Home Archive September 2010 Profile: Andraea Dawson-Shepherd
Profile: Andraea Dawson-Shepherd
Sunday, 19 September 2010 12:52

The brand behind your household goods is no household name. But that’s because Andraea Dawson-Shepherd, SVP global corporate communications and affairs at Reckitt Benckiser, is taking a more targeted approach to corporate branding: Neil Gibbons reports

Andraea_2.jpgSometimes people and businesses just seem to fit. The individual’s outlook corresponds so neatly with that of their organisation that you can almost hear the click. And after a few minutes in conversation with Andraea Dawson-Shepherd, you can tell she dovetails with Reckitt Benckiser’s dynamic, fast-moving culture, in which individual responsibility is prized and new challenges are welcomed.


“I often describe it as a Formula 1 racing car,” she says. “All engine, all go. Very fast moving but no frills, and no cruise control button.”

On becoming SVP global corporate communications and affairs at Reckitt Benckiser – a FTSE top 25 company whose household, health and personal care brands include Nurofen, Durex and Cillit Bang – her priority has been communicating that culture and drive to the outside world, to the extent that she instigated a overhaul of the corporate brand soon after joining. Start to finish in six months: it’s as if the rebrand process itself was a demonstration of those brand values.

“When I arrived, I was surprised that what I found on the outside was so different to what I found on the inside,” she says. “The brand reflected none of the drive that I found within the organisation. It just didn’t feel like it represented a lively FMCG company. We needed to think about what the brand stood for, what its footprint was. Because the look and feel and tone all flow from that.”

Unusually, the brief wasn’t corporate promotion with the general aim of raising visibility – RB enjoys enormous profile in the investment community and among the general public, it’s “not interested in being famous”. It was a question of being known by, and attractive to, a youthful market that had little awareness of who or what Reckitt Benckiser was.

Of course, all this sounds like the kind of mammoth task that would drag on for years of meetings, sign-offs, committees and consultations. But, says Andraea, the fact “it went from nothing to implementation in six months” speaks to the dynamic culture of the firm.

“If you’re accountable for an area here, you’re expected to take ownership of it” she says. “Things here happen very fast. They don’t second guess you so it’s a very quick decision process.”

Today, the brand has achieved complete adoption and has already shifted attitudes. “People now say it does reflect the business. It feels modern, non-conformist and bold. When you see the total visual manifestation, some see kites, some see arrows, some see aeroplanes. But it really communicates ‘energy’.”

It’s fair to say that Andraea hadn’t always foreseen a career in corporate communications. She was a pupil at Parliament Hill Girls Comprehensive in North London, one of London’s biggest girls’ comprehensive schools but not one with a glowing academic reputation. “I was one of a tiny bunch of girls in my year to go to university.”

But with an aptitude for science in an all-girls school, that’s what she was steered towards, and pursued a chemistry degree at Oxford University, then Exeter University after jumping ship. And while this has stood her in good stead in her dealings with RB’s R&D team, it was clear at the time that she wasn’t a natural chemist. “I was told by my tutor, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do chemistry’.”

By this point, she’d already found another calling. A student during the rise of the SDP, she became heavily involved in student party politics and was elected the party’s student president. As with many active student politicians, this led her to a career opportunity in government affairs, with her later ending up in PR firm McAvoy Wreford Bayley, part of Valin Pollen.

Here, she worked alongside Anita Scott, now a partner at Brunswick.

“Andraea was always great fun to work with and her dry and wicked sense of humour always lightened the monotony” she recalls. “She is one of the cleverest people I know and I have always thought that she could have done anything she wanted. Her razor sharp intellect is second to none. I would never want to be on the wrong side of her in an argument! She is a superb manager – clear, fair and principled, non-judgmental, and she always has a grasp of the issues and is able to quickly identify what really matters.

“She is also really good fun, can be hilariously irreverent and has a wicked sense of humour. Despite all her great and obvious talents, she is simply a really lovely person.”

Andraea’s work there largely involved bringing companies to market, in what was a time of fervent privatisation. Thus she quickly gained invaluable experience in financial PR and financial advertising, which she then augmented with a stint in marketing communications for clients in the property sector. It was a steep learning curve: “I was being asked for advice on subjects way over my head,” she recalls.

Realising that she needed to get up to speed, she and her husband financed her through an MBA at Cass Business School before she threw herself into yet another new comms discipline: internal communications and change management. “I liked to try new things,” she explains. “I still do.”

She helped found the internal communications and change management consultancy Hedron. As part of a small but growing business for the best part of a decade, she was able to start a family while establishing herself as an expert in that field.

Which is why, while on secondment to Cadbury Schweppes, she was invited to join the company to head up its global communications function. “I’d done all the disciplines and they didn’t have a wide communications professional leading the team.”

“There’s no expectation to communicate simply as a result of being known. It means you can make more choices. We’re not given certain values that you have to adhere to. It’s more of a blank canvas.”

Chris Bones, who has just stepped down as principal at Henley Management College, was caretaking corporate communications at the company. He had contracted Hedron initially and was responsible for bringing her in as communications director.

“She’s sharper and quicker than most of the senior executives I’ve ever worked with and works at a frenetic pace,” he says. “She has no fear and always speaks her mind. She’ll give time and then ensure it is focused on you and your needs – she’s with you all the way.”

Leaving Hedron was a wrench but, Andraea reasoned, “I’d never worked in-house. And it was an exciting prospect. I like change. The pressures were different, and the opportunities
were different.”

The pressures were certainly different. She joined a company of 63,000 people, heading up a team of around 140. An experienced change management specialist, she swiftly reduced that number, and went on to be instrumental in the negotiation of a period of acquisition and divesture for the organisation as it divested drinks and acquired confectionery in the form of chewing gum.

As well as overseeing the corporate rebrand, she takes pride in having led a team that recognised the possibilities of social media, when none of the marketers were interested. It was one of her team that had the idea of spreading the drumming Gorilla ad virally – a move which made it legendary.

As the leader of a large team, she found herself charged with managing and moulding its MO. “You never actually manage the full team. You create the approach and the style, and define where the team is going. It took up so much of my time.”

And then the company agreed to list American Beverages on the US stock market and, as a consequence, was about to drop out of the FTSE 50. “The business was effectively halving, we were merging the corporate affairs and communications functions. It felt like time to seek pastures new.”

Now at Reckitt Benckiser, or RB as she is keen for it to be known, she enjoys a wide-ranging role which incorporates accountability for, or as RB prefers it “ownership of”, financial PR, communicating RB’s performance, the company’s online presence, crisis management, corporate affairs and internal communications.

The company’s willingness not to be a household name has been an eye-opener for Andraea. “It’s been really interesting for me. There’s no expectation to communicate simply as a result of being known. It means you can make more choices. When you’re very well-known, it takes time and effort to slowly change perceptions. This is more of a blank canvas. We’re not given certain values that you have to adhere to.”

Reckitt Benckiser has been called media-shy – “We’re not shy. We’re just not arrogant” – but Andraea insists that a corporate brand doesn’t have to be in the newspaper to deliver. “The product brands do the speaking to the consumer. We just need to concentrate on people who might want to join us.”

Although not well-known by consumers, Reckitt Benckiser was a very well established investment brand, already known among the financial community – more so now, following its recent £2.5 billion takeover of SSL International. But for this audience her priority, once again, is communicating strategy rather than boosting profile.

Sustainability is an increasingly significant part of her remit. “We have an aggressive Carbon 20 programme which aims to ensure that by 2020 we reduce carbon emissions by 20% - for the life of our products, from when we make them to when consumers use and dispose of them.”

Andraea says that this requires the company to “keep a weather eye on consumer groups. If they’re interested in something we’re doing, we need to think, what’s our view?”

She has actively ramped up the company’s involvement with Save the Children, a longstanding charitable partnership but one that has now been extended internationally.

With oversight over the internal comms function, she is acutely aware of the international flavour of the organisation. “When I first joined, I was one of few Brits in the team. Here in Slough, when I see a person’s name for the first time I often don’t know if it’s a man or a women. But from an internal communications perspective, the fact we’re so international helps hugely. Our language is very simple. It can’t be complicated. That means our financial reporting is straightforward, our Powerpoint presentations are straightforward. If I ever write anything longer than one page, I’m asked why. It means you focus on the essence of what you want to say.”

Hers is a small comms team – comprising just three people and an intern plus a person in the US who has a dotted line to her. And instead of liaising with other comms professionals in the company’s many regional offices, Andraea works directly with the general managers. That, she says, gives her greater perspective over the business.

Not unexpectedly in the digital age, her immediate focus is on bolstering the company’s online presence. “When we looked at levels of awareness among the student and early career market, they were very low. So we looked at how they got their information. We realised that age group just doesn’t read newspapers. It’s not the way to get them. So where do they get their information? By speaking to each other. If you can make your information accessible and put it where people typically look, you can influence those conversations.”

So it was that she set about transforming the corporate website, which historically had been an investor-facing website, to something which is now, she says, “completely different”.

“We still have an investor section, of course. But the whole look and feel is a much stronger conveyance of us as a corporate brand entity.”

With an eye firmly on the graduate market, the site includes regular blogs from management trainees which, apart from a compliance check, are subject to no editing at all from the comms team. It’s another demonstration of the culture that refuses to micromanage its people.

But the most innovative digital development has been an application on RB’s Facebook page called poweRBrands – a launch that has piqued the curiosity of corporate social media observers. An online game that challenges users’ marketing nous, it’s an entertainingly addictive hook that reinforces the RB brand and reaches out to potential recruits. “It’s not everyone’s idea of interesting – let’s be straightforward - but 120,000 looked at it in its first month.” That’s a lot of people for a niche demographic.

Her role has a huge remit but – and this will come as no surprise – Andraea has little interest in shutting down away from work. A mother of three children (having fostered another girl for many years), she likes to stay active. “I travel a lot with work, so when I am at home it’s quite full on. It’s going to the movies, games in the garden, jamming in the music room, chasing the dog on a ‘walk’, having mates and family to stay or generally laughing quite a lot. I burn the candle at both ends.”

Like the RB logo, she’s all about energy.