Xerox shakes off legacy cobwebs and powers into cultural relevancy

Marketing head Anne Marie Squeo and agency partner Code and Theory on blowing up a 100-year-old brand.

The word "Xerox" is more than a brand name -- it’s a verb. 

"Let’s Xerox this file," and other variations have been sung through offices around the world since the company opened more than 100 years ago. 

It’s symbiotic association with the printer is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, the name is embedded in culture (surely every brand’s goal). But it means people have pigeonholed a technology firm housing a vast ecosystem of software and services into a one-hit-wonder, printing manufacturer.

"I don’t think coming from Netflix that I would ever envision that I would be working for Xerox, because I can’t actually think of two companies which are more different," said Anne Marie Squeo, who joined Xerox as chief communications and brand officer more than a year ago following a stint at the streaming platform in a similar role. "But what was very enticing for me is that, during my interview with the CEO John Visentin, he said to me, ‘if you come here, you have to promise me to blow the place up.’ 

"Who doesn’t want that challenge? It was basically, come here and revive a brand that was looking a little tired and irrelevant. And he unleashed me to do just that."

Squeo detonated several bombs on arrival, challenging some teams to start completely from scratch as they re-envisioned the brand and its personality. 

A move to dominate the digital space led to hiring advertising agency Code and Theory at the start of this year. Previous months spent toiling away on positioning meant they were finally in a place to nail down purpose and roll out messaging. They were ready to hit the green button when COVID-19 changed everything. 

Maud Meister, creative strategy director at Code and Theory, explained: "We came together pre-COVID and made some very exciting plans and we find ourselves in a completely different scenario now. We’ve had to change and pivot as a team and that has been a great experience because everyone has had to fuse really quickly. The brand is still very much committed to its purpose, which is an enduring purpose that’s perhaps more relevant than ever, but the way in which we have to connect people has changed significantly."

Most people won’t be aware that a huge swath of Xerox employees were deemed essential workers when the world went into isolation. The company was airlifting equipment to government clients in need of communication tools including printers for a surge in things like unemployment checks. Healthcare, as an industry, is heavily reliant on print. So teams swooped onboard U.S. Navy hospital ships Mercy and Comfort before they departed to Los Angeles and New York to make sure the vessels were properly equipped to handle the influx of people they would serve. 

You won’t see any back-slapping, "thank you" montage TV ads about this, though (and that’s a good thing in this writer’s opinion). There are two reasons for this: Budget and; a more humble marketing strategy. 

"We don’t have huge budgets, so the term I’ve been using lately -- which may not be politically correct -- is scrappy, not crappy," said Squeo. "We’ve done a number of things where we’re talking about the work we’re doing and how we’re supporting our clients and employees. But I think we’re trying to strike a balance to not overdo it and not come across as self-aggrandizing."

 

The brand is doing a lot of work which answers real-world problems behind the scenes. It’s made ventilators. It’s moved to manufacturer hand sanitizers. It’s teamed up with menswear brand Hickey Freeman to create and donate thousands of masks. 

 

Meister said: "The brand is not one that needs to go out there and say ‘we’re doing all of these amazing things’ and take credit. That’s one of the things I love about the brand. It has that sense of humility and is deeply-grounded and, in some ways, I think that’s what separates it. There’s a deeply personal and humble and human element to the brand which I think is very differentiating."

 

Nods to all this live on Xerox’s social channels, which serve up a plethora of high-quality content including short films worthy of a home on Netflix. (Maybe there are some talks which need to be had between Squeo and her old employer.) Storytelling is something Squeo’s built into the brand’s new DNA. It’s also a celebration of her past life as an award-winning journalist. She was part of a small team at The Wall Street Journal that published a series on the future of military defense which became required-reading for those working under the Bush administration. 

 

Xerox dove right into storytelling last year with the launch of a content series around color. It kicked off with a debate around probably the most contested color of all: The tennis ball. Green or yellow? Turns out it’s actually "optic yellow." The popular series continued this month with a look into white as a hat tip to Memorial Day.

 

 

 

Squeo said: "I think it takes a crisis to cause things to happen faster. And we haven’t had one as big as this in quite a while. I don’t think anything changed dramatically. And that’s interesting. We lean on storytelling -- that’s my background. It was something that was already in place. Becoming much more human and not talking about what a printer can do but talking about how it was going to impact the outcomes.

 

"A lot of the things we’d already put in place was the reason we went and found a Code and Theory as a partner and the reason we were able to pivot pretty smoothly. I feel like we’re -- on some level -- an agency’s dream client at this point. We have a very strong brand, but it’s almost a little bit forgotten for some people. But there are no negative connotations to our brand. We are a blank canvas right now in terms of redefining ourselves, and that is an amazing space to be." 

 

It’s a challenge Meister and her agency team have relished. 

 

The creative strategy director said: "We want people to understand that Xerox helps people in very tangible, functional ways. But it also helps them achieve their ambitions to dream bigger and achieve their goals in the workplace. Not just with printers but with an amazing ecosystem of services. In this time, Xerox will have proven itself as a company that helps all of us make this transition to a more flexible workplace. It will be here for another 100 years of being an iconic brand that has a special place in everyone’s heart."

 

 

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