A new dawn after Skyfall

ACT CASE

Statoil was bought by the global convenience store conglomerate Alimentation Couche-Tard, with the ambition to become the world’s preferred retailer for convenience and fuel.

The decision-making process surrounding the change was laden with tough decisions, and eventually, the executive team decided on first the name, and then the logo. Then followed the work of creating a brand platform from within.

In the end, the project went from being about brand and governance definition to determining strategic focus areas to actually shaping the executive agenda for Couche-Tard towards 2019.

In 2013, Jacob Schram had a big idea while walking on a beach in Denmark. Recently, Statoil, the company he was heading, had been acquired by the global convenience store conglomerate Alimentation Couche-Tard, and even though this event had caused some disappointment at first, Jacob had decided to stay on board the ship like any good captain to at least weather the storm of the acquisition. On the verge of launching a new global brand, he’s extremely pleased that he did, because what a journey it has been.

Jacob was initially hired by Statoil in 1996 to develop a new convenience concept that was going to triple the turnover in the stores. That turned out to be a stretched ambition, but Jacob did a good job, and what he thought would be a short-term working relationship of three years tops turned into a long-term engagement that has lasted for almost 20 years without losing its spark.

When Statoil was bought by Alimentation Couche-Tard in July 2012, Jacob was disappointed at first. He had been the CEO of Statoil for two years, but despite his reluctance, he decided to stay in the position for at least 12 months and not make any drastic decisions about his career. “That spared me a lot of frustration, and it probably also helped the organisation because everyone was looking to me as the CEO. I stayed on board the ship through the storm”, he says. “If something like that happens, my advice would be to take a deep breath and wait. The company that I’m part of now is much more exciting than the company that was listed on the stock exchange back in 2010. I thought that was the peak of my career. It turned out it wasn’t”.

Jacob Schram – Group President for Europe at Alimentation Couche-Tard
Jacob is half-Norwegian and half-Danish, and he shuttles frequently between the two countries. He studied at Copenhagen Business School and started his career as a management consultant with McKinsey & Co. in Copenhagen. He met his wife at a dormitory in Amager while studying, and in 1994, they moved to Norway where Jacob joined McDonald’s to work with PR, marketing and branding. This is why you find the Hamburger Marketing University in Chicago among the educational institutions he has frequented. In 1996, he joined Statoil, where he worked his way up from Director of Concept, to Country Manager, to SVP, and to CEO when Statoil was listed on the stock exchange in 2010. Unconfirmed rumours say there’s a good story about Jacob and a Harley Davidson in Austria and that Jacob will often be the last man standing in the bar. You will have to ask Jacob himself about that.

THE BIG DREAM

After the acquisition, Jacob had several discussions with the CEO at the time (now Chairman of the Board) and the founder of Couche-Tard, Alain Bouchard, inquiring about his dreams for the company. A question that all business executives should ask themselves occasionally. “When you’re acquired, it’s important to make the most of the potential dynamics. Be open, with big eyes and big ears before you have an opinion about how to run the company”. With this attitude, Jacob entered into the discussions. He learnt that Mr Bouchard had always wanted to create a big company, and this inspired Jacob and made him think. In the summer of 2013, while strolling up and down the beach for hours, he hatched a grand plan. “I thought about Couche-Tard which had one station back in 1980 – and 10,000 at the time of the acquisition. Statoil had 2,300 stations and plans to grow. Couche-Tard was strong within convenience, our strength was fuel. Together, we could indeed become something really big”, he says.
But in order for this to be more than a dream, a lot of changes had to happen. Couche-Tard had grown exponentially — especially by acquiring competitors over its 30 years of existence. It was a company of businesses, operating five brands: Couche- Tard, Mac’s, Kangaroo Express (acquired in 2015), Circle K and Statoil. Jacob saw the potential of becoming one of the biggest and best retailers in the world.

But to do that, he needed to turn this company of businesses into one company. One business with one global brand. “I’ve always had a lot of passion for marketing and branding, probably due to my experience from working as a Marketing Director at McDonald’s”, Jacob says. That night after walking on the beach, he sat down and started drafting a presentation.

“The company that I’m part of now is much more exciting than the company that was listed on the stock exchange back in 2010. I thought that was the peak of my career. It turned out it wasn’t”, Jacob says

THE SHARED ASPIRATION

Jacob had to work fast as he was going to host a leadership conference for the top 50 people of Couche-Tard in Lofoten a few months later. Here, he wanted to lay out his plan before his colleagues. “To be honest, I think they were surprised”, he says, “as our previous leadership meeting had been more operational and less strategic. But my colleagues listened to my idea and engaged in the discussion about what kind of company we wanted to create together”. With the Lofoten Declaration, the leadership team committed to a new big dream. Their shared aspiration? To become the world’s preferred retailer for convenience and fuel. “Together, we decided that we want to be the best in the world. This was a huge step. I was almost in a state of ecstatic shock. I got the responsibility for leading the project together with the executive team, and I just saw the James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’ and I thought we need a big name because this is big, why not call it Skyfall?”, Jacob recalls.

THE TOUGH DECISIONS

The first phase of the Skyfall project involved big decisions. First, the executive team discussed whether it should be one brand, or rather one fuel brand and one convenience brand. After four months, everyone agreed that it should be one global brand. Second, the team had to decide on which brand, and then things got more complicated. “Everything changed from being rational to emotional. Even if everyone in the executive team tried to argue in a smart and rational way, everyone was completely biased. Including myself”.

Today, Jacob can laugh about it – he even thinks it was a good thing. “Because the discussions reflected that people had a lot of passion for their brands”. It ended up taking four months to reach an agreement. “We started by deciding on the name before the logo, and I think that was smart”, he says. “Knowing that we wanted to create a truly global brand, Circle K came out on top of our list as this was the brand with the biggest footprint, and it’s easier for many people to spell and pronounce”.

The next hurdle was agreeing on the logo, and now things went from complicated to difficult. Two camps formed: one that preferred the existing Circle K logo, and another that preferred keeping the owl from the Couche-Tard logo. “The owl had a lot of personality and a lot of history, but we managed to come up with an alternative, a compromise which was to use a fresh version of the Circle K logo. We needed a new look, and we wanted a design that could have elements from the other logos”. The solution? A logo that integrates the orange colour from Statoil’s logo and the red colour from Couche-Tard, while keeping the outline of the old Circle K logo, but with a much more contemporary feel to it. “The design agency did a fantastic job. The executive team has gone from accepting it to liking it to actually loving it”, Jacob believes.

THE COMMON PLATFORM

12 months after signing the Lofoten Declaration, Jacob and the executive team successfully presented the name and logo to the next layer of leaders in New Orleans. The team signed their next big declaration. “We had a name and a logo, but that’s just an empty shell. We needed to fill it with something. So we agreed that for the next leadership conference 12 months ahead, we would create a brand platform from within”. The executive team defined three focus areas for the work. The first was to finalise the design, which turned out to be a bit more complicated than expected. “For example, whether fuel pumps should be red or blue. That was one of the major discussions, but at least everyone agreed we should have one global solution, so we constantly tried to find this one solution, and that helped us a lot”, says Jacob.

Changing the signage, logos and stores of about 7,000 sites is extremely costly, so the second focus area was an important procurement task that required tactical ingenuity. “We created a mock-up in Chicago and Finland, where we had a big, full-size totem in a hangar with different variations in material and signs. Seeing it with your own eyes is much better than in 3D presentations. All the VPs and potential vendors were invited”. According to Jacob, this proved to be a good idea, because the vendors could see the magnitude of the order, which made them push their offers even further. In the end, the team managed to leverage the scale of the new brand, achieving a substantial discount on their initial calculations. “We totally overachieved our own stretched ambition. I think that was crucial for the wide acceptance of Skyfall, especially in North America, but also by the board. The outcome from the procurement initiative was astonishing. Simply astonishing! It confirmed that this was indeed something big”, Jacob says.

The third focus area was to define the content of the brand, the shared call to action that the customers should identify with. “It’s fair to say that we didn’t really have those skills in the executive team, so we needed to start from scratch: What is a brand? How do you define a brand? At one point, we divided the executive team into two groups that independently came up with almost the exact same brand definition – word-by-word. It was almost scary, but it confirmed that we’re made of the same stuff”, Jacob explains. The team ended up deciding that “let’s make it easy” was the business idea of the company – what every person working in Circle K should strive for. “Because if we make it easy, customers can take it easy”, Jacob stresses, “this is the core of our business – convenience – we sell time”. The other part of the brand concept was to define the tonality and feel of the brand both internally and externally. Here we see Circle K as “a new dawn”. “The idea is to look at the old brands and their journey like the end of a great sunny day”, Jacob explains. “Each brand had a fantastic journey just like the sun across the sky, and their end is like a beautiful sunset. The next morning, we wake up and there’s a promising sunrise. And that’s Circle K”. This concept is reflected in all the marketing materials, which use the warm colour scale from yellow to red, so you associate the brand with the promise and hope of a sunrise.

 

“We totally overachieved our own stretched ambition. I think that was crucial for the wide acceptance of Skyfall, especially in North America, but also by the board. The outcome from the procurement initiative was astonishing. Simply astonishing! It confirmed that this was indeed something big”, Jacob says.

 

THE STRATEGIC AGENDA

To make this promise more tangible, three supporting elements were defined including a number of proof points: fast and friendly service, products for people on-the-go and easy visits. Ensuring that a complete and consistent brand experience was created and that the proper governance around it was established were key priorities. At an executive workshop in Boca Raton, a game was introduced as part of the discussions. The topic was prioritisation, and each team member had to bet on his favourite proof points. “And in doing that for the three focus areas, we actually – without the team really being aware of it – started shaping the strategic agenda of the company because a lot of these things weren’t in place”, Jacob recalls. This became the team’s preferred way of prioritising global projects, and the procedure was repeated with the VPs whose priorities turned out to be almost identical. In the end, a number of more or less unintended benefits emerged from these workshops as the boundaries between brand and corporate strategy were dissolving. Skyfall went from being about brand and governance definition to determining strategic focus areas to actually shaping the executive agenda for Couche-Tard towards 2019. “It was incredible”, Jacob states, “what started out being about branding has now become our entire corporate strategy”.

The culmination of Skyfall was approaching. For a long time, Jacob had dreamed of gathering all his people. “At McDonald’s, I once participated in a franchise conference with over 20,000 people. The outburst of energy made me think my blood would turn into ketchup in my veins, and I was kind of half religious afterwards”, Jacob says jokingly, “I thought: wow, together we can move mountains, and one day in Statoil, I want to gather everyone to create that feeling for my people. It’s so great”. In September 2015, Jacob’s dream came true. Couche-Tard held 15 simultaneous events across the globe. The same set-up. The same programme, and at precisely the same time, all over the world, the new global brand was revealed. Jacob was in the Telenor Arena along with 3,000 of his colleagues. “People were so enthusiastic. So enthusiastic. It was a thrill to see”, Jacob admits with a big smile.

THE NEW DAWN

Within three years, the Circle K brand will be deployed across at least 7,000 sites, a common communication platform will be implemented and steps will be taken to deliver on the strategic priorities. The journey that started in Lofoten two years earlier has not yet come to an end in 2015, but it will change its course from here. Jacob and the team are indeed looking forward to seeing the Circle K brand rise from the horizon. “I think, when you look back ten years from now, you will say there was a company before Lofoten and a company after Lofoten. This journey has made us a truly global company”, he says. Skyfall has also been a catalyst for creating a united executive team with one common executive agenda and backed by all of its nine members.

“From a leadership point of view, this has been very interesting. Yes, this was about creating a global brand, but it was even more about uniting a team after a series of acquisitions. I don’t think that would have happened without Skyfall. When you spend days together, six times a year, working with this kind of agenda, pulling up your roots, digging a new hole together, planting a tree, nursing it and seeing it grow – that brings you together”, Jacob ponders. And the fact that this has been a true team achievement makes Jacob extremely proud. “We’re a big company with a lot of creative people.

There are many ways to reach a goal, but we have landed this as a team, with enthusiasm, no arm-twisting. I think that’s really the biggest achievement, because then I believe it could last forever”.