In laying $24.7 million on the table, and in kick-starting a six-month public bidding war through the Australian Securities Exchange, AC3 sent a statement of intent to the Australian market.
Driven by a desire to become a leading hybrid cloud provider, the acquisition of Bulletproof - over a defeated Macquarie Telecom - triggered a process of self-assessment and re-evaluation for the Sydney-based business.
Because as the contract ink dried, the delisting commenced and the celebratory champagne fizzled out, a key branding decision had to be made.
“We had every option on the table,” explained Stephanie Challinor, head of marketing and communications at AC3. “We had AC3, Bulletproof, a brand-new name or even a house of brands. We wanted to get as much feedback as we possibly could for this stage.
“We stitched together research from a few different sources, including independent analyst data, Gartner, internal intelligence, key vendor interviews and first-party data via a market research survey to customers and prospects.”
The objective, according to Challinor, was to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of each brand, through the lens of the customer.
“AC3 was all about the human touch in a technical world - a safe pair of hands as a managed service provider, primarily in private data centres,” Challinor said. “Bulletproof was all about mission-critical cloud - the original early adopter of the managed public cloud model.”
In recalling the early phases of the post-acquisition strategy, Challinor said findings from more than 100 pages of research were “clear” in that both AC3 or Bulletproof could work. But once overlaid with key business objectives, AC3 emerged as the brand of choice.
“The new AC3 is the leader in secure multi-cloud solutions,” Challinor added. “Our purpose is to make technology real, so we’re all about delivering tangible results.
“This purpose was probably the most debated aspect of the branding, we had so many iterations and I think we were just trying to fit too much in.”
With brevity lacking, the business was trying to use one sentence to say an “entire paragraph worth” of purposes - the square peg of a mission statement simply couldn’t fit into the round hole of the brand.
“We finally got to the almost over-simple ‘to make technology real’ quite late in the piece when I was trying to get to the crux of what wasn’t working with our CEO, Simon Xistouris,” Challinor said.
“I think I actually shouted - as frustration and cabin fever set in after about two hours of debating - that it just means that we make tech real and we get things done for our customers. That was a bit of a lightbulb moment for us, sometimes simplicity is better.”
The notion of merged messaging is not uncommon for the leadership team however, with the transaction coming five years since Klikon Solutions acquired all the shares in then NSW government-owned AC3, for an undisclosed sum in December 2013.
Fast forward to 2019 and AC3’s new tagline is ‘clarity in the cloud’, designed to speak to the provider’s key technology areas, including new software and data integration.
“It also speaks directly to what our customers told us they wanted from an MSP, and what they believe AC3 deliver – transparency, clear value and accountability,” Challinor added.
“It’s common to approach projects like this with the goal of determining your brand equity, but that information is only useful if you tie your value to what your customers actually want.”
The combined entity, confirmed to the market in June 2018, now serves over 1000 customers, with plans in place to offer cross and up-sell services across an expansive portfolio.
Born with different purposes, driven by different technologies and motivated by different markets, phase one of the integration process involved clearly articulating a new value proposition ahead.
Because according to Challinor, the official branding project could only commence once a defined go-to-market strategy was in place.
“I’m a firm believer that you need to understand what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to before you can decide the most effective way to position it,” said Challinor, who joined AC3 in October 2016. “The first step after the acquisition was closed was to determine our go-to-market strategy.
“Branding is important, but you can’t build your brand until you know what you’re selling, who you’re selling it to and how you’re going to reach them.”
Such an exercise was triggered by a market research project, as well as combing through internal data to extract the nuggets of information required to remodel the business’ strategy.
“With complementary services delivered by each business, and a combined service catalogue that was hundreds of items long, our first step was to get a good grasp on what we wanted to deliver to our customers now, as well as in the next few years,” Challinor explained.
“We work on a two-year planning cycle, so we also used this process to build out our goals for the next horizon. It was only after we had defined our go to market strategy and had buy in from the business, that we started to focus on our brand.”
On reflection, Challinor acknowledged that building a brand which reflected both businesses - and subsequently both cultures - as they came together represented a “challenging” undertaking.
“We have such a strong history as being the safest pair of hands in state government, but we really wanted to pair this with the innovative hallmark of Bulletproof,” Challinor added. “Again, the branding process had so many inputs and the internal engagement was crucial.
“The entire integration project was built with a bedrock of culture initiatives. We needed to start with a clear culture strategy as the base – it’s the most important piece, especially as every one of our people are brand ambassadors.
“Engaging their hearts and minds in our brand, what we stand for and how we do things is so much more effective than any advertising campaign.”
Consequently, Challinor said refreshing creative was the last piece of the puzzle.
“The look and feel of the brand has to reflect what the brand stands for, while also being engaging and unique,” Challinor qualified. “I really wanted to keep the bones of what we already had in market, but modernise it and walk the fine line between ‘human’ and professional.
“We’re a regular, relatable brand, but what we do is incredibly serious and important for so many government agencies and enterprise customers, so there is a fine line to balance on.”
With the entire process a “marketing led integration”, AC3 bucks the common trend of channel partners, partners more favouring of style over substance.
“Marketing wasn’t just tapped in at the last minute after all of the decisions had been made to update the logos, which is such a common misconception,” Challinor said. “My team has been involved from the very beginning, leading the project to build our combined go-to-market strategy, through to brand strategy and creative execution.”
In housing two reputable market brands, two extensive teams of experts and two technology portfolios, AC3 approached integration with the wider Bulletproof business delicately, in recognition of the size and scale of each party.
Acquiring and then absorbing, was not an option.
“This type of acquisition is not particularly common, we were two similar sized businesses with complementary services and skills,” Challinor said. “It hasn’t just been a matter of AC3 swallowing up Bulletproof – and we never wanted to run it that way.
“We wanted to approach the project as a blank canvas and we literally knocked down the blocks and rebuilt with the best from both businesses.
“I definitely wouldn’t call it simple – it’s been full of challenges and it’s been tough, but it we ended up with a great result and that’s the most important thing.”
Collectively, key customers include UrbanGrowth NSW, Atlassian and the NSW Department of Justice, in addition to Big W, Crestone and Nova Entertainment - to name but a few.
Upon closing of the transaction, both customer bases required communication and guidance as to the direction of the new-look operation, and crucially, its new value proposition.
“We did this through our go to market strategy project,” Challinor explained. “We used external research, had analyst input, market forecasts and internal intelligence.
“We ran about four workshops to go through the data and get consensus on where we were heading as a combined business. We didn’t choose one over the other, it was about integrating our complementary solutions to deliver a more comprehensive service to the market.”
Internally, Challinor said AC3 kept communication constant “every step of the way”, in a bid to keep staff informed and motivated during the process.
“We actually involved the entire business in various ways throughout the process, including surveys, workshops, fireside chat sessions, etc,” Challinor said. “We shared the decision around moving forward with the AC3 brand with the team immediately after the decision was made.
“There’s a great emotional connection with both our brands, so we wanted to be upfront with the team as soon as we could. It was also the most common question we were asked. We shared the final output of the branding project with a presentation to the team followed by a celebration.
“We have a more intensive communications plan which is about to kick off with our customers as we plan to officially launch the new brand in early April.”