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A brand is accepted as a key business asset among major corporates, but until recently it has been largely unexplored territory for professional services firms. In particular, what do logos and straplines have to do with the intellectually rigorous world of legal services?
Let us immediately dispel a myth about brand. Like charisma and spin, it has become one of the most mistrusted words of the 21st century, a hostage to marketing and hype. But quite simply, a brand is what an organisation stands for, what it does, and more crucially in the case of legal services, how it does it.
The lesson for US firms looking to distinguish themselves in the increasingly competitive London market is that they will need to focus on what makes them stand out. To succeed in standing out, they must clearly stand for something that is rooted in a strong and distinct internal culture that will drive a powerful brand externally in the market.
Compare a group of competing law firms in terms of what they do and you would be hard-pressed to identify many compelling differences between them. But if you think about how they operate - how they behave, the culture of the firms - you will find much more distinction.
A story about another provider of professional services, Goldman Sachs, demonstrates the differentiating power that comes from having a distinct way of doing what all its competitors also do.
When transport company Thomas Tilling faced a hostile bid from BTR in 1983, the company's traditional investment bank (with typical UK restraint) chose not to call its client for three days, presumably not wishing to appear too eager. Meanwhile, John Thornton, Goldman Sachs' then European M&A manager, camped out in the Thomas Tilling headquarters, wrongfooting the slow-moving Brits and winning a chunk of the work.
Goldman Sachs, of course, went on to take much more work away from other UK investment banks. In fact, it reinvented the strategically critical London market and quickly became a major player.
Any investment bank can do M&A, but Goldman Sachs' upfront and uncompromising approach illustrates perfectly that it was not what it did, it was the way that it did it that gave it an enormous competitive advantage. That is why professional services brands need not focus on what they do, but must distinguish and then emphasise how they work.
The challenge for those US law firms that think they are special and are ambitious to grow beyond their traditional market is to identify their 'how', articulate it and then, crucially, make sure they live it.
With powerful brands such as Goldman Sachs the 'how' is relatively easy to identify. Such banks will have developed crystal clear ways to articulate it. Combined with strong and effective leadership, this has helped ensure that their people, in any of their offices around the world, are able to live it and demonstrate it to their clients. Goldman Sachs' period of massive expansion in the 1980s and 1990s helped it to maintain its culture and build its brand in new markets.
So what do you do if you are the managing partner of the London office of a US law firm and you want to build your firm's brand in the UK market?
You could start by emailing the US head office and asking it for a one-pager that encapsulates what the firm's culture is based upon. In other words, what the firm stands for.
It probably has something written down, but once you have crossed out all the bland and generic statements about "serving our clients", "utmost integrity" and "teamwork", you may be left with nothing. It is not that the culture that drives the firm's brand is not strong and distinctive (if your firm is competitive, it almost certainly is), it is just that the firm has not ever really tried to identify and articulate it.
In a single-office firm that grows slowly over decades, not being able to articulate the firm's culture is far less critical; it is passed on informally, from partner to associate, as they work together over long periods of time. I am sure that Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, for example, has a highly distinctive culture that sits at the heart of its brand. Whether or not every partner can succinctly and consistently articulate it matters very little, because it is relatively small, operates from one office and does not appear to have any plans to change anytime soon.
But if you were a new associate in the London office of, say, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and you came from a UK law school, or perhaps joined as a lateral from Allen & Overy, it is crucial that the leadership of the London office is able to articulate what is special about Skadden in a way that resonates with you and genuinely helps you to quickly and effectively understand the differences between your new firm and any other US firm in the market.
If what distinguishes the culture of a firm goes unarticulated, a new recruit will continue to behave as they always have previously, or try to pick it up by observing the people they work with. If these colleagues are ex-Linklaters or Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, what chance is there of the newcomer being inculcated into the unique Skadden way of doing things?
But if the leadership is able to talk with conviction about what makes the US firm you have joined special, it will not only give the new arrival a strong sense of pride and purpose, it will also provide a clear idea of how to behave with colleagues and clients. Newcomers of all ages and experiences will be able to readily appreciate the firm's values. They will quickly come to understand and contribute to what the leadership believes it will take to break the stranglehold that the incumbent UK firms have on the market.
The bigger picture is that, if handled correctly, the brand that clearly identifies 'how' a US law firm goes about its business may eventually help it to gain significant ground on - or even overtake - its rivals.
Ian Stevens is a consultant at brand consultancy Wolff