Rebranding after a merger is harder than firms imagine

October 2016
By Ross Fishman
CEO of Fishman Marketing
To submit a letter to the editor: Policy

I read with great interest your August 2016 cover story, “Meeting the right match,” regarding all the merger activity in Chicago; I’d estimate that well over 100 (!) regional and national law firms have moved into Chicago since the 1980s. I’d also suggest that of that 100, barely five of them have any measurable name recognition within the Chicago business community and less than 10 are well-known within the local legal community.

That is, if you ask the average lawyer walking down LaSalle Street to name 10 major out- of-town law firms with Chicago offices, they wouldn’t be able to.

Further, if you ask them if they’ve ever heard of terrific firms like Bryan Cave, Perkins Coie, Husch Blackwell, Haynes and Boone or Akerman, I’d suggest that most lawyers will say no — even though each is a dominant leader in its home market.

Or if you asked them what well-known Chicago law firms were acquired by Honigman, Cozen O’Connor, Shook Hardy, King & Spalding or Brown Smith Wallace, I’ll bet you a dollar they wouldn’t know.

The issue is, regional or national firms come to town with a grandiose goal of building a 100-lawyer, full-service local office in a vibrant legal market. They buy a well-known, 25- or 50-year-old Chicago-based, full-service or boutique firm (whoever’s left, basically), promising cross-selling opportunities with big-name clients, a regional or national platform to sell to their existing clients and significant marketing support.

The typical rebranding plan seems to be that they’ll (1) have a 2.5-hour after-work launch party for clients and contacts, (2) do some weak and forgettable print advertising for a couple months and (3) for a two year-period, let the small firm use a combined logo variation structured as “BIG FIRM Small Firm,” after which “Small Firm” disappears forever.

But because the acquiring firm fumbles the local rebrand, the smaller Chicago firm invariably loses the name recognition they’d earned over decades, without replacing it with the powerful, new national brand they had been promised.

Then, of course, lateral recruiting is weaker than anticipated. This is because few top lawyers want to interview with or move to a firm they have never heard of. (Money and synergy are important, but so is ego — they want their peers to say “Wow!” not “Who?” when they receive their move announcement.)

As a marketing and branding consultant, I’ve seen that pattern repeated in dozens of cities nationwide. Five years later, the frustrated, struggling lawyers call me directly, bypassing the mother ship, begging for marketing help building back the name recognition that they’d had five years earlier before the exciting merger.

My point is, it’s a wasted opportunity. The acquiring firm isn’t being dishonest; they don’t understand what it takes to build an effective brand from scratch. They simply can’t imagine a world where every prospect doesn’t know them, because they grew up as the 800-pound gorilla in their home market. And after a relatively short while, management has moved on to other, more pressing initiatives and opportunities. Out of sight, out of mind.

From a marketing perspective, it takes more time, more effort, more commitment and more dollars to rebrand a new “branch office” than firms typically envision, or budget for.

Acquiring a new firm is so costly — why let them flounder under the new brand? Why not spend a few more bucks up front and jump-start its success? Wouldn’t it be better to cause the new local market to exclaim “Wow! What’s up with that Smith & Jones firm? I want to learn more about them!”

(By the way, there was a trick. King & Spalding isn’t in Chicago, and Brown Smith Wallace is an accounting firm.)