Siemens Healthineers sing away 120 years of self-respect

Companies should never express their values through song – or spandex-clad dancers

The Siemens Healthineers   was ridiculed online – and rightly so. Photograph:  Paul Zinken/EPA

The Siemens Healthineers was ridiculed online – and rightly so. Photograph: Paul Zinken/EPA

 

Up above the sky was blue and cloudless. On the ground thousands of people stood facing a stage flanked by screens and with a scaffold of lights and cameras on a crane overhead. Loud music thumped.

It could have been Glastonbury if you didn’t look too closely at the crowd, many of whom were in formal jackets and shirts. No one was swaying to the music. They were staring straight ahead, frozen. A few arms were raised bearing phones to capture what was possibly the most embarrassing corporate rebranding event ever.

Thus Siemens chose to tell its staff that henceforth its 120-year-old healthcare division, which makes sensible things like hearing aids and MRI scanners, was to be known as Siemens Healthineers. On stage a couple of dozen badly co-ordinated dancers in turquoise and orange spandex bodysuits gyrated to a lyric spelt out in giant letters on the screens: “Reaching out for more / For the best and never alone . . . One vision / One mission / One focus / One name / One culture / One dream/ One team” – building up to the mighty chorus, “We are, we are, we are Healthineers.”

The song dragged on for nearly four minutes after which the audience gave the sort of polite clap born of relief that something awful is over.

A homemade video of the event has been attracting much attention online, where hundreds of people have posted comments variously saying: “This is how you destroy a company”, and “Welcome to a more soul-crushing 1984”. Some are suggesting that GE, Siemens’ main rival, will be rubbing its hands in glee as customers decline to buy life-saving medical kit from a cheesy team of Healthineers.

I suspect Siemens will survive this naff folie de grandeur. One of the greatest mysteries of capitalism is the way that companies can say and do boneheaded things while their business sails imperviously on.

Even so, it has set an example to companies everywhere of how silly you can look when you ignore three basic rules of corporate communication.

The first says large companies must never turn to song. There is not a single example of a business putting its values to music without mass humiliation.

There was the terrible rendition of U2’s One at Bank of America, in which a balding banker pretended to be Bono. Then there was the Ernst & Young recruitment song: “Oh happy day / when Ernst & Young / Showed me a better way,” featuring accountants swaying and clapping out of time. The KPMG effort (“KPMG, we’re strong as can be / A team of power and energy / We go for the gold / Together we hold / To our vision of global strategy”) was ridiculed.

Songs are fine in church where the words tend to be decent and where people gather because they believe in the same thing. Pop songs are fine too, so long as the people singing them are either young or cool.

In corporations, any attempt to impose a system of shared belief is sinister, and as the average employee is neither young nor cool, songs are to be avoided at all costs.

The second rule is to resist portmanteau names, in which respectable words – in this case health, engineers and pioneers – are cut up and glued together to create something monstrous.

Recent corporate examples include “innovalue”, “sustainagaily”, “edgeunity” and “ideation”. Occasionally a company pulls it off: a few decades ago Bill Gates and Paul Allen created the rather successful Microsoft, though I daresay with those two it would have flourished whatever the name.

One stupid stunt

“One” is the biggest corporate trend of the moment: One Heinz, One Sony, even One Microsoft. Every company that wants to show it isn’t in a muddle launches a One programme.

What does it mean? And how can companies be so enthusiastic about being one, while at the same time banging on about diversity?

Explaining the new name, the chief executive of Siemens Healthineers recently held forth about “leveraging expertise”, “customised clinical solutions”, and the “journey to success” before getting to the nub of it. “Our new name . . . expresses our identity as a people company.”

In that case he has forgotten that people, unlike MRI machines, have feelings. They can feel embarrassment and alienation and are most disinclined to feel more warmly about their jobs after receiving trite messages at 110 decibels and watching dancers in orange and blue Spandex writhe.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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