Brobeck: When Your Future is at Stake... A Kept Promise or Just Advertising?

03.17.03
By Deborah McMurray
Published in LawMarketing Portal

Everyone has an opinion about Brobeck, and most seem willing to share it. Legal industry conservatives who argue that marketing, in the broadest sense, and branding, more specifically, DON’T WORK, are among those buzzing about Brobeck’s sudden death. These perpetual cynics are, by a professional marketer’s standards, advancing the Brobeck brand. "Word of mouth" is still one of the best tests of brand strength—even after a firm has disintegrated.

Dissecting Brobeck's Position

So, if we agree that Brobeck had a brand, what was it? Its tagline was: Brobeck: When your Future is at Stake." This positioning statement suggested several things to executives:

  • When they reached a fork in the road and didn’t know which way to turn, Brobeck could lead them down the right path.
  • When faced with a death-of-the-company circumstance, Brobeck could come in and save the day.
  • For the everyday corporate blocking and tackling, Brobeck was not the firm to hire.
  • Good positioning strategy should be grounded in reality, and, at the same time, define the buyers the firm is going after.

Brobeck’s tagline suggests it was only seeking high risk, high return ventures—if you didn’t have high double or triple-digit annual growth, you weren’t in Brobeck’s preferred client profile.

There were countless enterprises of all sizes that, in the 1990s and beyond, realized significant growth, market penetration and bankable profits—companies that chose not to be Brobeck clients (or companies with whom Brobeck chose not to work). Walgreen’s, Southwest Airlines, Kimberly-Clark are examples of companies that haven’t posted meteoric gains, but have demonstrated steady momentum and sustained growth. (Two of these companies, Walgreen’s and Kimberly-Clark are among the 11 companies that Jim Collins features in his 2001 book, "Good to Great.")

But these companies didn’t fit the Brobeck client profile. Can we conclude that triple-digit growth leads to triple-digit failure? At the very least, we should raise an eyebrow to anyone who says it’s sustainable. Was Brobeck’s positioning/client mix mistake the business equivalent of a meal plan that consists only of sinful, high calorie confections? Meat loaf and mashed potatoes might be considered boring to some, but to many, this fare is sought-after "comfort" food—the food that won’t disappoint or let you down.

Dissecting Brobeck's Brand

If we agree with the premise that great brands last because both their presentation and service delivery support their message (Harry Beckwith, "The Invisible Touch"), what does this say about Brobeck?

We know that the brands (and businesses) that live are anchored in truth, but we also know that there is a "Brand Placebo Effect." Beckwith describes this as follows: "…our belief that something will do such-and-such leads us to believe that it actually did—even when it didn’t." He continues, "A brand does not merely attract clients, it convinces clients that they got just what the brand promised—even when they didn’t."

Was Brobeck’s brand real or were clients victims of a Brand Placebo Effect? Did the services Brobeck’s clients received actually extend or guarantee the futures of their companies? Probably no more than working with any other good law firm. But we can argue that Brobeck’s clients and referral sources believed Brobeck was better—so, in their minds it was true and their futures were safe.

Countless Brobeck clients followed the tech industry’s rise and fall, so they no longer have any future at all. (To be fair, countless clients of other tech-heavy law firms—Cooley Godward, Wilson Sonsini, Gunderson and others—also have failed.) But a zealot could ask, "When the tech industry plummeted, my future WAS at stake—where was my law firm, Brobeck?! That’s when I needed them most."

Therefore, Brobeck made promises it couldn’t keep. In the end, it couldn’t prove that its position, "When your Future is at Stake," was true.

What was Brobeck’s brand? It was as much bravado as anything else. This they proved, particularly in how leaders ran the business. Leaders had a "rock star" approach to everything--the huge investment in marketing and IT staff, the advertising campaign that swept the country and set a new budget record for media buying, the exclusive Class A real estate in every booming tech market.

Literature and history books (even the Old Testament) tell tales that end with a familiar warning—paraphrased as "pride goeth before a fall."

How Long will the Brand Last?

The Marlboro Man is a branding icon that Americans of all ages recognize. Although cigarette advertising on television was federally banned in 1971, numerous generation X and Y members know The Marlboro Man and what he signified. He continued to appear in print ads and on billboards for 40 years, even with two of the Marlboro men dying of lung cancer related to smoking. The brand seems to live on, however, and today we still identify it and understand the impact it had.

Brobeck is dead, but I believe its swagger will live on in a mythic sort of way. Why? Because people will continue to ponder and query and point and tsk-tsk about this firm. Because Brobeck made many believe that they really were larger than life (the whole was certainly greater than the sum of its parts), and as with a horrific car wreck, there is a lot of rubber-necking going on.

Deborah McMurray is a strategic marketing consultant to the legal industry. She has chaired numerous LMA committees and served on the national board. Deborah can be reached at 214.351.9690 or mcmurray@contentpilot.net.

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