Brand offensive

As more firms merge throughout Europe Fenella Quinn reports on marketing strategies for firms hoping to create an instantly recognisable brand in new jurisdictions.

In the era of the European superfirm, it is not only getting business that is preoccupying partners, but also image.

But when working and competing across different cultures, traditions and political and economic structures, how can these new firms create a consistent and reliable image to sell to clients?

"At the moment there's an enormous amount of pressure to be able to provide advice in European jurisdictions," says Harold Paisner, senior partner of Paisner & Co.

"You've got to be able to do it one way or another, either through your own network, merged firms or associations."

And as Tony Benns, managing partner of US giant Morgan Lewis & Bockius' London office points out, when a US firm is using another firm to handle the European aspects of a transaction, it is vital that the image of that firm is a good one.

"If we have to refer our client, we would hope that they were perceived to be a prestige firm," he says. Indeed, it is probably high praise for UK firms that Benns sees their marketing efforts in general as positive.

"They have been doing a very successful job, just in terms of the publicity they've been getting," he says. "There is an increased awareness of new networks and integrated purchases, which are phenomena that we're reading about on a weekly basis."

One of the most high-profile examples of this phenomenon is Linklaters & Paines' marriage with five major firms from Sweden, Italy, Holland, Germany and Belgium. Now called Linklaters & Alliance, the firm created a new role of head of marketing, which has recently been filled by Irena Greaves. Part of a small executive team, which includes a chief executive officer, secretary general, finance director, IT director and herself, Greaves describes her role as "to find conduits between each member firm of the alliance, and to introduce best practice across the alliance".

Neither she nor Rosemarie Ghazaros, director of marketing for Linklaters & Paines, are members of the main management board of the new firm, and both are quick to assert that neither is boss of the other.

Whatever their position within the firm, the task facing the two women is to introduce consistent brand image, and the much-vaunted ideal of a "seamless service" across a variety of geographical areas.

However, they are faced with the logistical implications of working in different jurisdictions.

In Belgium and Italy, for example, most forms of marketing, including advertising, are not allowed. And some partners need to be educated from scratch as to the benefits and rationale behind marketing at all.

Like the first marketing teams in the UK, which began the long battle to educate lawyers in order to keep them in the running with the major accountancy firms, they now have to convince partners of the need to develop a European marketing strategy.

"Some European firms are much more comfortable with the proposition of marketing," confirms Greaves. "Regulatory constraints determine what you can and can't do. What you do end up doing you may not call marketing."

She predicts that as lawyers increasingly move around Europe, they will put pressure on their domestic bar councils to bring about change. "The Italians find they can do things here that they can't do in Italy, so they go back and want to do the same things," she explains.

"But there is a real need to relax these rules because of the greater integration going on across Europe."

Leaving aside stumbling blocks such as differing attitudes and jurisdictional competence, there is then the task of ensuring brand consistency across the alliance, network or merged firm.

Most major players seem to have client or practice groups, which meet regularly and work out the marketing strategy for their own sector. These groups generally consist of a representative from each country and one or two marketing personnel.

One of the most recent major mergers on the block is Lovell White Durrant's conjunction with Boesebeck Droste of Germany.

Explaining how labour is divided between local and central offices, Michael Belford, head of business for Lovell White Durrant, says local offices decide what needs to be done in terms of events and local client initiatives.

The central marketing team in London concentrates on brand considerations such as logos, visuals and other areas where brand consistency is required. He adds: "If any of them are running a client seminar, we'll do all the material here."

Indeed the Lovells team is already used to producing packages in languages from Japanese to French. "The hard work is integrating the practices," says Belford. "You have to adapt your approach to different jurisdictions."

He is not unusual in strenuously asserting that it is the partners, and not the marketing teams, who set the marketing agenda. In almost admonishing tones, he insists that one should not underestimate partners' ability to think in promotional terms.

"Each team decides how to develop their own areas," he says. Turning to the different countries, he adds: "Some are fairly advanced in terms of media relations. The idea is to integrate what we've been doing with what they've been doing."

Tom Rose, media relations manager at Clifford Chance, warns that without a coherent long-term strategy backed by the partners, "marketing and broader business-related problems tend to enlarge".

He adds: "We found this to be the case in 1987-1997 when we transformed ourselves into a leading European firm and likewise in the new firm we are creating with Rogers & Wells and Punder."

Rose warns other firms going down the same route that they must take their marketing seriously. "Marketing goes way beyond the brochure, seminar and press office and is, at its core, a way of thinking and acting that must lie at the heart of the business," he says.

Of course, Clifford Chance has had years of experience dealing with the difficulties of bringing together lawyers from all over the world. Rose says the way to deal with cultural diversity is to hire lawyers who are "cosmopolitan in outlook, flexible and at ease with – and curious about – other cultures and languages".

He adds: "When establishing a new office, our aim is to bring together a mix of leading local lawyers with lawyers from our other offices who are steeped in the Clifford Chance way of doing things. This way the same essential core message is conveyed in each country, but with the help of our local lawyers, tailored to the local community."

Likewise, Ghazaros and Greaves are adamant that their presence at practice group meetings is only to ensure best practice and also to plan and motivate. "The marketing personnel are there to act as a refining stage in the process," says Ghazaros.

"The partners understand their markets, business and clients. Sometimes we need to define more clearly their target market and what their business objectives are. The answers to these questions will dictate what we have to do."

Greaves adds: "We really have to make our case sometimes, but they're pretty open to ideas. Cultural issues are key – it's so easy to put your foot in it. Things are often done very differently and you have to keep an open mind."

Internal marketing is also important as a firm begins to expand into different countries. Lovells' approach to informing staff of the merger was to produce separate leaflets for clients and staff containing news of the merger and frequent questions.

And even where there is no actual external transaction going on, it is important to relay the European message to partners, associates and beyond. Simon Slater, business development director at Eversheds, says he has only in the last month started to broadcast Eversheds' new branding externally. For the last five months he has been busy communicating the message internally.

With their large marketing teams and massive firms behind them, European expansion is all very well for the bigger firms, but what can smaller firms do to survive in a climate where the greats just get greater as they systematically gobble up quality firms throughout Europe?

"The worry is that big new groups such as Linklaters & Alliance will attract so much work that the medium-size firms lose out," says Paisner.

"But the accountancy profession is the major threat. A client who does not have legal representation in Europe may well say: 'PricewaterhouseCoopers or Arthur Andersen have got their own network, let's leave it to them'."

And with a background in marketing across Europe, the big accountants, like the big law firms, are already ahead.

To combat these threats and create a strong basis to support a European marketing and business expalnsion, the way forward in most marketing specialists' minds seems to fall into four main categories: merge/acquire; form an alliance leading to merger; laterally hire; or explore the best friend scenario, where independent firms throughout Europe work together to service international client needs.

Paisner warns that for those taking the best friend route, it is essential to "establish your networks early, and establish financial links that bind you together".

He suggests setting up a holding company that takes a proportion of profits, through which independent firms can be linked through a common interest. After all, the bureaucratic implications inherent to any merger or alliance can be a major disincentive.

Benns says: "To integrate with an established firm is perhaps the more logical choice. But one of the best options is to find a group of practitioners who can provide a solid base on which to build.

"Integrating in some form of merger involves lots of complications, and you inherit each others' problems as well as each other's businesses."

Another way for smaller firms to survive is to hone down the sectors in which they provide a service. Slater points to firms such as Bird & Bird, which has concentrated on its core market and thereby, he says, begun to be accepted as the best international telecoms practice. However, this sectorisation does not stop at smaller firms.

Slater says: "We have 35 legal disciplines at Eversheds, but we can't concentrate on all of them all of the time, so we've identified six or seven market sectors that we are going to invest in, to be able to compete on the international stage."

Observers argue that the best way forward for most law firms seems to be to ensure that they market themselves as the best at what they do.

"If they're very good at servicing their particular clients in particular locations, and can match the resources of the major players [in their domestic market] then they'll probably be okay," predicts Slater.

Looking to the next five to 10 years, he adds: "Most of the top firms will have strategies worked out, therefore the second and third tier firms will be on a much more equal footing.

"Neither will be dominant and it will be a very interesting landscape."