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Big Law lacks Good Branding

Special request: We republish this article from our archive for educational purposes (original publication date July 26, 2016)

A study conducted by a Danish PR executive, Nic. Rossen who interviewed 50 business managers related to his firms’ clients, associates and affiliates on the brand perception of US management consultancies vs.

Can well-crafted publicity persuade business managers abroad to perceive and prefer fake corporate law firms over real ones promoted by advertising? And is prior knowledge a determining factor? Yes, a new study conducted among Danish business managers suggests, arguing that US law firms suffer from a dangerous case of »bad branding« overseas.

Andersson & Cooper Associates, Reagan Rove Coolidge, JMM Global. Sounds familiar? If yes, it’s because they’re engineered to do so: These alleged corporate law firms and 3 other »management consultancies« were purposely invented for a new study conducted by a Danish PR executive, who interviewed 50 business managers related to his firms’ clients, associates and affiliates on the brand perception of US management consultancies vs. US corporate law firms.

According to the study, the average manager had 79 subordinates, with 66% of the managers identifying as being in either top management or top management and owner/co-ownership of their respective organisations, with 46% of these companies turning over more than $5M/year. Thus with testimonies from a potentially relevant target group of American lawyers seeking to expand business abroad, the study reached some fairly remarkable conclusions: »The notion I had from our business, was that while US management consultancies have been great at promoting brands abroad to senior level executives, US lawyers have not. This we found evidence of«, says Nic. Rossen, who spent months conducting the study in early 2015 with Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and The University of Stirling, Scotland, while simultaneously being the head of PR-consultancy Rossen & Company in Copenhagen, which specialises namely in branding professional services firms like law firms and management consultancies.

From blue stamp to blue chip

The evidence was found conducting a series of experiments, exhibiting ads from some of the world’s largest law firms and management consultancies back-2-back with forged publicity on invented firms of both law and management consultancy with names spun out of popular culture, asking the subjected business managers to rate their brand perception on a scale from one to ten.

»I basically just thought of the most ridiculous cases and names I could come up with. One firm I called JMM Global and their lead attorney Jim McGill (i.e. AMC’s Saul Goodman), added creative copy and The Washington Post’s logo. Voilá, prime publicity.«

Example of a fake law firm promoted by forged publicity

In line with the Rossen’s predictions, subjects spectacularly displayed a higher mean perception of the fake law firms promoted by forged publicity (6,1/10) than the real ones promoted by actual advertisements (5,65/10). »In the case of the Saul Goodman-inspired JMM Global, this wound up being slightly higher perceived than NYC-powerhouse Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and a tad more preferred than DLA Piper – one of the highest grossing law firms in the world«, Rossen says.

Yet still, subjects consequently held the real management consultancies promoted by advertising in higher mean regard (7,86/10) than the fakes promoted by forged publicity (5,82/10): »We found that the blue-stamping third-party credibility lent by publicity renders corporate entities blue chip with publics which do not hold prior brand knowledge. This is US big law’s core problem; very few know them abroad, why the fakes win with with foreign audiences, whereas management consultancies such as McKinsey, Bain and BCG have become household brands and therefore stand the test«, says Nic. Rossen.

Lawyers are »brand neanderthals«

Concerning the idea behind the study, the experiment turned out much to the surprise of Rossen: »The funny thing was that I thought I was about to prove that publicity is generically a better way than advertising to brand professional services firms, but ended up suggesting two other things: 1. Publicity persuades better than advertising more-often with unknown brands 2. Lawyers are brand neanderthals, why these should rely on publicity to coin their brand as the Best Brand in Business – or BBB as I would like to phrase it.«

Arguing the side of the devil’s advocate, however, one would argue that management consultants are more globally-oriented than law firms, which have traditionally been tied to local legislation. According to Nic. Rossen’s research, however, this perception is dangerously out of date: »Law firms have been inherently national, but clients are increasingly global. This paradigm-shift will become a game changer for law firms, which historically have been reluctant to invest in brand building. Ask your friends: How many can actually articulate a large law brand in comparison to those that can articulate a large management consultancy? The problem is simple: Big law lacks branding.«

Lawyers: learn from management consultancies

Emulating management consultancies’ brand building, however, Rossen believes corporate law firms are in for a treat: »Management consultants and corporate lawyers are not that different: They both sell knowhow at a similar premium price, and the two industries’ top firms both have single-digit billion dollar turnovers. Management consultants, however, tend to gross more as they are more globally oriented and creative as per the nature of their business, and their brands are promoted throughout the world rather than in partnership with local firms, which lawyers can learn a lot from.«

While Nic. Rossen stresses that not all results cannot be concluded with statistical significance due to the relatively small sample size surveyed, he believes the study calls for more in-depth research and debate concerning the global branding of US law firms, which he believes will be paramount in tackling problems of the next frontier »With the democratisation of business knowledge through the internet, communications barriers are not just broken down, but consequently reducing the need to ask consultants of all trades questions«, he says, arguing that global competition is about to reach a whole new level: »Lawyers have historically benefitted from exclusivity in practise, making it both a lucrative business and one of the few professions, which haven’t been disrupted – yet. This could very well happen in the coming years, and the first to fail -come the Uber of law firms- will be the ones, which have not secured their brand game. Thus it’s not a question of if; you really need to be thought of as in pole position, top of mind and in thought-leadership. You need to become the Best Brand in Business in the minds of business managers if you want to survive as an increasingly global corporate law firm.«

Example of a fake law firm promoted by forged publicity:

An experimental study of how publicity impacts perception and preference, forging the best brands in business of corporate law and management consultancy was written by Nic. Rossen for a joint MSc.-dissertation with Universitat Pompeu Fabra and University of Stirling in Strategic Communications and Public Relationssupervised by Dr. Frederic Guerrero-Solé and submitted on July 24 2015.

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