Brand and deliver?

Faced with increasingly demanding clients in a highly competitive market, many law firms are turning to branding. But, can rebranding exercises really improve a firm's fortunes? Maybe. Sean Farrell explains.

The letters page hummed with dissent last month following editor Sean Brierley's attack on the marketing industry's obsession with "the power of the brand" (The Lawyer 11 January), which is increasingly attracting disciples in the legal profession. He argued that some law firm marketing departments are putting too much effort into wooing new business with slick rebranding, and are not focussing enough on relations with existing clients.

Design agencies, business school academics and communications consultants bombarded The Lawyer with angry missives, complaining that marketing was about more than men with ponytails selling "concepts" over lunch.

It was only just over a decade ago that the Law Society allowed firms to market themselves at all. Before 1987, self-promotion was seen as distasteful commercialism. The idea that almost every medium to large firm would have a separate – often influential – marketing department was unthinkable.

Yet today any major firm that is serious about expanding its business should be spending about 2 per cent of its fees on marketing activities, according to Barry Jackson, head of business development at Herbert Smith.

Firms are now so aware of their brand that they are undergoing dramatic image overhauls in a manner not far removed from the periodic "rebranding" of soap powders and other consumer goods.

One of the most recent – and radical – image revamps was Edge & Ellison's transformation into edge ellison. Last November, the firm spent about £80,000 on changing its name and logo. Design consultancy Light & Coley offered various names that were meant to communicate the firm's values to clients, including "edgellison" – which it felt might be mistaken for someone called Ed Gellison – and "edge.co.uk", which was deemed too gimmicky.

The firm's new logo, featuring an internet-style lower case "e" overlaid with a scribbled version of the same letter, is meant to represent the disciplined and creative sides of the brain, in order to reflect the firm's complementary strengths, says marketing director Meirion Jones.

Cameron McKenna's adoption of "cameron mcKenna" was, according to head of marketing Andrew Powell, supposed to convey an image of "approachable, modern, unstuffy firm we were trying to create".

Perhaps the most radical rebranding was Osborne Clarke putting a big cat in its orange logo. "We went for it because of the sheer unexpectedness of solicitors having a cat as their logo, or anything other than an ancient heraldic device," says managing partner Leslie Perrin.

Perrin believes that those who are sniffy about rebranding are not facing the facts. "This is a very volatile marketplace, but a lot of people tend to act as if it's not," he says.

Osborne's design consultancy won an award for the work.

This is all very well, but is putting a cat in your logo, or adopting faddish punctuation, the right way to market yourself?

Slaughter and May thinks not. The firm retains a conservative, traditional law firm approach, with no separate marketing department. Res- ponsibility for promotional work is spread among a number of practising partners. One such partner, Patrick Balfour, says: "On the whole, the approach of the firm is to present ourselves in an understated way, and to say that we don't believe in big glossy brochures. We don't shout it from the rooftops; we just get on with it."

He says less established firms may look to rebrand "if they want to become part of a different forum, because it won't happen on its own". But Slaughters' approach to marketing places a "huge emphasis on doing a job for our existing clients", Balfour says.

Slaughters is not alone in this view. Fi Inchbald, director of business development at Taylor Joynson Garrett, comments: "A few years ago, marketing departments wouldn't have got involved with clients other than to send them a brochure or organise an event." But this was in the days when marketing was still called marketing. Inchbald talks about "business development… looking after your current clients to the optimum. Everything you do should be for them, and only then do you start targeting new business".

She believes that the changing role of marketing reflects law firms' increasing willingness to serve their clients. According to Inchbald, there used to be a certain arrogance in assuming both clients and partners would stay with the firm for life. But clients are now more demanding and firms have had to realise they are providing a service in a competitive marketplace, she says.

When law firms began to promote themselves, marketing was based on brochures and organising events. This approach is still used, but with very varied results, according to Alan Whitfield, head of BT's legal department. "We have been to some seminars that have been a waste of time; where more thought went into the design of the canapes than into the quality of the speakers," he says.

Whitfield says long-term relationships are what major clients want. He receives regular pitches from firms, as well as "newsletters that assume we don't know anything", neither of which are persuasive.

BT only uses five firms, all of which have worked with the company for at least five years. "We want a firm to show it understands what we are about," Whitfield says.

Barry Jackson believes the kind of rebranding process undergone by edge ellison and Osborne Clarke is not something Herbert Smith would need to consider. "I don't think it is what clients are looking for. What is important is name and reputation, not a brand. And I don't think rebranding ourselves is going to get us any more business."

He says the role of his department is to take as much of the marketing burden as possible away from partners, leaving them free to develop client relationships. "The smart partnerships realise that partners make directional decisions, but also see that partners don't have to implement those decisions. Once the partners have decided on a strategy, the macro side can be done by marketing people. The micro is then done by the lawyers in targeting clients and selling."

So can improved branding cha-nge a firm's fortunes?

CSS managing director Ben Bolton, whose research consultancy has measured client satisfaction with law firms throughout Europe, offers a qualified maybe. Bolton argues that a firm's logo is important, but it must be part of broader overall branding strategy and focus on a firm's strengths. "You don't achieve a reputation just by changing an identity," he says. "You have to have the whole package."

But firms that have rebranded say the image change represented a wholesale shift in the way they conduct their business. Powell says cameron mcKenna's rebranding exercise was a post-merger "unifying measure" and that it is "a very small part of what a law firm's marketing department does".

"As a marketing group, we look at the issues that affect our clients and what our response should be." Powell says the partners' knowledge and expertise "are our products, and we leverage that with our experience of marketing. It's not something that marketing can do on its own".

The importance of branding varies between firms according to their history and current circumstances. Jones says edge ellison's rebrand "is not something that happened on its own". It marked a complete overhaul of the firm's way of working, as laid out in a three-year plan to expand the business using client care measures to enhance its reputation. The move followed a troubled period of high-profile departures and a failed merger. The new image was intended to "draw a line in the sand", says Jones.

A merger throws up obvious questions such as what the new firm's name should be and, at the same time, offers the chance to think about the kind of image the firm wants to present.

Long-established firms that have not experienced major upheaval, do not feel the need to present a radically different image. Slaughters relies on its history and traditions in a way that almost makes this a marketing tool in itself. Balfour says: "Individual clients like to think they have a personal relationship with us, and perhaps they like to think of things as operating in a private and understated way. Some clients might like us to blow our own trumpet a bit more – but then perhaps not."

But few firms can rely on this approach. Perrin points out that Osborne Clarke decided to revamp its image after being encouraged to do so by its clients during a two-year consultation exercise. "They said the logo didn't match the type of firm we had become," he says.

And no firm is completely immune to concerns about presentation. Balfour says: "Just because we don't have a marketing department doesn't mean we are not involved in marketing." Slaughters reshaped its logo three years ago to make it "rather more modern", he says.

Balfour adds: "We will be moving buildings in the next two or three years, and that will provide an excuse to look at our image."

Marketing, when practised sensibly, now amounts to more than canapes and brochures. Today, it is an essential aspect of a firm's armoury in a competitive market. However, the market is competitive because clients are more demanding, and if the service they receive does not match the hype, they will not hang around for the next rebranding exercise.