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Happily Ever After–Managing Brand Integration in a Merger–Happy Market

By Burkey Belser
April 17, 2012
Happily Ever After–Managing Brand Integration in a Merger–Happy Market

Forget about March Madness. The first quarter of 2012 was Merger Madness, with 20 U.S. and 19 international law firms completing mergers in the last few months, according to a report issued recently the Hildebrandt Institute, a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters. The US side represents an upswing of 43% in mergers over the same period in 2011. Those mergers took place across the country.

Mergers are clearly a trend on the rise in this difficult economic time, as businesses struggle to stay competitive. So, if your firm is one of the many contemplating a merger, what should you do to manage the process smoothly while ensuring your new brand reflects both you and your new partner equitably and memorably?

Timing is everything.

Usually, by the time a merger hits our desks, there’s very little time left to act. Time is precious since the public announcement usually quickly follows the partnership vote. Ironically, enduring goodwill can hinge on the very first act the merged parties undertake: the combined firm’s new identity. And it’s inevitably the last item on the list for consideration. At the twelfth hour, we often get the call asking for help in negotiating the new name of the merged firm.

Start early.

We urge you to have your message in hand by the time the merger is an agreement in principle. From that moment, the clock is ticking. Forget a full-blown communications strategy; you need to click into implementation mode. You have a maximum of 100 days to generate a public face for the new firm while the merger is still news. The sooner you’re ready, the greater the impact. Sell from the inside out.

Get ready, get set, go!

Once the deal is real, a merger is all about integration—from day one to day 1,000. Marketing and internal communications can play an important role by creating and developing the new firm’s message to the world. Helping the firm’s attorneys understand and articulate the benefits of the merger isn’t always easy—but it’s critical to reassuring clients who are concerned about clashes of culture, conflicts of interest and cost increases.

Assemble the perfect merger team.

The merger team defines the message to clients and sparks the enthusiasm that makes it memorable. In addition to the managing partners of both firms, the perfect merger team usually includes several of their trusted lieutenants, marketing leaders from both firms (unless another understanding exists) and communications experts in public relations, brand design and advertising.

Even in the most amicable mergers, where compensation and client conflict issues are settled early, agreeing on the new name and visual identity of the firm can create frustrating stumbling blocks.

Who (besides the client) cares?

Your merger will be news, not only for clients, but for the legal community, your consultants and partners as well. The merger announcement offers an opportune moment to reveal a credible, well thought-out strategy for your firm’s attorneys, other professionals and staff, recruits referral sources and friendly reporters. They all care in different ways. And their cooperation and enthusiasm are central to your success.

Your people—partners, associates and staff—will be the ambassadors and spokespeople for your merger. Remember that associates and staff have different issues than partners. So speak directly to their concerns about layoffs, office and practice realignments and other issues. Your goal is to turn skeptics into allies, and allies into cheerleaders.

Clients, clients, clients.

Assure clients first and foremost that their service will be uninterrupted. If conflicts exist, tackle them head-on. Second, your message needs to be about how the merger will benefit clients, that great things will come their way as a result of this merger, such as deeper bandwidth, expanded reach in key markets and access to more diverse talent.

The media.

You’re in the headlines, so make the most of it! Your PR team will help you imagine every negative scenario and develop a positive answer for it. Expect competitors to have the negative spin. Have a counterpunch ready. Plan ahead to turn problems into opportunities.

To learn how we can help your firm smooth the way through a merger, call Burkey Belser (202.775.0333) or Joe Walsh (207.553.9030).