Hans Mathias Kepplinger was Professor of Empirical Communication Research and (with a number of brief interludes) Director of the Institute for Journalism at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz from 1982 to 2011. He has been a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, Harvard University and universities in Munich, Tunis, Lugano and Zurich. In 2011 he was chosen for the Media Tenor Theory Award and in 2012 for the Helen Dinerman Award conferred by the World Association of Public Opinion Research. In 2015 he was made a fellow of the International Communi­cation Association.

On the subject of company DNA

Companies need a clearly recognisable identity to underpin their public image and guide the actions of their employees. It is this identity that enables them to adapt to changes in the market and develop new products and technologies. For all living things, this function is performed by our DNA. By exploring this comparison a little further, we can learn a great deal about the character of a company such as SIMONA.

PROF. Hans Mathias Kepplinger
Communication scientist

Back in 2013, SIMONA embarked on a far-reaching transfor­m­ation. As well as refining its business model, the company modified its sales strategy in Europe and began to open up new markets, partly through a series of acquisitions. What impact could this restructuring process have on the SIMONA brand?

Large-scale strategic realignment is never without risk. Looking outside the organisation at existing customers and new markets, there is a danger of structural breakdown – of creating so much diversity that the sense of unified control is lost. Within the orga­nisation, the friction created by different business cultures and changes to established procedures can also be damaging. As SIMONA has demonstrated, both these risks can be avoided.

In marketing jargon you hear a lot about ‘brand DNA’. What exactly does that mean? What is the function of brand DNA?

One of the ingredients of SIMONA’s brand DNA is the link between manufacturing technology and product development. This evolved back in the mid-19th century during the transition from manual leatherworking to industrial processing using steam engines and chrome-tanning methods developed by the company itself. It also followed the decision taken by Dr. Wolfgang Bürkle and Hellmut Simon to begin making plastic sheets on a leather press. The next big transformation involved expanding production to include plastic rods and pipes and various application-specific solutions, e. g. in the automotive and aviation sectors. The company’s product range today seems to have little in common with its background in leatherworking, yet it is merely the logical conclusion of a successful strategy of adapting manufacturing technology and products to changes in the market environment.

Can a company create its own brand DNA, or is it just something immutable that you have to work with? After all, we humans can’t choose our DNA.

We need to know where we come from. German companies enjoy a strong global reputation. That has been achieved by combining solid craftsmanship and modern production methods to make customised products. That readiness to adapt to new markets has helped SIMONA remain geographically close to its customers. The company established a subsidiary in Nancy and a factory in Madras way back in the late 19th century. Of course, there were setbacks as a result of the two world wars, but in terms of company development SIMONA soon picked up where it had left off and set up a sales arm in France. This was followed just a few years later by subsidiaries in Switzerland, Italy, Spain and the UK. When the iron curtain finally came down, SIMONA embarked on a targeted programme of expansion in Eastern Europe. Next in line were the USA, where the company steadily built up its market position and now has several production sites, Asia, including a manufacturing facility in China, and more recently a subsidiary in India.

SIMONA’s current market position and portfolio are merely the logical conclusion of a successful strategy of adapting manufac­turing technology and products to changes in the market environment.

How can you identify your brand personality?

You have to survey your customers and employees on a systematic basis. On top of that, you need your top management to be out there observing the brand environment and exploring their findings in greater depth. These twin approaches complement each other very effectively, especially when companies arrange for those surveys to be conducted systematically by an outside firm so that you get an unbiased picture. To interpret the results, you need to contrast the way your brand is seen from the inside and from the outside. Do the perceptions of your own employees match those of your business partners, the general public in those areas where you are based and relevant online and offline media? Those findings are important, not just because they can influence decision-making but also as an early warning system that can draw attention to opportunities and risks.

Is it possible to work out how strong a brand’s DNA is? How much does that DNA affect the revenue and earnings of a company such as SIMONA?

The strength of a company’s DNA is reflected in its revenue and earnings growth. However, both these indicators depend on numerous factors – the general economic situation and the market
environment in specific areas and individual countries – so you can’t separate out and measure the DNA effect as such. Having said that, you can get a rough idea of its importance by comparing your performance with that of your direct competitors.

That includes examining their strengths and weaknesses. Even in the B2B field, it’s clear from empirical research that decisions are influenced not only by rational factors but also by customer ties based on emotional considerations. This matters above all when people have to deal with complex situations under time pressure, and it’s here that your brand DNA can make a big difference.

When it comes to business growth, successful brands pass on crucial values to the next generation. What can SIMONA do to ensure that its brand DNA is transmitted to the next generation and to its subsidiaries?

In this context, it’s important to recruit and develop new employees and integrate them systematically into the company’s activities. They need to internalise the company’s DNA out of personal con­viction before you can expect them to apply it as a matter of routine. To that end, you have to look after your brand DNA and keep it fresh by means of regular presentations in-house and to outside audiences. All over the world, SIMONA organises numerous activities for its employees and encourages them to take part in social events such as company running challenges. Employees in every part of the company need to be clear at all times what SIMONA stands for. That is an ongoing and very demanding goal, but a hugely important one.