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Meet Winston, the Bulldog That Became a Law Firm

By Burkey Belser and Diane Hartley
January 1, 1999
Meet Winston, the Bulldog That Became a Law Firm

In 1995, as we began to create an image for Womble Carlyle, trotting out a dog as a symbol of the firm would have provoked only barks and howls from the lawyers. Which is why this is also the story of "the creative process" as it relates to branding.

Branding aims at the future

The branding process began with helping the firm determine what it needed to become in order to thrive. Everything we later created was guided by that initial vision of how and where the firm wanted to grow.

In the early 1990s, as Charlotte emerged as a banking center and Research Triangle Park developed as a high-tech hub, Womble Carlyle was matching the area's dynamic growth and evolving into the state's dominant law firm. But the booming North Carolina economy was attracting the keen attention of large firms from Richmond, Atlanta and New York City, meaning the competition was about to get tougher.

Adopting a bold strategy, the leaders of the firm decided that to thrive, the firm must expand beyond the borders of the state. Dominating North Carolina would become the platform from which to expand throughout the region.

Pushing back the boundaries

Our branding platform helped the firm articulate two goals. The first was to become a key player in the entire Southeast region. The second, to create a distinct image of the firm that would transcend a typical "traditional" law firm.

To increase awareness of Womble Carlyle as a player outside its established turf, we realized we needed to identify the new region. But a location-based branding strategy can be risky. A brand built on one location may be forever limited by that decision. If that area catches a cold, the firm can contract pneumonia.

To avoid that danger, we established flexible boundaries that we could continue to push back as the firm expanded. Thus the first ads named cities where Womble Carlyle lawyers were handling substantial matters (Miami, Pittsburg) but did not have offices.

Branding is research-based

To measure perceptions of the firm among corporate counsel and business executives, we commissioned market research, including an image and awareness study. The real value of our research was that it convinced the firm's lawyers of the need for an aggressive, sophisticated marketing program.

Successful branding demands consistency of message, look and feel throughout all firm communications. To gain the greatest impact, we created the firm's new logo and the first ads for a branding campaign at the same time.

The first ads used bold images. A kid soaring on a skateboard. A '57 Chevy coupe. A bulldog. And the ads spoke directly to business problems throughout the loosely defined region without making a single claim about Womble Carlyle. No listing of practice areas. No grand statements about client service or expertise. And not at all what you would expect from a conservative law firm.

The message to business readers was clear: Here are folks who've been around business problems, who have a sense of humor, and who are as sophisticated and savvy as the corporate clients they serve.

The critical sale is internal

We presented mock ups of the ads and logo to the firm's executive committee—to universal approval and enthusiasm.

Then the hard work of selling the new image to the rest of the firm began—a necessary step since we were proposing a media-placement budget that could eventually run high into six figures.

Fortunately, we had the help of the one person essential to any branding campaign: a respected, internal champion (and lawyer). Womble Carlyle's Marketing Partner, Karen Carey was nimble, thick-skinned and a skilled coalition-builder. She also still practiced law, which meant she remained credible in the eyes of her partners. With firm management in the foreground and our skilled Marketing Partner in the background, the integrated marketing program was introduced and explained throughout the firm.

The bulldog makes friends

The favorite ad in the initial series was the bulldog. Some thought he resembled a beloved senior partner; and, as a result, he became the icon for the firm's annual client-service award. He also started appearing on the firm's holiday card and even baseball tee shirts.

Why metaphor is essential to branding

Branding has become an important tool of law firm marketing because, to prospective clients, most large law firms look pretty much alike. On brief acquaintance, outsiders find it difficult to discern or remember differences in personality or style. Without some means of reaching beyond the facts, law firm advertising risks becoming a dreary succession of unsupported claims and recitations of size, clients and specialties.

To capture the ad reader's attention long enough to create a distinct image, branding depends on the skillful use of metaphor, especially visual symbols. For Womble Carlyle, help was close at hand.

Dogs provide a rich source of useful metaphors—and an easy entry into the heart of the reader. Dogs are friendly, warm, loyal, smart, watchful and protective—all things you want your law firm to be. So that when the time came to refresh the branding campaign, the bulldog was an obvious candidate for ads that would create a distinct personality for the firm.

Dogs are territorial creatures—exactly the quality we needed to say, "This is our turf." As the firm opened offices in Atlanta and Washington and increasingly attracted clients from beyond the Southeast, we created ads that further expanded the firm's image geographically.

The next step: dogs in the office

Today, Winston is working hard—on luggage tags, hats and mouse pads, where his image consistently reinforces and enriches the branding message. For example, Winston adds humor and recognition to the firm's Web site (womblecarlyle.com) by pacing across the screen as the first page downloads.

To reach one of the firm's most important audiences, Winston brought some friends along to help. In the Womble Carlyle recruiting brochure, six partners and associates frolic with their dogs—a warm way to convey the message "We're real people, the kind of people you'd like to associate with."

What Winston taught us

We know we're on the right track when the managing partner of another firm tells us, "There is no reason for me to have Womble Carlyle on my radar screen other than I've noticed and remembered their ads. I feel I know these guys, even though I really don't."

Only a managing partner or marketing partner can fully appreciate both the creative effort and management skills needed to launch and sustain a branding campaign with that level of impact.

The more creative the campaign—the more unexpected and edgy—the greater the need to sell it internally. At Womble Carlyle, launching and maintaining the branding campaign has consumed two firm retreats and dozens of presentations each year to partners, associates and staff. The campaign's goals, philosophy and budgets must constantly be resold.

Branding takes years to be effective. Branding works only when the message is presented consistently in hundreds of impressions on the reader. Few firms have mustered that degree of stamina. We see it only in firms where all or most lawyers have internalized the brand promise and begun to live it—and that happens only in firms that practice constant and effective internal communication.

This article was originally published in LMA Strategies.