Branding is probably the most talked about and highly debated hot new topic in law firm marketing to come along in years. The following roundtable, organized by Levick Strategic Communications, was held Oct. 12 at the offices of Mayer Brown & Platt in Chicago. This is the first of a two-part article.
LARRY SMITH: There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about (a) whether branding works in general and (b) whether it works or can work or ought to work in the context of professional services -- and law firms in particular. But we're going to be talking about the tactics of branding, about how to actually do it. But feel free to roam in strategic and philosophical directions as well as the tactical ones. We will keep this as open ended as possible.
- Felice Wagner, CEO, Sugarcrest Development Group, Washington, D.C.
- Larry Smith, director of business development, Levick Strategic Communications, Washington, D.C.
- Elizabeth Lampert, executive vice president, Levick Strategic Communications, Washington, D.C.
- Norm Rubenstein, chief marketing officer, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, New York.
- Burkey Belser, president and creative director, Greenfield Belser, Washington, D.C.
- Barbara Sessions, partner and director of business development, Winston & Strawn, Chicago.
- Jonathan Asperger, marketing director, Mayer Brown & Platt, Chicago.
- Karen Braun, director of client service, Kirkland & Ellis, Chicago.
- Michelle Hoffman, marketing and business development consultant, Washington, D.C.
- Diane Hamlin, strategic officer, Fenwick & West, Palo Alto.
The scenario that we're basing our discussion is that of a full-services global law firm. There are basically four aspects of this type of firm that are ostensibly brandable.
The firm has now decided to do branding and established a branding committee with -- I know this is fanciful -- a $2 million budget over a period of two years. (I picked that number because I don't want how much the firm is willing to spend to be an issue.) The branding committee has met, they are ready to go and, when we start the actual discussion of the steps that the firm is going to take, that is the scenario we will be operating with.
- We're a national or global firm that delivers seamless legal services. That's the line that you hear from the Jones Days and the Shearman & Sterlings. We don't actually have offices, we're one large law firm all over the world. All of the practitioners and offices are well integrated.
- You can get anything you want from our law firm.
- We're a business-oriented law firm. We don't just schlep briefs. We really partner with our clients globally to find business as well as legal solutions.
- We're strong and steady and we've been growing at a 7 percent to 10 percent rate over the last 10 years and we intend to continue to do so regardless of fluctuations in the marketplace.
First, do you have any general comments you want to make on the subject, anything that can give us some notion of your perspective on the whole issue of branding, whether you think is essentially stupid in the context of professional services or something that will revolutionize professional services.
To Brand or Not
NORM RUBENSTEIN: I'm a strong proponent of the concept of branding and believe that we are attempting it with reasonable success at Orrick. I believe a professional services firm can brand itself. However, while a great many law firms are trying it, not all of them truly understand how you build a brand that resonates with those people who buy legal services. Because that's a narrow and clearly defined market, the kind of branding that one would do in corporate America needs to be altered for the environment in which we work.
Leaving aside any response to your hypothetical budget of $2 million for the moment, I would argue that the inherent fungibility of most of the top-ranked law firms that are neither small regional firms nor boutiques makes it very, very difficult to achieve one of the critical components of branding according to the book.
My pal Burkey [Belser] taught me a long time ago that a brand is a promise of value that's distinct from any other.
The challenge we face is that it's very difficult to create a truly distinctive promise because so many of us share practices, geographical locations, preferred industry targets, even clients and so our brands, while not necessarily completely distinct, have to be able to make our firms memorable. We have to be able to distinguish ourselves although not necessarily in the traditional ways. That's the challenge and some law firms are getting it right while others are simply promoting themselves without successfully developing a brand.
BARBARA SESSIONS: I absolutely think branding can work in the law firm environment. However, I think there are some issues that have to be resolved with a number of firms first before they can do that. I'm finding that, with our own firm, we have to first resolve some culture integration issues.
When you have no common culture that's been established, bringing that together and coming up with a focused promise and figuring out your firm's true essence creates some issues moving forward. That's going to be true for any firm that is going through, or has gone through, the process of merging or acquiring other firms.
JONATHAN ASPERGER: My firm, Mayer Brown & Platt, very closely parallels the example that Larry set out as our case study. By way of background, I spent a couple of years as a copywriter for Leo Burnett working on big accounts like Nestlé and United Airlines, so I have seen branding from that perspective and I understand how it works. However, I spent the bulk of my career before coming to the law firm marketing as a kind of senior-level salesman and sales manager: I'm a hammer, all the world's a nail. I came to this business because I thought that selling one-on-one was the best way to market legal services and I still think that's true.
As such, I am skeptical as to whether the power of branding, which is enormous in a mass-marketing approach, is applicable to a law firm. It may even be counterproductive from an effectiveness point of view, though I have to say that advertising, done in an extraordinarily creative and compelling manner, can cut through a lot, or some, of the skepticism that I have. I'll try to keep an open mind, but I will probably come down against branding in this discussion.
FELICE WAGNER: I'm also skeptical of a professional services firm's ability to brand. First, I agree with Barbara that branding begins at home and I think that many firms don't know what their identity is, even if they have one. To brand itself, a firm needs to know where it's going and they often don't.
I'm also skeptical because I'm not sure that I have seen with very few exceptions, a professional services firm that's done it really effectively. Even when you look at the "big five" accounting firms, while they have done a great job of branding themselves as the Big fFive, I don't know that they have done a great job of explaining why I would go with Arthur Andersen over KPMG or why I would want Deloitte as opposed to Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. I think the global reach, national law firms have that issue to deal with.
Jonathan said the things he is saying about Mayer Brown & Platt would probably apply as well to Jones Day and I think that's a big challenge. Differentiation is what branding is all about. I'm not sure a global law firm can really do that.
KAREN BRAUN: Branding is something that we're all trying to get our arms around. The challenge is doing it in a way that will maintain the professional image that lawyers have always had in the past: doing something tasteful, but effective.
MICHELLE HOFFMAN: I'm on the fence. I not sure that you can really approach branding for legal services in the monolithic, uber brand of "this is our firm and what we do." I think it's difficult to find that single promise, as Barbara is saying, because of the culture differences between practice groups or profit centers; that it may ultimately work better to view those individual practice groups as product brands and the way we look at them in a corporate environment where you're not buying Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, but you're buying Tide or Band-Aids. It's very easy to identify with what those promises are. I think as we start to look more at practice groups or even individual lawyers, there may be greater success in the branding process.
DIANE HAMLIN: Like Norm and Burkey, I am a strong proponent of branding, although I come at it from a slightly different perspective, which is that the firm that I live at is not a monolithic, megalithic, behemoth of a firm. It's a group of 300 individuals, each with a fairly singular focus on his or her practice.
There are advantages and disadvantages to that. But it has helped to make me, with my over 20 years of experience in professional services branding, a believer in the process and its power for law firms and lawyers.
SMITH: Don't forget the mind, perception and sensibility of the buyer. When you talk to general counsel, over and over again they tell you the same thing: "The only law firm marketing I give a damn about is something that gives me something to take home at the end of the day. I will take a 20-minute seminar in which I learn three points of law over a $5 million branding campaign any time."
Now, that line can be very disingenuous because many of them are affected by branding but don't want to admit it because that would be acknowledging that their referral networks aren't quite strong enough, that they're not quite shrewd enough to go out to the marketplace and find who they want when they want. At the same time, they raise a very good point: What value does branding deliver to the buyer?
What Is Branding?
SMITH: We have heard talk about the brand as a promise, and maybe we can start there. Is it a promise? More than that, is it a meaningful promise and can it be delivered? Is it a guarantee? When you're 1,000 lawyers around the world and you're Clifford Chance, Linklaters or Skadden, can you really deliver a brand-based promise other than the fact that it's a safety sell so if it doesn't work out, at the end of the day, the general counsel can go back to his CEO and say, 'Ed, Skadden, don't blame me.' "
What is the value of branding to the buyer, and what is the promise? And that would extend not only to professional services but to the corporate world as well. I mean, yes, there is certain promise involved in Sony. You know it's going to work well in Singapore and you know it's going to work well in Cleveland. But what is the value of "Just Do It"? What is the promise of "Just Do It"? What does it mean?
BURKEY BELSER: Maybe one place to start would be to find a definition for a "brand," because I think a brand is more than a promise of value. Fully defined, a brand is a distinctive identity based on a promise of value that's different from any other. So there are three parts to that definition, which together give a firm personality. A successful brand should preview the experience of working with the firm. Personality creates a positive feeling associated with the firm. Fenwick & West has done that. So has Orrick.
When I talk about a "promise of value different from any other," I'm talking about positioning. Positioning is not necessarily about practice areas, although it's certainly convenient if you have a narrow niche where your position equals your practice area. Lawyers are most comfortable positioning themselves via their practice area ("I litigate therefore I am"). Or a firm could stumble conveniently into an industry position ("I do real estate and therefore I am"). But positioning is infinitely more complex than that. While Howrey & Simon effectively positioned itself as litigators with its "In Court Every Day," campaign (which they've since discontinued). But brand doesn't have to be practice area specific or industry specific. The promise of value for Sonnenschein is "Finally, daylight."
By the way, lawyers are comfortable with tag lines because lawyers communicate in words and think in words. It's not easy to articulate what the promise of value is, but embedded in Sonnenschein's tag line is a promise of value that's certainly different from any other.
Staying the Course
BELSER: One more thing: The Marlboro Man has been riding his horse for 35 years. You can't create a brand overnight. It takes time and brands evolve. I never met a brand that sprang full blown into the world. That would be too easy. These are very hard conversations.
WAGNER: Don't you think, though, that a firm has to be able to deliver on their promise of value? That's the only thing that makes a brand survive for 30 years.
BELSER: Yes, and this is the big problem for law firms. Managing partners change, marketing directors change. Perhaps not everyone was trained or understood what the firm's brand strategy was all about in the first place. Perhaps the buy-in from management was weak and therefore the message wasn't driven down through the ranks. Jack Welsh can command that a brand be built more easily than a managing partner can. The consensus-building that's at the heart of a partnership makes it particularly difficult to get everyone on the "brandwagon." But it's not impossible and, no matter what, every dollar spent is a valuable dollar even if the promise is not consistently delivered across the partnership. It takes time to bring everybody in line. But that's OK.
BRAUN: Do you think there are inherent risks, though, with going out there? For example, let's look at Brobeck. "When your future is at stake" was their tagline and now theirs is there is the danger that the result you are selling doesn't match the tagline..
BELSER: There absolutely is a risk. If it's not risky, if it's not challenging, it's not worth doing.
BRAUN: Do you think Brobeck had the right tagline?
HAMLIN: The beauty of that tagline is that it's not attached to the dot-com market. It's much more free floating than that.
WAGNER: A tagline is not a brand. This is a mistake law firms make.
BELSER: It can be an expression of the brand, but a brand is absolutely not a tagline.
WAGNER: I love "In Court Every Day," but I work with those folks at Howrey, and they're not in court every day.
HOFFMAN: [While initially effective,] "In Court Every Day" was suddenly not glamorous. It suggested that the firm was screwing up because they're not getting you out of court or not trying to keep you out of court. And so there was the perception suddenly that that was no longer what they wanted to do.
BELSER: Howrey foolishly abandoned their brand.
WAGNER: It takes a very, very long time to establish a brand and it seems to me that law firms just don't have the gumption to stick with it. It's sort of like the seminars they do. I work with lawyers all the time who try doing a program to bring in business. They do one and if, two weeks later, nobody is falling at their feet with business, they're shocked and amazed. It's a long-term process.
HOFFMAN: Because it's new to them. It's been a relatively short time that attorneys have been able to do branding and marketing. They expect quicker results. It's like Third World countries that expect leaps and bounds in technology.
SESSIONS: This brings up a point Burkey made earlier: Who's abandoning it? Probably not the people who introduced the concept and would have run with it to the end of time.
HOFFMAN: Absolutely, and that was the case at Howrey. There was a changing of guard. That was them, this is us; we need something new to take us into the future.
WAGNER: Which is amazing, isn't it? You don't have a brand if your identity can't survive a change of leadership.
RUBENSTEIN: This really speaks to one of the fundamental flaws about the way branding has been introduced in most of the law firms that have done it. They have given short shrift to the internal communications and rollout. If you don't inculcate into the lawyers and business professionals with equal energy, what the brand means and how they have to execute on it and embody it vis-à-vis one another and external audiences, they don't feel ownership and therefore the brand is not a reality for them but something the marketing department does in the form of advertisements that are placed somewhere else.
What we're going to see, as firms develop a greater appreciation and understanding for how this works effectively, is more energy put into making the brand a reality within the firm in hopes that that will increase the brand's longevity and credibility outside the firm.
Buy-in or Bust
SMITH: You always hear organizations talk about inculcating this and inculcating that. I'm very curious as to how you do that in such a way as it would survive transitions in leadership.
RUBENSTEIN: I will tell you what I'm getting ready to do by way of a specific example at Orrick.
We're developing a branding fair. Working with our chairman and other key influencers within the firm, the idea is to go to each office and invite lawyers and staff to attend a program with an upbeat agenda, maybe including some games in which they identify and learn about the way brands work in corporate America, how they aid and abet the mission of the firm's clients. Then, we would weave their new-found appreciation for what a branding effort is about with the importance of living and breathing Orrick's brand.
If you can tie their understanding of what you're trying to communicate to a passion to deliver effective service and to embody what, in our case, percolated up from within as the result of internal research, then they gain a level of enthusiasm and appreciation for what you're doing; an appreciation they don't have if they just see it as something that's being externally driven. It's an educational process and it's a long-term one. That's one way in which we would hope to create that buy-in.
ASPERGER: My problem with branding is that our philosophy is to demonstrate, not assert. When we're in a meeting with clients, we don't want them to leave saying, "Well, they certainly told me a lot about their credentials and how good they are." We want them to say, "Thank you, you have helped me understand my problem better. Even though this was a sales call, you have helped me position what my options are and you brought some insight and helped me deal with issues in a way that I couldn't do before."
I'm hard pressed to figure out how advertising or branding in the general sense is a particularly effective way to do anything but make assertions. And when you make assertions, you cause the potential client to cross his or her arms and say, "Oh, yeah? Says who?" If you don't have a third-party credential or you don't have a fact to support it, you have got a problem.
Let's take Brobeck as one example because theirs is some of the most effective advertising and some of the least effective advertising. What's effective is when they say "We have done 103 IPOs" and they put it in the Wall Street Journal. It's a fact, it is an assertion, but it is a fact that's supportable and that might pertain to a potential client.
However, when they show an airplane in distress -- an unfortunate image in today's environment -- they're not giving me any information. There is no news I can use. There is no value there. So, we don't like to make assertions in our marketing. We like to demonstrate skills.
SMITH: Jon, excuse me. Implicit in your opening remarks was that there was almost a disconnect between the concept of branding and the concept of selling, the latter being a value-based process and branding as not.
ASPERGER: I think the way you market legal services is one on one, and branding by definition is a mass-communication technique, albeit to a niche market.
BELSER: Branding is the air strike in advance of the ground troops, so they are different.
ASPERGER: So the two can be compatible in our country.
WAGNER: I think they must be married.
ASPERGER: But here is the other problem we have. If our philosophy is to demonstrate, not assert…
BELSER: Branding doesn't have to assert anything.
ASPERGER: If our philosophy is customized solutions, we need to find out what your problem is. At Mayer Brown's level, we have very specific client needs and we start with the client and work back. I'm not sure that advertising, other than maybe giving that message out, is a particularly effective way to say here are our answers.
WAGNER: Again, advertising isn't branding either. We so often mistake the brand for the vehicle by which we inculcate the brand. Advertising is not the brand. The tagline is not the brand. A brand is what you're talking about. If your clients believe it and your people practice it, then that is what you are.
Riding on Reputation?
ASPERGER: I would call it a reputation, and we can talk about the difference, but let me make one final point: If I look at the organizations at the top of the professional services or the high finance areas -- the investment banks, the venture capital firms, the private equity funds, the management consulting firms or the law firms we consider our peers -- such as the Wachtell Liptons, Skadden Arps and Shearman & Sterlings -- you find a noticeable lack of advertising. You find reputation-driven marketing rather than a brand-driven marketing, empirical evidence that you can be very successful in these businesses without branding.
WAGNER: Look at Cravath. They have a brand.
ASPERGER: I would call it a reputation. And I think there is a distinction there. The point is they're not using ads-and I am talking about advertising right now-as their way of communicating with the marketplace.
WAGNER: Brand or reputation -- I'm not sure they are not the same thing. And when I was litigating cases against them, I didn't like it if my opposing counsel was coming from Cravath because what that meant was I had to get dirty. Not dirty like they fought dirty, dirty like it was going to be a fight as opposed to a collegial engagement.
BELSER: In order to create a brand, you have to take control of the marketplace. The marketplace gives you a reputation. In other words, you create a reputation in the marketplace, but you're not in control of that reputation. Anybody can say anything about you. One advantage of developing a brand is that you set the stage for what the market thinks about you and you can run behind that.
ASPERGER: I think that's our fundamental area of disagreement. I think your reputation is something you can control by your actions.
BELSER: So [you're saying that] all brands are built on reputation?
ASPERGER: It's the marketplace that determines your reputation; if you say it's the firm that can determine its brand, that's where I see the disconnect. I don't want to impose what I think we are on somebody else. That's for them to decide.
WAGNER: But you can determine what you want to be. You may have a reputation in the market that you love and you run with, but you may have one you don't so much like and that's where you have the opportunity to…
ASPERGER: Then change the way you act; don't change what you tell people you want them to believe.
BELSER: Howrey Simon ramped up dramatically, quickly and effectively by advertising, using public relations and all the other elements of branding, changing themselves from a failing antitrust firm into a successful litigation firm.
ASPERGER: The question is, how much were they making per partner? The firms that I just talked about are at the top tier and they've done it without branding. So the empirical evidence suggests you can be hugely successful without branding.
SESSIONS: This goes back to the issue of what is the real value -- what is it you're trying to accomplish with branding. If you're trying to improve your business or change your reputation, I think you're correct. But if we're talking about reinforcement and visibility, I don't think any firm has done itself a disservice by doing an advertising or a branding campaign.
ASPERGER: Here is the danger. If I want to buy a fine wine, I'm not going to respond to an ad on TV for something I never heard of, but I might try the same product if my sommelier recommended it. If it comes from that individual, it's a reputation. Then it holds a lot more creditability. Credibility is everything.
SMITH: However, we have seen a shift in perception. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, Cravath, Davis Polk and King & Spalding did a marvelous job marketing themselves by pretending they never would touch marketing; that they wouldn't stoop to it. That was kind of a brand, kind of an implicit brand. And, of course they were doing fantastic marketing.
BRAUN: Being at Kirkland for the last seven years, I've gotten to see all the materials and the corporate identity that Cravath has done over the years. So I think part of the difference between the Cravaths and the Orricks or Fenwicks of the world is that the latter are just being honest about it and forthright.
HAMLIN: One of the beauties in the Howrey & Simon campaign is that it came at a time when people were still disowning marketing. There was a widespread unwillingness to own the process, even while people were engaged in it. It was a huge step forward for the profession for Howrey to step out into the marketplace and own marketing as a powerful tool. The dollars and the focus that Brobeck put behind its first wave of advertising also raised the bar, and what we're coming to now is another generation of challenge in terms of how we differentiate ourselves.
HAMLIN: The marketplace is changing. A lot of it is selling to people who aren't general counsel. If you're working with start-ups, if you're in with new companies, you're going to sell to the CEO. Even at a big corporation, you're going to be dealing with people at the C level. The audience is shifting and some of the firms that have coasted on their longstanding white shoe marketplace reputations are going to have some challenges. The global marketplace also changes the playing field. A start-up in the Far East may not know anything about Cravath or Skadden.
RUBENSTEIN: Fifteen years ago Orrick was a regional California firm with a finance practice. Today, we're a highly regarded global law firm with a diverse practice. The marketing tools that we're talking about here today have been and continue to be useful for a firm like ours in helping re-educate the marketplace about who we are and what we do.
WAGNER: Branding is about being very, very specific as to who you're going after and positioning yourself in that marketplace. The fact that I don't perceive Orrick in a particular way doesn't mean anything. I'm not their market. I'm not the folks that Orrick should be branding itself to. It matters not how I perceive them because I'm just the general marketplace.
ASPERGER: What is the target and what's the most effective means of reaching that target? It is about priorities? While maybe the best approach is to carpet bomb [with a brand campaign] and then send in the elite force, most firms tell me they can't afford to do both. One of the reasons you haven't seen a sustained branding campaign by law firms is because, somewhere down the line, partners have decided they don't want to spend that much money in that way.
BELSER: Perhaps, but that's not relevant to a discussion of branding's potential. Let's look at some of the goals. For example, I could use branding to change a perception. I could use branding to raise name awareness and position myself in the marketplace. I could use branding to sustain a reputation in a noisy and crowded marketplace. I could do all these things via branding. How valuable is it when one of your lawyers enters the room and says, "Hi, I'm from Orrick," and the response is not "Who?" but, "Yes, nice to meet you." That alone is worth your investment.
SMITH: What are the elements to achieve what Burkey is talking about and what was inherent at Orrick, Fenwick or Howrey that enabled them to go as far as they've gone, albeit maybe not as ideally as far as you would like them to go? First the tools or elements. What are we talking about?
Leaders Who 'Get It'
RUBENSTEIN: I am fortunate to work for a firm that is run in the most businesslike fashion I have ever seen in my legal career, and that is led by a handful of truly visionary professionals who understand what it takes to make a law firm successful in a competitive global marketplace. The people with whom I work were ready to engage in a sustained branding initiative because after spending a considerable time looking at their market, they were convinced that their potential clients understood and appreciated the value of branding in their own marketing efforts.
So instead of thinking that clients and prospects wouldn't respond to this because they don't expect it from a law firm, Orrick's leaders thought this certainly has always been a meaningful approach for corporate America and we should investigate the value it can bring in our efforts to grow and sustain and establish our reputations.
WAGNER: Leadership is a key element in a successful branding campaign. Without it -- and I'm talking leadership that can stay the course, leadership that survives after the change of an individual, because no one person should dictate the direction of an organization; succession should happen seamlessly.
SESSIONS: I would put leadership in the category of environment rather than tools or elements. For a successful campaign, you do have to begin with research and introspection. You have to look at your organization and figure out who you really are. This includes taking a look at your reputation, going out to the marketplace and making sure that it jibes with the firm's assessment of its own strengths. You can then create a positioning statement -- a message to the marketplace that is realistic and genuine.
So my strategy would be: research, introspection, taking a look at the marketplace, figuring out from where you go with the positioning statement and, of course, making sure you have buy-in, which is one of the hardest things, especially when you have different cultures within your firm. Whether it's by office or by practice group, you have to try to figure out a way to bring everyone into the fold.
RUBENSTEIN: The process that Barbara has outlined is identical to the way we approached the branding exercise: a lot of internal research coupled with market research. But I would submit that you get to a different place culturally if your leadership understands the value of the exercise and commissions it. If the people who are charting the course of the firm appreciate branding, if they can look to corporate America and analogize how branding can inform and enhance the firm's own marketing efforts, then you're further down the road because of their capacity to influence the population that has to breathe life into the final product.
HAMLIN: There is a crucial role for you, the marketer, here. Don't just sit back and wait for that change to come to you. You have to be the person who believes in it strongly enough and is persuasive enough and perseveres enough. I fought hard over a buy of a strategic partnership for a conference. The return on that conference was more than $4 million. The management committee has not given me a hard time about partnering on a conference since. It's about delivering on what it is you're committing to do for them. It's not just talking the talk, but getting a return and measuring it.
© 2001 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of
American Lawyer Media Inc./Allison C. Hoffman.