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Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: Lessons from Branding a Spin-off Business


Wolff Olins chats with Kelly Vives, CMCO of Allspring Global Investments

Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: Lessons from Branding a Spin-off Business

In 2021, Wolff Olins completed a project with asset management firm Allspring Global Investments, creating a new company name, brand strategy, and identity, in preparation for its spin-off from Wells Fargo.

In the first of a new series of interviews, where we sit down with marketers from brands that have faced a major inflection point, Aaron Smith, Global Principal, Strategy, at Wolff Olins, talks to Allspring’s chief marketing and communications officer, Kelly Vives, on the one-year anniversary of the spin-off, to discuss how she approached this challenge and what she has learned from the experience.


Wolff Olins> Hi Kelly, we’re excited to learn about the journey that you went on at Allspring and hear about the inflection point that you faced as a company.

We know it was in the middle of the pandemic, and there were a lot of time constraints. So perhaps you can start by telling us about the climate and the conditions with which you needed to do the spin off?

Kelly Vives> I think we all look back and think about 2020 as a massively disruptive year, personally and professionally. Within marketing, everything had to pivot to digital, and there was a reliance on strong, effective, and timely communications with clients and employees. There were times we were putting out daily communications based on macro and market moves. Coordinating these efforts across the firm was a tall task and all within an at-home environment. 

Then in late 2020, Wells Fargo made a strategic decision to divest several business units that were not core to their consumer driven business model. In February 2021, it was announced that Wells Fargo Asset Management was going to be acquired by two private equity firms.

As a business, we viewed this as a tremendous opportunity to build an independent asset management company from scratch…but with scale. So, it was the beginning of a new chapter for the firm. However, this undertaking wasn't for the faint of heart and it took us about eight months for us to carve out of the bank and launch Allspring as a new company in November 2021.

Wolff Olins> Let's talk a little bit more about the spin off. You had a really exciting opportunity to create a standalone company. Can you tell us about the hopes that you and the leadership team had for the business, brand, and culture?  

Kelly> We talked about building a brand for the ages, that was our number one goal - one that is memorable, inspires and uplifts, and signals a change to our clients, to the industry, and to the broader market.

Both private equity firms and our new chairman, who's now our CEO, believe in the power of branding and marketing. So, they understood that this was a pivotal moment for us to get the brand name right and to also bring our clients and employees along with us on the journey.

From a business perspective, we knew we had to get the basics right, so that we could close the transaction and fly on our own; this was equally as important as keeping an eye on the future and our bigger strategic vision.

As far as our culture and building out our infrastructure are concerned, we're undergoing a transformation and addressing how we can be fit for purpose as a 1,500-person organization that’s been carved out of an almost 300,000-person organization. We like to refer to Allspring as a ‘startup at scale’, and this concept resonates with a lot of people.

At this point in my career, this has been an exciting opportunity. To have a startup mentality with the ability to start from scratch in certain areas, but on the other side to have an established business of approximately $500 billion client base and strong portfolio management teams that have long track records. It's a unique opportunity.

Wolff Olins> You make it sound easy, but can you tell us about some of the obstacles or challenges you faced along the way?

Kelly> It was most certainly not easy. I'd say the naming of the firm and the timeline of the rebranding were, for us, the hardest pieces.

Obviously with the timeline, eight months for an M&A transaction of this size was pretty aggressive. When I think about some of the bodies of work that my team was involved in, such as the naming process - of which Wolff Olins was a part of, too - as stakeholders we all underestimated the process.

We wanted something fresh, different, and inspiring, but we also had to ensure it was legally available in over 40 jurisdictions, had a strong chance of achieving a successful trademark, and also a name that doesn’t translate to something else in other languages.

I remember speaking at one of our town halls as we were bringing the company along with us, and I likened it to naming a child, but you must select a name that nobody else in the world is named. So, it's a seemingly impossible task.

We came to recognise the process was a true blend of art and science. It took longer than we thought, but we went along with the ups and downs of the journey. I firmly believe it ended in the right place and couldn’t imagine another name for the firm today.

Wolff Olins> I know from having a little bit of first-hand knowledge that you have a lot of deeply entrenched teams with strong legacies. Can you talk us through some of the challenges you faced on the cultural side of things?

Kelly> At Allspring, we have a strong and unique culture that is a reflective mosaic of our history as a company. Different people process change differently, so we had to ensure we brought people on the journey and adapted where we needed to in our strategy. 

There are the employees who have been here for a long time and provide critically important foundational elements for our culture. Many employees throughout the transition period wanted to see change, understood the value, and were flexible to be part of the shift. There are also employees who are relatively new, me included, that have made a choice to come here to stimulate that change, continue to navigate the change, and see the opportunity coming from an outside perspective. The power is in bringing these groups together and engaging the entire organization to play their own part in the change.

One example was with the name choice, where we had hundreds of names submitted by employees, and we could draw inspiration and ideas from our own people. And you have to remember, we were coming out of a period where people had already been destabilized and were navigating things virtually and managing working from home. What we say is we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And there's growth in the discomfort.

We're not celebrating victory. We're celebrating progress and each step along the way. But I do think bringing people into the journey and decision-making process was helpful.


Wolff Olins> What major lessons have you learned along the way - either related to managing a complex process like this or how you drive the type of change that you're looking to achieve?

Kelly> If there's one thing I learned, it’s that you can’t control everything. I typically like things to get done quickly and efficiently, and I like things to be in my control. And this just wasn't, but I learned to be ok with that.

When going through a rebrand, you need to let the creative process do the work and that takes time. You have to know that some days are not going to feel good. There were definitely some rough days, and I was frustrated. But with each day like that there were three days that were euphoric, inspiring, exciting. For me personally, I realized it's OK to not be OK during the entire process, but it's a journey that you have to go on to get to the right place.

I was reminded frequently that it won't be love-at-first sight and that some of the best ideas come from the cutting room floor. Allspring was on the cutting room floor and came off, largely because it was legally available. And frankly, it wasn't love at first sight for me. But now I look back, and I don't know what or how we could ever have a different name for this company.

Looking back, you just have to roll with it. Allow time for creativity and ambiguity because I do think with ambiguity and discomfort comes growth, reason, and thoughtfulness.

We also need to consistently ensure that we are all taking care of our mental health when we are consistently pushing so hard. There's a mountain of work to keep up with as we build this brand. I have three kids, but I joke that Allspring is my fourth child. Maintaining a balance between work and our personal lives is crucial to be able to sustain the intensity of the work we are doing here.

Wolff Olins> Well, you are raising that fourth child well, so I see the parallels!

Kelly> There's an immense amount of pride in what we've been able to do and what we still can do. But when you look back, pause, and think about it, it’s pretty incredible what we've been able to pull off in the past 18 months.

Wolff Olins> Were there sources of inspiration that you - or others in the business - turned to as you were going through this process, such as outside influencers like other brands?

Kelly> Yes, I really wanted to push to think outside of financial services. We drew inspiration from obvious places like Tesla, Amazon, Google, and even Starbucks, where it's not just about the coffee. It’s really about the experience.

We looked at Nike’s Just Do It - if you have a body, then you're an athlete, and I love that. It's a way of humanizing these brands and building a connection with people. It’s bigger than a company or brand. It's a feeling. We say here ‘our brand is only good as the experience of our clients’ and that’s just it.  We want to elevate the experience of our clients as Allspring.

I view my role on the executive team to push my team members and my peers to be more creative, to be a little different, and to think outside the box.

Wolff Olins> As you think about your brand and your brand purpose, how has that guided how you've thought about everything from the experience you're creating for your clients to the culture building internally?

Kelly> Our mission is to elevate investing to be worth more. There's an intentionality to ‘worth more’ that it's a little bit vague because it can mean different things to different people.

As we think about the industry, there's a lot of work that we have to do to be better - think diversity, equity, inclusion, sustainability, workforce of the future and how we can build for the workforce that's coming and the workforce that we have today and learning how to navigate hybrid working. All of this, while continuing to do what we do best, providing high touch client service to our clients and partnering with them on achieving their investment goals.

Something we constantly think about is how do we elevate investing? How do we go beyond what's expected? Investment performance is expected, but it's not sufficient. So, we think about inspiring a new era of investing and raising the industry together with our clients, with our partner firms and, frankly, with our competitors.

There's just a truly amazing group of people here trying to really rally together and push to do things differently. Because we have one opportunity to get this right.

Wolff Olins> What advice do you have for other leaders going through this type of transformation, whether it be a spin off or a massive rebranding?

Kelly> I say, it is not for the faint of heart and best of luck. But, as I said, it’s highly rewarding and worth it. Importantly, let the process do the work and build in time for creativity. There will be twists, there will be turns that you're not going to expect, and things are going to be thrown at you. Timelines are going to be delayed. But as I said, it's OK that not every day is a good day, and you'll look back and see it was kind of a patchwork quilt to end up where you were supposed to be.

Next, I think you need to be clear that there's a difference between a decision-maker and somebody that you're engaging or socializing the topics with - it’s critical to identify who are the decision-makers. But bring the entire employee base along with you. Tell them things in the town hall ahead of telling the outside market; give them a preview 15 minutes before the press release hits; look at ways to make the employees feel special and engaged.

In addition, bring in the experts, particularly if you're on a tight timeline. Different types of firms bring different perspectives and help to push boundaries and look to other categories for inspiration. If you're truly going to build something that's future proof, you need to have diverse perspectives at the table.

And lastly, just trust your gut. You don't really have anything else to rely on and I think instincts can really make a difference in leadership situations like that.


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Wolff Olins UK, Mon, 31 Oct 2022 14:50:55 GMT