Takeover babble never child’s play

Vodafone’s bid for Mannesmann has resulted in both companies ploughing millions of pounds into offensive – and defensive – advertising. But will any of it succeed?

Corporate takeover battles can be the source of some memorable advertising.

Elf and Totalfina, for example, spent &£9m during their stormy affair before finally tying the knot last September.

Meanwhile, the banks BNP and SG-Paribas spent &£30m on advertising before signing their deal earlier in 1999.

Now we are about to witness another tempestuous courtship.

Vodafone’s bid for Mannesmann has prompted both companies to unleash international communications offensives to support their causes.

Mannesmann’s campaign ties in with the company’s catchline: “Think what the future could be”, reminding investors of the disadvantages it perceives in the proposed deal. Vodafone, meanwhile, simply communicates the terms of the offer and action shareholders need to take for the deal to succeed.

In Germany, however, the two companies have engaged in an altogether different exchange. Towards the end of last year, Mannesmann ads in national and regional newspapers depicted a solitary baby, coupled with the line: “Eine feindliche mutter w…re das allerschlimmste” (A bad mother would be the worst that could happen).

Vodafone countered a day later with its own baby, feeding from its mother’s breast over the strapline: “Jeder mann weiss: wer gross werden will, braucht eine gute mutter” (Everyone knows: if you want to grow big, you need a good mother).

Using babies as a metaphor for company shares is an interesting strategy, though in inviting shareholders to consider “what the future could be” some observers say Mannesmann has sown seeds of doubt in shareholders’ minds.

This is especially relevant given that the target audience – retail investors – tends to favour incumbent managements over “aggressive” takeover bidders. In such circumstances, the apparent reassurance of the Vodafone message seems more appropriate.

Whatever the case, the Mannesmann campaign may mark a turning point for German companies. With public share ownership on the rise and the actions and aims of corporations and managers increasingly in the spotlight, German corporations are compelled to follow the lead of their overseas counterparts in developing a consistent and credible corporate persona using a full range of communications tools.

Although naturally conservative, they will need to learn and adopt the ideas and philosophies of true corporate brands, in both the domestic and international arena, if they are to stand shoulder to-shoulder with their UK, US and French counterparts. It will be interesting to observe their progress.

John Shannon is president of Grey International

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