How to roll out a company roll-up

It was strange to read in Bloomberg and the Financial Times that 2023 wasn’t a good year for mergers and acquisitions (M&A).

Because personally, we helped out with a ton of them last year. And we’re expecting more to come – Datasite’s Mark Williams said M&A is “poised for a resurgence in 2024” in this article for Nasdaq

Roll-up positionings are gnarly – particularly for marketers. Because if (though often when) the shit hits the fan during M&A, it’s up to marketers to scrape it off the walls and make sense of it all.

And with roll-up positioning that’s a particularly messy activity. Because, like all positioning projects, a company roll-up requires you to find a single unifying positioning story and brand to take to market. But how do you…

  • Find the ‘real heart’ of a newly formed entity?
  • Stop your unified story getting watered-down to the point of failure as it garners feedback from multiple stakeholders?
  • Avoid becoming the referee of a company culture cage-fight between those stakeholders?
  • Create something that genuinely excites the market and the newly formed business (so they’ll actually use it)?

In this blog we explore four steps to help you scale these obstacles.

But before we jump in, it’s worth noting that a company roll-up can take many forms: the cannibalisation of one product to strengthen another, or the hoovering up of a lot of small businesses to streamline operations etc. 

For this blog post, we’re focusing on the “category leader play”. This is when private equity investors bring together multiple smaller (but promising) businesses with complementary capabilities — in order to create a full-service business that owns the space.  

OK, let’s dive in.

Step one: Lay the foundations

A roll-up is a unique beast with unique positioning challenges.

Whilst you should stick to your usual positioning methods and principles, to accommodate these idiosyncrasies, you’ll need to adapt your approach in some key areas. 

First you’ll need to create a decision-making group.

The biggest risk to a roll-up positioning is a lack of clear hierarchy. 

M&A processes are scary. You’ll have a wide group of stakeholders who want to know what’s going on. Partly because they care about the project, and partly because proximity to these decisions can feel like job security.

It’s a charged situation with a lot of opinions flying around. This makes it vital to set expectations around who will be involved in the decision-making. 

Doing this won’t eradicate tension entirely. The tough calls and difficult “No’s” you’re going to deliver mean there’s going to be friction at times. But setting expectations will settle a lot of minds – and stop you from diluting your message by trying to please everyone. 

A good decision-making unit is a small and focused group which includes representatives from each of the businesses in the merger. All too often, a roll-up will be attempted by working with a ‘focus group’ of people who ultimately have no authority when it comes to the direction. Then the work hits the big wigs and everything shuts down. 

Don’t fall into this trap. 

Make sure your decision-making unit is an empowered group of the representatives we mentioned above. This unit will be responsible for reassuring the wider stakeholder group that they’ll be listened to — but also for making it clear who gets the final say. 

You’ll also need to hold on tight to your authority.

Roll-ups aren’t purely a marketing exercise. But they should be a marketing-led exercise. 

Because despite the all-encompassing change that roll-ups imply (across your strategy, offering, sales processes, business operations, org chart, customer relationships and more) it ultimately falls to marketing to synthesize all that change into clarity – both for the (new) business and for the market. 

The trouble is that in a crisis, everyone becomes a marketing expert. You need to advocate for your own expertise in order not to get sidelined in the fray – as a passive bystander to the process, rather than as a strategic advisor.

It’s also important you know that the marketer or agency team can’t be the sole decision-making unit either. Why? Because you’ll fail to get the level of buy-in necessary for the new positioning to work. 

And finally, you’ll need to adapt your timelines.

This may seem simple — but you’re going to have way more conversations and opinions to consider than with a ‘normal’ positioning. So plan accordingly. Failing to understand this and its cost ramifications can quickly sour the process.

Step two: Set direction

Once the decision-making unit has been established, it’s time to start making actual decisions. 

The first part of that is finding your why.

Any positioning process is ultimately about articulating what a business does, why it’s important, and why this business’ solution is the right one.Then you’ve got to lay that out in a compelling narrative structure. At Velocity we call this the Galvanizing Story

But with roll-up positioning, you’ll first need to get everyone on board with the ‘why’ of the merger itself. 

  • Why did the Private Equity (PE) investors bring the brands together? Because you share a customer base? Because your offerings are complementary? 
  • What’s the potential gain here? 
  • What’s the risk? 
  • How do all of the above translate into a story that’s more than just market share?

This’s not only going to help you create a compelling angle for your outward marketing, it’s also going to help you galvanize internal folks around the project too.

Once again, it’s not an easy process. 

The next thing on your list is to gauge the appetite for change.

This is a vital stage, where you as a marketer need to get the answers to a couple of big questions:

Are the stakeholders ready to push for a transformative and bold story that will let them own the category (as most PE folks will want them to)? 

Or are they really looking for a light-touch narrative thread to wrap around the stories they already have (because the imperative is to not spook the major customers their business models are built around)? 
Knowing this before you get into actual positioning work will allow you to understand the task ahead – and save you a lot of uphill-idea-pushing later.

Step three: Setting expectations

Just as you’re having to adjust your process as a marketer, so will the businesses you’re working with — and it’ll be your responsibility to explain that. 

The first part of that is explaining there’s no silver bullet.

There’s no one story, one new brand name, one new tagline that will unite everyone. As our CEO puts it, “there are no great names, only great companies.”

Which means people outside of the decision-making unit need to know they’ll be asked for validation, not permission. 

At times, that might mean changing the conversation from whether or not people like it or not, to whether it works in achieving the goals we want it to.

The next bit is communicating that you can’t include everything

This means you can’t give every key feature of all the multiple products you’re synthesizing equal priority. 

This is not about creating a Swiss Army Knife positioning. It’s about finding the sharpest, most compelling throughline. In fact, roll-up positionings are a great opportunity for simplification — to jettison parts of the story or the offer that are old, unclear, or underperforming.

You’ll also need to get everyone on board with the idea that customer input will be vital for this to work. 

Customer input is important in any positioning process — but with a roll-up it’s absolutely fundamental. 

This is where you can reveal the kinds of common obstacles, needs, wants, and hopes that will unite the disparate offerings you’re trying to bring together. 

Finally, you need to set expectations that this is a journey. 

Roll-ups are complex and multi-faceted and you won’t nail every element of it in the first push. 

Finding an authentic, compelling, and outside-in angle that connects the newly-merged businesses — requires iteration. You need to explain that to everyone involved and make sure they get it. 

Of course you can reassure them that the end result will be a shared story they can circle their wagons around. But make sure all sides know that something this complex doesn’t just happen overnight.

Step four: Push the envelope 

Here’s where the hardest and most fun bit starts — forging the new positioning. 

The reasons it’s fun are clear (breaking new ground, getting creative etc.) but it’s also where it gets very difficult because you’ll need to hold your nerve as tightly as you can. 

Put your hierarchy to work.

If you want to create the kind of story that’s bold enough to genuinely say something new, stand out, own a category, and inspire customers — you’re going to have to make some tough calls. 

At this stage of the process, that often means reiterating and reaffirming the decision-making hierarchy you laid out at the beginning. And your position as the strategic advisor. 

If you don’t, you’ll lose your authority here and could end up with:

  • A story that delights and offends no one — because it’s had all its sharp edges taken out through a slow process of blandification (AKA wave after wave of notes). 
  • A story is choked with complexity because it’s an amalgam of every idea from every stakeholder. 

As a wise man once said: “a camel is a horse decided by committee.” 

Next, you’re going to have to stick to your guns.

With a roll-up positioning you’re going beyond what people know — because this is new — and that’s going to challenge them at times. But it’s vital that you stay the course and keep the goal in mind (even when that gets tough). Because otherwise you can easily end up with a roll-up positioning that’s the one thing it should never be — a mish-mash of pre-existing marketing components. 

Marketing is at its best when it simplifies and inspires — so be brave, guide your stakeholders to that realization, and be really wary of letting legacy or heritage strangle new ideas. 

Some moves you can make here to help this process:

  • Romance the problem:  Identify a unified issue that the customer-base is struggling with — name it — and find a compelling angle for why this is such a big problem for the market (whether they know about it or not).
  • Name the solution: Once you have identified a new obstacle — find your unique solution to that problem. What is the antidote to the issues you’ve created?
  • Create a category: In some situations, you can name an entirely new category within your market and own that.

At this point of the process, lean on your customers. 

Once you start naming things, you’re going to get stakeholder pushback. 

But if you can validate your choices with customer input, you’ll be able to show two things. 

  1. That your new story is not only grounded in research.
  2. That it’s made up of elements that exist in the market already…ones that are waiting to be named.

Another perhaps unexpected source of reinforcement will come from the Private Equity folks. These are often the people leading the charge for something new, dynamic, and bold. 

In many cases, they don’t have the sentimental attachment to legacy marketing – which means you can use their input to help you push the envelope.

Finally, be bold and set a target for launch. 

Once there is a date set, you have a target. 

This will help you keep momentum. If the process is open ended, stakeholders are more inclined to believe that the silver bullet does exist – and that you just haven’t looked hard enough yet. 

So you’ll need to strike the balance. Fast enough to stop doubt creeping in. Slow enough to avoid spooking stakeholders.

And that’s it. 

Roll-up positionings are gnarly (but rewarding) processes, full of tricky decisions. 

If you want yours to succeed, it’s vital that you start off by creating a clear hierarchy for how those decisions will be made. That you find the why for the roll-up itself. And that you get everyone onboard with the fact that it’s a journey. 

Remember, you as a marketer need to ensure the process is seen as a marketing exercise and protect your authority as the expert in the room. That’s the key to creating a story that really knocks down doors. One that genuinely gets your brand remembered and allows you to own a category.  

As author Patrick Ness puts it… ‘Stories are wild creatures… When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’

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