- November 25, 2019
- Insight report
There is a new WeWork at Waterloo Station in London. As you enter the lobby and head towards the reception desk, you will walk past a DJ booth and a skate ramp. You can enjoy a free barista coffee and chill in what looks more like a lounge bar than an office reception. When I last went there on a gloomy mid-week November morning, there was no skateboarding action, but the DJ was playing house music, and there was a party atmosphere.
For the “We” company, owner of WeWork, the party stopped when its IPO plans unravelled spectacularly October 2019. A severe hangover followed, consisting of valuation collapse, layoffs and restructuring.
Watching the We story makes us wonder whether some of the world’s most sophisticated investors were intoxicated when they valued the loss-making company at $47bn. Meanwhile, the world leader, IWG, owner of the flagship Regus brand is worth $3.50bn.
The valuation gap between the two has disappeared (it’s not clear how much the We company is worth now) but the contrast remains between their flagship brands: the sober Regus and the flamboyant WeWork.
For investors, there are now countless articles offering “lessons from the wework IPO” [Hint: numbers, such as margin, still matter]. B2B marketers should also pay attention: Wework vs Regus makes a great case study that is not industry-specific.
We will start at the central command for each company, scrutinizing their branding and corporate communication. Going down a level, we will examine how this translates in their daily marketing efforts. Finally, we will look at what is happening on the ground, in London, where WeWork has become the largest private landlord in just a few years. Along the way, there will be plenty of takeaways for other businesses fighting their own B2B marketing battles.
Branding & Communication
Regus used to operate “serviced offices”, WeWork was operating co-working spaces. They both have switched to “Workspace”, and abandoned their niche. The battlefront has become wider, as they compete across all segments.
Conquering the workspace
Amol Sarva, the CEO of Knotel another workspace competitor puts it this way:
“Certainly, the guys who are champions of coworking deserve to be the kings of coworking that they are, but […] the office market is about enterprise.”
Two trends can explain the use of the term workspace .
What was known as the “co-working industry” is changing. It is moving away from individual entrepreneurs and towards small businesses and companies employing fewer than 100 people.
Meanwhile, large companies increasingly want “flexible offices” with shorter and more flexible leases. They also like to mingle with the startup crowd.
As WeWork dominates the co-working space and is associated with the concept, it pitches its “community” and “entrepreneurial spirit” to companies that are craving for it. Its communication design-led.
Regus, on the other hand, position themselves as experts who can provide strategic advice and communicate through whitepapers and articles about the future of work.
Each company approaches the market from a different angle, but recent changes in their corporate communication show that the lines are becoming more blurred.
Wework has set a high-water mark in terms of overhyped corporate communication. In September 2019 WeWork founder’s, Adam Neumann declared to Forbes:
“No one is investing in a co-working company worth $20 billion. That doesn’t exist. Our valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than it is on a multiple of revenue.”
(If that sounds funny today, remember Morgan Stanley’s IPO valuation range was $43bn to $104bn.)
Mission and Taglines: head to head
The company’s mission “To elevate the world’s consciousness” may well have been written by executives on a multi-billion valuation high.
Following the post-failed-IPO restructuring, the message is sobering up quickly, as Softbank took over control. In Mid-November 2019, the previous mission has quietly disappeared from the website in exchange for:
“Create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.”
The tagline “Do what you love” is everywhere in the WeWork buildings, including the mugs, so it’s probably here to stay.
Based on the latest website update, it looks like the new owners prefer: “Create Your Life’s Work”. The message is still a romantic one, but at least there’s a mention of work.
As if to prepare for its competitor’s IPO, Regus had also revamped its mission and tagline in a brand update published in July 2019.
Until then, their mission was:
“To develop, deliver and support outsourced workplace solutions that allow individuals and companies to work, however, wherever and whenever they need.”
And the tagline:
“Find workspace tailored to your business, anywhere in the world.”
In July 2019, they have become:
“We’ve made it our mission to help businesses choose a way of working that’s best for their people.”
“Work your way”. Along with a series of 6 key statements and emotive imagery: Work Closer / Together / Agile / Happier /Better / Faster.
The shift is significant. It acknowledges that customers’ life extends beyond work and addresses them as individuals. It’s still B2B marketing, but speaking to humans.
WeWork has given up on its outlandish claims and Regus has become more chilled and humane. They are still at opposite ends of the corporate communication spectrum but as they focus on the same workspace market, their messages have come closer.
WeWork still rings hollow (my life’s work?). Regus’s message begins to resonate. In particular, changing from “We have offices everywhere” to “Work closer” (to whatever matters to you) is an obvious improvement.
The marketing battle for workspace occupancy is fought offline and online
Wework spent $387 million in sales and marketing in 2018, an increase of 164% from $143.4m in 2017. The IPO filings indicate that they were planning to ramp up marketing even further. Despite the hype surrounding the company, customer acquisition came with an expansive marketing drive.
Offices as boutiques
A fintech conference is about to start at Wework Blackfriars. A hipster-looking host gives us an introductory speech. It begins with the usual admin: “toilets on the right, fire exit on the left”, but it quickly morphs into a well-rehearsed pitch “you are invited to enquire if you want a place to do what you love”.
The efficient but straightforward tactic that has been drilled into employees (I have since heard it at multiple Wework-hosted events). When you step into a WeWork space, you become a prospect. The “We” company is taking its marketing seriously.
I used to work in a Rebus office in the City. I only discovered it was Rebus-operated by chance during an event. WeWork is a lot more astute at transforming its offices into boutiques that attract customers.
Wework is highly visible; the branding instantly recognisable. The use of big mottos, bright colours mean that you can’t ignore that you are inside a Wework location, or even just walking in front of it.
You can also do the “Unsplash test”: try searching for Rebus in the free photography website then compare with WeWork. A small sample is above.
The branding takes over the physical space. It’s normal to talk about “WeWork Waterloo” instead of “10 York Road”. The address comes second. This fact alone makes WeWork present in countless meeting conversations, from which Regus is never present.
Online, WeWork’s traffic and followers show a similar dominance.
Wework.com gets 3.5 times more traffic than Regus.com.
Source: SimilarwebThis stat overestimates Wework’s advantage, as it operates mainly one domain: wework.com, whereas Regus has a multitude of country domains. Adding them all however would not make a massive difference as the traffic for Regus.fr and other country domains are too small to even register on similarweb.com.
(It’s surprising that a company as digitally savvy as “We” has not taken over all the domains such as wework.fr, .uk, .es, .it)
Wework towers over its competitors across social media. Depending on the platform, Wework has between 2x and 30x more followers than Regus. The different approach is nowhere more evident than on the Facebook description.
One company is classified as a “meeting room” the other as a “community organisation”. Neither is very accurate, but one is gathering a lot more followers.
The description and absence of the verified ✅ next to the Regus’s name reveal a lack of attention to social media.
Wework used to be a big spender on social ads. It was so ubiquitous on Linkedin that users complained about the ad frequency.
It was also a big spender on Facebook, there is a case study for it.
Since the IPO debacle, the WeWork ads had stopped on both platforms at the time of writing.
(That space on your timeline is now probably Peloton ads, in case you wonder where companies spend their IPO cash.)
Based on Facebook Page Transparency we can see Rebus is currently serving dozen of ads around the world. In the UK, they are a mix of local “SALISBURY let’s get to work” and brand ads “work happier”, based on their new campaign.
Geographical targeting is a core advertising strategy for Regus. They have done considerable work on local SEO, and they combine it with Google Ads to dominate local search. Try searching for “office in [your location]”, and Regus is bound to appear.
Traffic and followers alone are poor performance indicator, yet when your numbers are multiples of your competitors, you are doing something right.
As the paid presence of WeWork disappeared overnight, and as organic reach on social media is decreasing, there is an opportunity for Regus and its refreshed brand to regain some of the lost ground.
What attracts London businesses to WeWork?
To complete the investigation, let’s use London as an example.
Going to meetings and events in London feels like doing a tour of WeWork offices these days. Before leaving Wework Waterloo, I grab a (free) barista-made coffee and use the wifi to check the route to my next meeting: WeWork Buckingham Palace Road. Later in the day, I attend a fintech conference in a third WeWork (Monument).
Since it opened in London 2014, WeWork has opened 51 offices and plans to open ten more soon, although the restructuring could see some of them scrapped.
Moving offices has a cost. Even if you are just a freelancer with a laptop, there is the hassle to change your registered address. When incentives to move are strong, inertia is often stronger. WeWork seems to have managed to outweigh all of these.
Most of their offices are in great locations. The ones I visited are usually steps - not even minutes - away from a tube station. They seem to be buzzing and have a distinctive WeWork look. Some say that WeWork isn’t a tech company - it just dresses like one relating to its pitch to investors, but I’m wondering if the Big Tech campuses were an inspiration for the lavish and playful design on display.
Many personal contacts now use Wework’s workspaces somewhere in London. They work across industries: law, design, IT, sometimes solo or in a small team, but not always. Three client companies (in the fintech space ) have moved part or all of their team to a WeWork space in the last 12 months. One of them has moved out of Regus.
The evidence may be anecdotal, but you can’t deny the attractiveness of Wework. It’s also not just for individuals, startups and SMEs. HSBC hired 1,000 desks from WeWork London at Waterloo. The company has signed deals in London with IBM, Facebook and Microsoft as well. Its IPO prospectus shows that large enterprise clients account for nearly 40% of its occupancy worldwide.
London prices on the Regus and WeWork website look roughly similar based on their “starting from” rates. Regus appears slightly cheaper (from £15 a day vs £500 a month for Wework).
It may not have always been the case. Wework had a reputation for its discount prices and aggressive sales tactics, including unusually high fees for brokers. Prices may have been rising steadily. This 2016 Hustle article reports lower monthly rents than what is now on the website.
When asked about their move, my clients cited lower costs and more space as their main reasons. Despite the taglines that adorn the walls “impact starts with an idea” and “do what you love”, it still looks like a convenient rationale was at play.
What about the community (and the “We generation)?
Do “energy” and “spirituality” have the same impact on clients as they had on Softbank’s Son, We’s main backer (and current owner)? Is the community feel important? Probably, but more for freelancers than for the likes of HSBC whose employees occupy an entire floor and therefore don’t mix with others.
According to WeWork’s website “About 40 per cent of enterprise members chose WeWork because they wanted a more creative entrepreneurial environment”.
Value for customers = Growth for the company
The hype and other less tangible elements (love, energy, spirituality, community, etc.) may contribute to WeWork’s expansion but is not a determining factor.
Value could certainly spur growth: selling a premium product (location, design, facilities and freebies), at an average or below-average price during an expansionary business cycle. Aside from the space itself, having a WeWork address is a plus. It looks good on business cards, and they are beautiful places to meet clients or candidates.
Judging by the negative net margin of 90% at which it operates (a $1.6bn loss on $1.8bn turnover in 2018) the costs of delivering such value to customers are high. The strategy is not unusual in Silicon Valley but is only sustainable as long as investors only care about growth and are happy to sustain the losses. In other words, Softbank and other backers have been subsidising office workers around the world. (Thank you Softbank for my free latte!).
Value for shareholders = less value for customers?
It is the shock of WeWork’s failed IPO that has alerted investors that their obsession with growth was unhealthy. Value is back in fashion for investors but that doesn’t work well with delivering extra value to customers. (By the way, if you are a stockmarket investor considering factor investing and you are looking at the Value factor vs the Growth factor, you have got it wrong. Growth is not a factor backed by any research - according to the specialists at FactorResearch.)
WeWork has grown faster than any other office provider in London, largely thanks to the great value (benefits / price) offered to its members. This, along with its aggressive marketing spend was great for growth but unsustainable in the long term. The We company has stopped spending on marketing, halted its expansion plans and is probably considering how to raise rents to achieve profitability.
In the global battle for “workspaces”, WeWork’ astonishing growth established a dominant position in key markets like London or New York. Cheap capital and overhyped corporate communication were fueling this office “blitzkrieg”. They are now gone, the We company is retreating, and there is an opportunity for IWG/Regus to regain lost ground. Their new branding guidelines and aggressive advertising are right moves towards that goal, although the execution could be improved.
WeWork still has a much-loved product, significant mindshare. Investment in the brand both online and offline are defensible. How they will help the company navigate its financial turmoil remains to be seen (Prof. Galloway has predicted it will fold soon).
Final takeaways about the new rules of engagements for B2B Marketers across industries:
- Social advertising, including on Facebook, works for B2B marketing. Too often, in the B2B space, marketers rely exclusively on outreach and only trust Linkedin.
- Execution is critical: From its staff hosting meetups to its campaign (when they were still running), WeWork shows how to deliver consistently and flawlessly. Regus shows that it’s not that easy to do so.
- Be different, not better: Both companies make a great effort at trying to differentiate based on their values and to sell something bigger than their business (office space). But don’t overdo it! A mission to “elevate the world’s consciousness”, may sound good to you but it’s not what will attract customers.
- Marketing to humans: Just like Regus is shifting from “we are everywhere” to “you are closer to home”, think about what your features mean for your actual users at an emotional level and not just from a purely business point-of-view.