The engineering consulting company ÅF used to be associated with typical engineering stereotypes: stiff, introverted and timid. Not so anymore. Today, ÅF oozes cool. The journey from geek to chic took eight years, and involved ignoring all conventions about how an engineering company should behave.
ÅF broke new ground by connecting its brand to major sports events such as the ÅF Golden League and the Olympic Games. Connecting an engineering brand to athletics was almost unheard of at the time. Some people outside the company scratched their heads as they predicted failure. If anyone is scratching their heads today, it’s because they wonder why they didn’t think of it first.
Today, the ÅF brand is not only closely connected to major sports stars and events; it is also connected to some of the strongest trends amongst talent. As a result, ÅF has risen from 85th to 2nd in the Universum Professionals Ranking and has developed a strong employer brand. And no, they have not bankrupted themselves in the process. They have found smart barter deals to finance their play in the big leagues.
ÅF, or Ångpanneföreningen as it was called then, was founded in 1895 as an association for owners and operators of steam boilers. During the next century, the association developed into a global engineering consultancy firm, and in 2008, the name changed to ÅF. Today, the firm has almost 5,000 employees and net sales of about five billion SEK in 2010. In 2002, a new executive leadership took over, headed by Jonas Wiström as CEO. As competition for talent increased, it became apparent that the ÅF brand had been neglected and been allowed to grow stale. A revitalization of the brand became a top priority for the next ten years.
“We wanted to scrape the moss off the company brand,” said Viktor Svensson, head of corporate information at ÅF, and a member of the new executive team.
Svensson started by conducting interviews to create a benchmark for where ÅF stood then. About 50 interviews later, with former employees, competitors, clients and shareholders, the verdict was in: “We were viewed as a stable company, but old fashioned – retrograde rather than forward-thinking,” Svensson said.
The leadership got to work, setting out an eight-year plan to create a brand that current employees would be proud of and that would make the company the preferred employer of choice amongst ÅF’s target group – engineers. It quickly became clear that the very organization of the company hampered the plan.
At the time, ÅF consisted of 18 subsidiaries, all with their own branding strategies, their own staff and their own budgets. The executive team reorganised the company into four divisions, pooling recruitment and branding budgets in one, and – most importantly –scratched all brands but one: ÅF.
Next on the agenda was to find some topic or entity that would enhance the ÅF brand and increase its visibility. The choice fell on sports. At first glance, engineering and sports may seem like an unconventional connection, but the unexpected was exactly what ÅF was going for. And actually, many sports are very dependent on engineering innovations or technology.
First, ÅF sponsored the Swedish television network’s broadcasts from the 2002 Olympic Games in Athens. The element of surprise, and even disbelief, set in immediately.
“Some criticised the connection between us and the Olympic Games,” Svensson said. “They questioned what an engineering company was doing in a context that usually is reserved for shampoo, chocolate or other consumer goods.”
From ÅF’s perspective, the first sign that they were on the right track quickly became apparent.
“Many of our employees watched the games, and when one of them told me that her daughter had pointed to the screen where our logo was shown, and said ‘mom, that’s where you work’, then I knew we were moving in the right direction in creating a sense of pride amongst our employees for the ÅF brand.”
Next, ÅF set their sights on finding a person from the sports world that could personify the image ÅF wanted to have. In 2006, the choice fell on Sanna Kallur – a Swedish track and field professional athlete, specializing in 100m hurdles. “We spent a lot of time selecting the right person,” Svensson said. “Sanna’s persona was what we wanted to be,” Svensson said. “Cool, and yet wholesome.”
Of course, any endeavour depends to some extent on luck to become successful. It sure didn’t hurt that Kallur went on to win several medals in the World Championships, the European Championships and the Golden League after she began her collaboration with ÅF. Over the years, the partnership with Kallur has developed into so much more than just an image. She lectures at schools about inspiration, a winning mindset and mental training. She also lectures for ÅF’s employees during company events. Through her, ÅF has also been able to invite other sports stars such as hockey legend Peter Forsberg.
“Peter Forsberg spoke to 300 of our managers last year about how his success has depended on hard work and discipline, often far away from any glamour,” Svensson said. “And then he taught them slap shots for four hours.” The strength, focus and commitment to excellence that professional athletes represent is exactly what ÅF wants to project, both on future talent and on current employees. In hindsight, the sports connection proved to be the perfect way for ÅF to shake a stagnant image and re-emerge as a vital and energetic contender for top talent.
With the confidence that the Kallur relationship installed in the ÅF brand in Sweden and in the other Nordic countries, ÅF began looking for similar collaborations in Europe. In 2008, the choice fell on Golden League, the leading track and field series in Europe. ÅF became the official partner of International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and Golden League changed its name to ÅF Golden League.
“The new logo, that combined Golden League with ÅF, worked extremely well for us on campuses,” Svensson said. “We are not as well known out in Europe, and our logo standing alone doesn’t make enough of an impact. But together with the Golden League logo, students feel an instant connection.”
In 2010 ÅF took its sports collaboration to its most ambitious level yet. As partner to the Olympic Committees in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Switzerland, ÅF has aligned itself with the most well-known brand in the world– the Olympic rings. ÅF acts as a Green Advisor for the committees, assisting them in making the Olympic operations within each nation environmentally friendly. ÅF business cards and other materials now have the Olympic rings printed right alongside the ÅF logo.
So how can an engineering company afford to align itself with the Olympic rings – something that typically could only be done by giant consumer goods companies? Through barter deals. Sure, ÅF pays an undisclosed amount for the rights to use the rings, but Svensson emphasises that it is not as much as one might think. Instead, ÅF offers the Olympic organizations their services and expertise. For example, ÅF has supplied the Swedish Olympic Committee with studies on Olympic events from an environmental perspective, such as sustainable transportation of athletes. “Everybody needs an environmental advisor today, and we are theirs,” Svensson said.
The collaboration with the Olympic movement has brought the strength of the Olympic brand to ÅF. It has also allowed the company to tap into one of the biggest trends that runs through virtually every aspect of society: the environment. The timing couldn’t be better. Not only is society more concerned with the environment than ever but over the past few years ethical business practices and environmentally friendly business practices in particular, have become top decision factors amongst talent when they choose employers.
Furthermore, the Olympic connection has given ÅF an upper hand in a particularly desirable segment of the talent pool: female engineers.
“One of our objectives is to increase the number of female engineers at ÅF,” Svensson said. “The Olympic Games has as many female viewers as men – sometimes more.”
It is on the European market that ÅF sees its new frontier. It is in countries such as Switzerland, Spain and the Czech Republic where ÅF wants to clone its branding success from the Nordic countries.
“We are the new kids on the block in these countries,” Svensson said, “so we have a lot of work ahead of us.” But ÅF won’t stray from a winning concept.
The message will be streamlined, the resources will be consolidated and the brand will be one. Svensson emphasises that the sports angle will stay, and, he said: “We will never stop surprising you.”
Viktor Svensson, head of corporate information at ÅF