Overhauling the brand of a national firm is no small undertaking, and Deacons has set itself a "monumental" task. As Zoe Lyon discovers, there's far more to a brand overhaul than a name change.
The legal profession will be watching keenly when Deacons officially unveils its new Norton Rose Group branding on 1 January 2010.
Revamping a national firm, with a new name, colour and logo, is in itself no mean feat. However, the real test for Deacons and Norton Rose will be whether they can successfully bring together, and improve on, the distinct cultures and service offerings of two well established firms.
A physical challenge
To say that the complete rebrand of a national law firm is a big undertaking is putting it lightly. And to add to the pressure, after going public with its merger plans in July, Deacons gave itself a seemingly tight timeframe of just six months to make it all happen.
Since July 2000, when the firm officially began trading as Deacons, it has firmly established its place in the very upper echelons of the mid-tier, and has become a household name among corporate Australia.
Deacons director of marketing Marcus Warner explains: "It's an incredibly complex process. You wouldn't understand the far-flung [places] that our brand has reached since Deacons became Deacons."
Far beyond the physical signage and multitude of brand reminders that are scattered throughout the firm's offices, Warner explains that the firm's brand has made its mark in a diverse range of places including corporates, universities, institutions and charities. A recent audit discovered it had appeared in more than 1200 different places.
What's in a name?
However, while a physical rebrand is a big deal, the branding experts that Lawyers Weekly spoke to believe that successfully merging the cultures of two distinct firms, and finding synergies to benefit staff and clients alike, is the main game.
Cat Wirth, president of the Asia-Pacific Professional Services Marketing Association (APSMA) which was involved with rebrands including PricewaterhouseCoopers and Blake Dawson, explained that law firms sometimes fall into the trap of directing all their attention to the physical aspects of a rebrand (such as the firm name and logo), at the expense of the less tangible, cultural aspects.
"When we're talking about rebranding, we tend to focus heavily on the change of visual identity, rather than on culture and behaviour. "Brand is really all about people and behaviour and the client experience - what the firm stands for and believes in is their brand essence," she says.
"So if you're going to merge you've got to make sure there is consistency and synergies between the two brands from the cultural and behavioural side of the two firms.
"Merging two cultures is incredibly complex and something that needs to be taken into consideration over the medium-to-long term. It's not a short term thing."
“It’s a massive undertaking involving complex issues because they’re going to have to carefully manage client expectations, market expectations, peer expectations – all those people who have influenced and live with their brand and liked their brand”
Sue-Ella McDowall, founder of brand agency McDowall which has worked with clients including DibbsBarker, agrees that managing the process of merging two cultures - and then introducing the market to the new and improved business - is at the crux of a successful rebrand.
"You're borrowing and building - you're borrowing from the old brand and building it into the new brand. So it's taking all the good things that Deacons represented, and taking all the great things that Norton Rose Group represented, and ... building a better entity. If they do that right they'll come out very well at the other end," she says.
The significance of achieving a cultural fit between the two firms certainly wasn't overlooked by Deacons - in fact it was at the top of the priority list going into merger negotiations, Warner explains. "Culture is basically developed and exhibited by our people, and one of the first things we were struck by when we started to talk to our Norton Rose counterparts was that they were exactly the same as us - so that was a good starting point," he says.
He says the firms engaged a number of external agencies who were charged with the role of teasing out what the "Deacons DNA" consisted of, what the "Norton Rose Group DNA" consisted of, and how to combine the best of these traits into the culture of the newly merged firm.
This process, he says, was a two-month exercise which involved collaborating with the firm's staff - from partners down to graduate lawyers - and involved a lot of soul searching.
"It was about understanding what we wanted to continue with and what we wanted to let go, because we can't continue to operate as a national firm, we have to now truly think as a global firm," he says.
"The upshot is that basically we're going to have a new Norton Rose Group DNA as of January 1 that will be exhibited by our people. We're basically taking the best bits of Deacons, the best bits of Norton Rose, and the new Norton Rose Group will be much stronger, and will deliver more value and absolute insight into our clients' needs than the two firms in their current existence."
Keep on talking
McDowall says one of the biggest challenges of undertaking a complete rebrand - particularly involving a merger - is keeping open the lines of communication with clients. She warns that while the benefits of a merger and a subsequent rebrand might be self evident to the senior ranks of the firm, selling them to clients can take some time.
"By adopting the Norton Rose brand name, brand attributes and the characteristics that go with it, [Deacons is] going to have to be happy - or at least accepting - to lose a lot of the intrinsic value that Deacons had before.
"Because at the end of the day there were a lot of clients out there who were perfectly happy with the brand before. So it's a massive undertaking involving complex issues, because they're going to have to carefully manage client expectations, market expectations, peer expectations - all those people who have influenced and live with their brand and liked their brand," she says.
Recognising this hurdle, Warner says the firm made it a priority to communicate with clients from the get-go.
"At the very outset we made it our first priority to talk to our clients at the same time as we talked to our staff, and that made it all the more compelling for them to share this journey," he says.
Over a 48-hour period, he says, every one of the firm's clients received a personalised phone call informing them of the merger and what it would entail, followed up with a letter.
"So we ensured that everyone was fully briefed, they were given a clear understanding of what the new Norton Rose Group meant to them, so clients were comfortable that there wasn't going to be a significant change immediately to the way we would do business with them. In fact, by the end of the conversation they saw that there was a significant benefit in them continuing to be engaged with Deacons and what would be the new Norton Rose Group."
“It’s an incredibly complex process. You wouldn’t understand the far flung
reaches that our brand has reached since Deacons became Deacons”
McDowall adds that communication with staff is equally important, and can sometimes be overlooked by firms in the excitement of unveiling their new look to the public.
"Their internal culture - and the brand attributes that are built around their internal culture - has to match what they're saying to their customers," she says.
"For some [organisations] ... there can be a brand disconnect at the internal level .... So you've got to manage [staff] sensitivities and make sure what you're saying externally you're also saying internally."
Happy New Year
The Deacons/Norton Rose merger which becomes official on 1 January is the first - but unlikely to be the last - international merger the Australian legal industry will witness, and it will likely be viewed by the profession as an important benchmark.
As McDowall says, it's a "monumental" move. "I imagine the Deacons rebrand will be massive - big dollars and big noise - and they've got to make big noise if they're going to do this properly."
- Zoe Lyon
Like this story? Read more: