The slow business of turning a flagship around

After an extensive refit, ICI’s relaunched flagship website is an altogether more impressive corporate vessel than before. But it is still plagued by two issues that afflict company sites when either resources or resolve are limited.

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In early 1997 I wrote a short review of the website belonging to ICI, the much-changed UK industrial group. I said it was dull and self-satisfied, and not helped by having a ‘small company’ domain address,
ICI has just launched an all-new site, the third or fourth version. It is now one of the slickest corporate sites I know, and even has a proper address, Yet it continues to suffer from the two issues that dog so many flagship sites. First, what is a corporate website for? Second, how can a large company control its unruly children – its subsidiaries – online?

Why a central site

First, the identity crisis. Why should a company have a central website at all? The easy answer is that it is a cost-effective way of communicating with three groups: investors, the media and prospective employees. These are certainly necessary components, and ICI offers them all, though not with much brilliance. Its investor relations section is competent, with good use of the web’s interactivity to provide share price calculators and graphs. But it does not match best practice highlighted by the FT IT ranking last year. The Swedish group SCA, which headed that list, offers a formidable battery of interactive tools as well as an SMS and e-mail alert service.
ICI’s recruitment section is so thin I can only guess a new version is under construction (the previous graduate site had its own style, so I would imagine a different one has been demanded). The media area has a useful searchable news archive, and also an e-mail alert service. But it does not have an all-singing media portal offered by, for example, Smiths Group. This includes financial information relevant to journalists, details of acquisitions and disposals and even downloadable logos.
Why then do I say that ICI has one of the best company sites? Because it goes beyond the basics to look for greater reasons for existing – how can we tap this medium to cut costs, increase revenues, polish our brand, or whatever? Here imagination is as important as hard work.
Groups with great faith in the web are using their sites to sell. Sandvik’s site provides an e-commerce system and is also the portal to a number of supply chain extranets. Fellow Swede SKF uses the web’s interactivity to help customers identify the right product, and then sell it to them. General Electric uses its site to help customers choose and then buy – on or offline – anything from a telephone card to an aero engine.
Meanwhile Shell uses its site more for ‘reputation management’ through its online discussion area. ICI does not; nor does it sell online. But it has found two other reasons, beyond the basics, to have a website.

ICI goes beyond the basics

One is using the site to provide teachers with valuable educational material (the interactive periodic table is excellent for students, too). While ICI has long produced resources of this sort, putting them online makes them massively more available. Why bother? Because it spreads the name of the company, it creates goodwill and (don’t use this on the finance director) it is worthwhile in its own right.
The other reason is using the site to reposition and rebrand the company. The only bit of the old group still left is paints; the new businesses are designed to make products look, feel, taste or smell better, according to the home page. You may struggle to see the logic, but the site does its very best. Bold, colourful images, plenty of white space and the use of ‘handwritten’ headlines shout ‘We are not a fusty chemical company, we are bright, cheerful and new’. Some intriguing content – for example, on clothes that repel mosquitoes – is highlighted on the home page. Even the navigation, with its neat Pilot dropdown menu, has a subtle brandbuilding effect. Nice functional website, nice functional company. If you think this far-fetched, consider how irritated you get with organisations that have dreadful sites.

A case for the big stick

Moving on to the second big challenge to flagship sites, controlling the children. Click the Our Businesses dropdown box in the ICI Pilot, and head for any subsidiary. Oh dear. You are in a site with a completely different look and integration with the main site that varies from nil (Quest) to modest (Uniqema). Nor do they have anything in common with one another: Quest is pretty but insubstantial, National Starch dull but solid. There is some good material – the Mousepainter at is super – but it seems a long way from the ICI home page. And none of these sites is covered by the main search engine.
As these subsidiaries are ICI, it seems bizarre that they are not better integrated. They appear to be separate vessels that could float away at any moment. Which of course they could – but if ICI wants to give the impression that they will not, it must do something to tether them. A big stick from the top demanding better integration – perhaps the Pilot on every page – is much needed.
Most corporate sites suffer from these problems to a greater or lesser degree. They can be overcome, with sufficient work, sufficient money and a combination of imagination and bullying from the centre.

First published 12 March, 2003
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