fivehundred magazine > Marketing > When it comes to law firm branding, be bold

When it comes to law firm branding, be bold

Look beyond the new colour palette and revamped website if you want a successful rebrand, writes Paul Bellamy, director of strategy and business development at SANDS.

Branding processes happen more often than we think. Six companies I have worked in rebranded during my tenure with them; two others immediately after I left them. My experience in the legal profession is limited to commercial law, as CEO of three of Norway’s largest firms, but I have also been fortunate to be involved in international rebrands as a partner in PwC and in Grant Thornton.

The pace of change is undoubtedly picking up in law firms, with mergers, partner moves, and changes in client loyalty all contributing to a rethink in a very traditional industry. There are three typical branding situations, the most common being primarily visual, the second needing more emphasis on communication, and the third requiring a rebrand or repositioning of the entire firm.

The cosmetic approach

Most leading firms are proud of their history and achievements and are resistant to major changes. They often aim for a new look, maybe even a new feel, but don’t try (or even want) to suggest they have changed. This is the classic, almost minimalistic, branding exercise; new logo, new colour palette, revamped website and stationery, and maybe a name change, where Smith, Jones and Brown is shortened to
Smith Jones.

It is rather like putting on makeup; you look better and feel better but most observers will know the firm hasn’t really changed. This may be a good thing, but many of our clients are in industries where the leading players didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Can we really be confident that law firms are exempted from this trend?

Market opinion

Where there is a mismatch between the market’s opinion of a firm’s competence, service level and reputation, and the view held by management and the partners, then a more extensive rebranding is needed. ‘The market’ will usually not only include clients, but also the business community, lawyers outside the firm, students, and market commentators, including law firm rankings.

This can’t be fixed by only implementing cosmetic changes; it must be accompanied by a vigorous communication strategy that focuses on actively updating key players, including the firm’s existing clients, on the skills, services, and true strengths of the firm. Within the bounds of client confidentiality you must demonstrate you have demanding clients that trust you with complex matters, as well as demonstrating thought leadership through active participation in legal and business discussions and forums.

Media exposure can also be a powerful tool, not necessarily using expensive advertising, but preferably by finding topics that interest financial, legal, or industry publications and websites. Getting the message to decision-makers is the key to success.

Walk the talk

However, a comprehensive rebrand is needed to promote a new firm or one that has changed significantly, through mergers, acquisitions, or other major developments. This was our challenge in SANDS.

In March 2015 the firm initiated a total repositioning of itself; essentially transforming a large firm serving a wide range of clients to one tailoring its services for the high-end business market, starting with a new strategy, new management, and a new partner model. There have been a number of radical changes internally and we needed a rebranding project to match and which would educate the market. We decided to pursue a strategy of ongoing rebranding, realising that we could get our message across more easily and more powerfully by actively communicating changes as and when they happened; effectively ‘walking the talk’.

One of our successes was getting the media interested at an early stage. We decided to be very open and honest about our ambitions, plans, and actions. We downsized or terminated non-strategic practice areas and client segments while strengthening others, in some cases building new teams and services from scratch. We also launched a massive lateral hire partner project: in several cases we recruited three-partner teams rather than individuals. We also more than doubled our number of female partners.

These high-profile events attracted attention from the financial press, resulting in more than two years of regular articles and interviews in publications read daily by decision-makers in business. The fact that most new partners came from our leading competitors was obviously newsworthy, but we also initiated discussions and dared to debate our values publicly, such as on work-life balance and the pitfalls of maximum profit as a dominating incentive for partners.

In this way, we were noticed by competitors (useful for recruitment) and the business community long before we launched the visual brand. Another ‘walk the talk’ rebrand project was our offices. We commissioned a new head-office building in Oslo and moved in the same week we launched the new brand.

Visitors are in no doubt they have come to a different law firm, not just due to its size and location, but also because the interior
design team, led by our excellent marketing director, created a client/visitor experience that differentiates us in the market.
We wanted a consistent SANDS look, feel, and quality, so during these last three years we have moved to new, custom-designed offices in three of the other cities we are located and have revamped the interior design at the two other offices.

What’s in a name?

Yes, we also created a new website, chose a new colour palette, modernised our use of social media etcetera. However, the other major decision was to change our brand name and we chose to change it radically. The two name partners both start with S and we chose SANDS, based on S and S. In this way we kept a link to our past, but chose a name that is different, international, very recognisable, and easily branded in our logo and other graphical design contexts.

The most important lessons learned are the need for boldness, intensity, stamina, and consistency. We had fairly small project groups, selecting people who were passionate, but also willing to work hard over a long period of time. Four members of senior management were heavily involved in all the projects, ensuring commitment and that the same thinking, culture, message, and brand were at the heart of all our repositioning work.

Our turnover has increased by 55% in these three years, so the market has definitely noticed that we have changed.

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