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| 13 minutes read

CMO Series EP43 - One firm, your firm - Sophie Bowkett of Bird & Bird on building more human and more effective legal brands

Clients are demanding more from their external legal advisors in terms of their ESG policies. This has had a knock-on effect for legal brands. Firms need to demonstrate that they are more capable, more responsible and most importantly more human if they are to succeed.

Someone who’s recently been on a journey of updating a legal brand that both reflects the current market and aligns with their own values, is Sophie Bowkett, Chief Marketing Officer at Bird & Bird.

Charles Cousins is so lucky to hear Sophie’s insights off the back of their intensive rebrand to understand what it really means to build a more effective, human legal brand.

Sophie and Charles discuss:

  • The concept behind Bird & Bird's recent rebrand and why becoming ‘more human’ was so important
  • What prompted Sophie and the firm to look at transforming the brand
  • The challenges, if any, in bringing the partnership around to the idea of reworking the brand in such a progressive way
  • How you ensure the entire firm, globally, understands and is able to communicate the new brand narrative
  • Parts of the process that have been particularly successful 
  • Advice for legal marketing folks assessing how their own brand reflects the firm and its people

Take a look at Bird & Bird's website to see how the new brand has been brought to life. Here's a sneak preview... 


Intro: Welcome to the Passle podcast CMO series. 

Charles: Hello and welcome to the Passle podcast where we talk about all things legal, BD and marketing and how you can be more authentic and effective in what you do. Tech has given us a unique opportunity to connect with clients on a more human level. This, coupled with a focus on ESG in the wider world and in the legal industry, means that firms need to be seen in the market as responsible and most importantly, more human if they are to succeed. We are happy to welcome someone today who's recently been through the process of updating the firm's brand for modern times - Sophie Bowkett, Chief Marketing Officer at Bird & Bird has just led an intense rebrand and we're so lucky to be able to pick her brains today. Sophie, welcome to the Passle CMO series. 

Sophie: Thanks very much for having me, Charles. 

Charles: And our topic today, really making brands more human. It seems to be something that everyone's talking about. We were recently at a conference, a PSMG conference, and there was this big talk about humanising things and the focus on the S of ESG. So really to kick things off, being more human was a core concept of Bird & Bird's recent rebrand. What does this mean and why was that a core focus? 

Sophie: Yeah. So I think for us it was about being comfortable stripping away a more corporate veneer and really celebrating the people that make up our firm and the things that unite us and obviously so represent our brand. And we were doing this work in the pandemic when we were all doing video calls from our homes and experiencing various lockdowns together. We'll all remember from that time we were connecting with each other in a much more real and kind of human way. And it just felt right to keep that sense alive as we refreshed the brand. As you said, more human issues like DNI and ESG are firmly at the top of the agenda internally at our clients, organisations, and in the wider world. And in that context, it started to feel very incongruous to have a more kind of corporate brand identity rather than something that is a bit more personal when we're talking about such human and emotive topics. So we really wanted to bring that human connection alive. So one way that we did that was with our strapline, it's one firm, your firm, and just having that your firm, that real sort of shot of empathy at the end, talking very directly to our clients and to our people was just one way of us trying to bring that human side to life a bit more. It's such a core focus because of course, we're all in a relationship driven business. We want to reflect the human interactions that actually make those relationships more rich and rewarding. Rather trying to downplay those by reverting to a sort of stiffer, more corporate expression of the firm so that was the real impetus behind it, I think. 

Charles: Yeah. And I think what you said there about that relationship focus, you know, people don't do business with a law firm, they do business with the individuals in them. So I guess bringing that human element to the forefront of things really sets you up for success. 

Sophie: Yeah, exactly. It's the way we speak to our clients and within all of our marketing materials, it just felt very wrong all of a sudden to be reverting to a more kind of corporate faceless identity. So we wanted to bring that personal side and that playful side which we have in our people in spades out into the market a bit more. 

Charles: So the project clearly is something the firms invested a lot of time into and resources. What prompted you and the firm to look at transforming that brand? Was it the idea during lockdown of stripping things back and being a bit more human, or was it something that was always planned? 

Sophie: It was always planned. So prior to that, it had been about eight years since we last properly looked at the brand. And in that time, the firm had gone through amazing growth and just changed a lot. So really when we started to look at some of the brand elements that we were working with, we just concluded that they didn't really align with the organisation we were anymore. For example, if I give you sort of a practical example, there was lots of grey and blue in our colour palette, and that kind of seeped through and was being used more and more. But all of our client feedback pointed to our people being way more colourful and full of personality. So that wasn't really coming through clearly enough. And our firm has a big focus on technology, and we work with lots of organisations that are being changed by technology in the digital world. But some of our brand propositions were kind of talking about technology in a very explicit way. And of course, in the last eight years, the way we've used technology in our lives has completely changed. It's so woven into the fabric of our society now that we don't really need to call it out. It's everywhere. So again, it didn't need to be referenced as something so distinct. So I guess there was always a plan to kind of modernise the brand, and it just so happened that at the time we were doing it, we were going through this massive change in terms of pandemic. 

Charles: So it sounds like the main drive was refreshing it for modern times. 

Sophie: Yeah, absolutely. 

Charles: So with that in mind, Laura is a very traditional industry. We probably don't need to say that. But were there any difficulties bringing the partnership around to this idea of reworking the brand and doing it in such a progressive way? 

Sophie: Amazingly, I think there was very little resistance. I was very pleasantly surprised, and I think actually part of that can be led back to the approach that the team took. Every decision that we made had its roots in an extensive discovery phase. We did a lot of listening around the business and with our clients going to internal stakeholders throughout the entire firm to really understand how people saw the firm and how clients saw the firm. And when we took that feedback and applied it to the wording, the tone of voice, the strategy, etcetera, that really helped provide a strong rationale for each decision made along the way, which made buying a lot easier. For example, the exercise allowed us to acknowledge and define our purpose a bit more, which we've summarised as to make it possible. So you can imagine the eye rolling potential when we come out with that kind of line to some of the partnership and the rest of the firm. But when we started to explain how the one firm structure fed into that, how our collegiate culture that everybody really celebrates here feeds into that the sense of opportunity and optimism that we have that working with technology companies often brings in terms of changing things. All of that is kind of part of our DNA to help make those changes possible for our people, for our clients, in terms of our societal impact as well. So generally, by the time we kind of talk through those principles and those realities within the firm, there was generally an agreement that actually summarised our firm quite well. It's something that we could stand behind. So, yeah, I think the extensive discovery process and the conversations we had internally and with our clients stood us in good stead for that.

Charles:  So you've got everyone on board, as you said, with little resistance. You're bringing everyone along with you. What's the next step? Do you have a roadmap for how you're going to determine what the brand should be and how to roll it out? And what did that process look like? 

Sophie: So we did have a bit of a plan. As I said, a lot of it was spent in that discovery phase early on because we wanted to bring people along with us. We had a lot of focus groups and made sure to check in with international colleagues with various iterations of the strategy and the materials that were coming through at various points just to ensure that the messages and style works across our geographical markets. Doing it in lockdown, I think, was tricky. The creative side of things is definitely not best done on Zoom. I think with everybody working from their own houses, you miss that kind of spark of having a brainstorm with people together in a room. So timelines did stretch a little bit. But broadly, we were quite happy with the process we followed, which was a lot upfront in terms of the planning and then moving through to the execution of the different elements and bringing it all together.

Charles: One thing I picked up, and it was something you said at the start, just when you started speaking was around your international colleagues and working across geography. We recently spoke with Tamara Costa, who's a CMO over at BLG, and one of her big priorities was ensuring that the whole firm at scale understood and could communicate the firm's position. With Bird and Bird being such a large global firm, how have you been able to do that? 

Sophie: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting one and a really important one as well. So that strapline that I described earlier on of ‘one firm, your firm’ and built on the USP, if you like, of us being a truly international firm and one that actually acts like it in real life. That's something we get from feedback from clients, that it's clear our people across the world have long standing relationships with each other, really know each other as people and trust each other. That was reflected internally. I think how people kind of feel that that connection with one another is a special thing. So adoption of that strapline was really quick. It obviously resonated with how people felt. And we knew we were onto something when people started to use it on their own, according to their comms independently without us feeding it to them. So I think the pickup of that, the take up of that across the firm was really good. The rest of the brand model, we worked really hard to communicate across the whole firm. So we ran a series of presentations to each office and group in the firm. We ran a more creative digital internal communications campaign to bring the various aspects of the brand's model to life and just make sure that everybody across the organisation understood the various different elements and how it resonated. And we brought that to life with how people were kind of living the different brand aspects and examples of it across the firm. That was really helpful. I think obviously it's not just a launch thing. It's not a one time thing. That's something that we need to keep alive as we go forward and continue to use and develop the brand. So we'll be working for quite a bit of time, I think, in terms of bringing the various aspects of it to life and banging the drum about what this means for our firm and how people can help support the brand in everything that they do. 

Charles: Yeah. So it's not just a one and done. You're continuing to build on that, and then it must have been rewarding when you talk about the adoption of the strapline and people using it without having to be asked. 

Sophie: Yeah, I'm just amazing. You can always tell from a comms perspective that sometimes you come up with something that you might think is a genius form of wording, but nobody else really takes it on. It's very short and snappy, and I think everybody gets it. And it's been really nice to see people adopt it in various different situations across the firm and just say without prompting, well, of course we want your firm, etcetera. So it's obviously working quite well for people. 

Charles: Brilliant. So along that whole process, were there any curve balls or surprises along the way, apart from the whole sort of pandemic rumbling on in the background? 

Sophie: I think something that did surprise me in the process at the end, I was quite surprised that we ended up keeping the Ampersand in the visual identity. That's something that we've had for a long time and was quite a strong part of our existing brand. But maybe if you'd asked me before, I would have assumed that people wouldn't have found as much meaning in it today. But actually when we discussed it and we got into these big discussions around the human connections and the points I mentioned earlier, acting as a real partner to our clients, and maybe because of the context of the challenging pandemic environment we were living in, that idea of the connection of the amplifier, the idea of the firm and its clients, the idea of you and me, it came out really strongly. And so we built on that and sort of refreshed how we were using the Ampersand as part of our brand. So that was one surprise where if you'd have asked me at the beginning, I would have maybe thought that the Ampersand would have been retired. But it's going strong. 

Charles: So it sounds like you had a bit of a plan, but you also were pretty open minded and flexible and adjusted as you went along. 

Sophie: Yes, absolutely. Just seeing what came out of the process, what came out of the discussions that we were having with various different people, what felt right. We tried different expressions of the visual identity, and that took a bit of a wandering path as well in terms of whether we could find something that really worked for the different use cases that we have across the firm. So we tried to not have too many preconceptions and just go through the process and see what came out of it. 

Charles: So finally and this is a question we always round off all of our podcasts with. What would be your one piece of advice for legal marketing folk assessing how their own brand reflects the firm stance on ESG or the current times. 

Sophie: Yeah. So I mean, as you were saying, we were both at that PSMG conference yesterday. So a bunch of professional services marketers talking about all things ESG, which was just fantastic. And I think the big theme that came out of that, which I think resonates really strongly, is being authentic to ensure that the brand and the position you take on ESG issues reflects who you are as a firm. I think that's really tricky sometimes. And at the moment, we've had lots of law firms soul searching about their purpose probably more now than ever before, but recent events have really shown us that obviously in today's context, your stance is really only as strong as the actions that you're going to take to evidence it. It's incredible that firms and corporations have made these difficult business decisions to demonstrate that commitment. And maybe the more we all get used to that, the easier the brand work becomes because the brand is reflecting what's actually going on inside the firm and being all the more consistent and compelling as a result. So I think that message of being authentic and really reflecting where you are as a firm on all of this is really important. Yeah, I really like that theme. And at the end of the day, if you're not being authentic, you're probably going to get found out. Yeah, absolutely. Well, that's all we have time for today. Sophie, thank you for coming on the podcast and sharing your story, your experiences of the recent rebrand at Bird and Bird. Thanks again. 

Sophie: Thank you very much for having me.



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