascinating and really fun because it has empowered people to actually help modernize the company and make a difference. Not only did we leverage it as an opportunity to do the work, but we also used it as an opportunity to be more efficient.
How did you choose the new color?
Color was probably the most difficult and controversial part of the process. Of the 11-month process, we were slowed by about 45 days on the debate of whether or not to change the color. We had done a wall test and learned that everybody in our space, with the exception of one, was blue. There was no standout whatsoever, so from the get-go we knew that was something that we are going to have to change, but psychologically, it was very difficult to bridge and made folks very uncomfortable.
We chose very vibrant green. Green means go. It means sustainability. It means health. To a lot of people, it means money. What was so fascinating about green is that, again, it translated over cultures. There was a lot of positivity around the color green in Asia and in Europe, as well as the U.S., so green felt like a very natural progression and very crisp and modern and fresh.
Why did you delay your original launch date?
Our original launch date was May 16, and we were going to launch at our biggest face-to-face conference of the year. But since all of our face-to-face interactions had to pivot to digital, we had to rework our entire marketing and media plans. It made sense for us to delay 30 days because we wanted to make sure that we were being sensitive from a timeframe standpoint, and we didn't really know where the numbers were headed. From a COVID perspective, the other aspect was we needed time to completely redo our marketing plans.
What are you doing to make “Engineer Ambitiously” real?
We have customers that we've been helping reimagine their manufacturing lines, pivoting from one industry to making ventilators, as an example, in a matter of days. We've been helping address this crisis, so it's not only inspiring to our employees, it’s actually literally what we're doing. We started doing message training in January that we’ve cascaded through the company—interactive workshops via Zoom or Teams meetings. We changed our values to “Be bold. Be kind. Be connectors.”
Some of those values are really rooted in who we are, but we wanted to amp it up a little bit. It's becoming part of our recognition and rewards process, so we've implemented it not just in terms of the rollout from a training perspective, but in terms of how we operate as a company. I've even heard my peers challenge each other and start to use the language. If somebody is hesitant to do something, someone is saying, “Be bold!” It's becoming part of our vernacular, which is super inspiring.