Ben Garfinkel: Is It Time To Take Your Name Off The Door?

Why companies should move away from the industry standard of a long list of partner names as their company moniker and talk about what they do.

A few years ago we worked with a law firm that had a name comprised of the ubiquitous string of the partners’ surnames. After a thorough audit and analysis of their brand, position, and market opportunities, we recommended they rename as Waterstone Law Group and the firm has been thriving ever since.

“We decided to re-brand ourselves with a name that did not include individual partner names. We wanted our new name to have some meaning to us, to be simple and to help us stand apart from other firms. The added benefit of this is that we no longer need to change our name and all of our materials when a partner comes or goes”, says Waterstone partner Bruce Davies.

For various reasons—fear of change, reluctance to break from industry norms and make a statement, a tenuous economy that is risky enough without the added element of renaming, etc.—some professional services firms continue to operate using the names of principal partners, usually a long list, as the primary element in the firm’s name and marketing efforts. But why?

The roots of this naming convention originate as a means of acknowledging the training and certifications of the practitioners, and legitimizing the services offered from certified individuals. Beyond the necessity of this practice, those in architecture, engineering and law amongst others, saw the addition of their own name to the corporate moniker as a sign of having ‘made it’. Traditionally firms like these have thrived on the personal reputations of the principals, and word of mouth to that effect.

There have been trends, starting in the 1950s that saw this change to the use of acronyms representing partner initials, and then in the 1960s with more provocative and evocative names. Many of these alternatives were positioning-driven as young firms sought to make a name for themselves.

In an increasingly digital and competitive world, tradition and the almost taboo idea of marketing in professional services firms is undergoing a revolution. The names are unique, and some even famous, but for the vast majority, this no longer spells distinction.

Perhaps the apprehension toward letting go of the classic ‘my-name-is-on-the-door’ mentality is in the belief that the brand equity and success attained will all go out the window when you let go of the name. However, most successful firms these days involve more than the one or two people who happen to run the place. In fact, if the future of professional service firms lies with the talent they attract, then a more inclusive and future-proof identity for the firm is a necessity.

While partners generally don’t leave and come on board every day, it does happen with regularity. An identity that transcends these changes won’t necessarily require a complete redo of signage, stationery and brand. There are advantages to this and several recent examples of how our clients are shifting away from this “name on the door” thinking.

After a comprehensive rebranding exercise, we also recommended the well known Vancouver-based firm Hughes Condon Marler Architects change their name to HCMA. This does not take anything away from the partners Hughes, Condon, or Marler, but loads the brand equity onto a more transferable asset that is less dependent on names and better representative of what the folks and talent at HCMA can do as group. It frees up the firm to orient around the ideals of the founding principles, not the people. Associates on the path to partnership (there have been two new partners added since) may not get their name on the door, but that’s less important to them than being a part of something meaningful.

This shift in basic beliefs and values is what will shape professional services firms in the future. At some point people will only care what the talented team at HCMA is doing today, and they will want the story behind how they got there and how they maintain their quality work, integrity, and success. Ten or twenty years from now, the staff at HCMA may not be able to tell you the names represented by those four letters, but they won’t have to because they will stand for something bigger than that.

Walter Francl Architecture Inc., another Vancouver architectural icon, recently renamed itself Francl Architecture after engaging our services to assess the health and equity of its brand. Although Walter Francl is still the heart and soul of the company, he has grown the firm into more than just a sole proprietorship, and the new branding reflects this. When you hire them, you get access to an experienced team. The whole purpose of the Francl Architecture rebranding is to show the world that they have grown the company into a team with a vast array of skills and talents. And, equally importantly, to show staff that they have a future at a firm not dependent on one man.

The new brand includes a subtle shift in name that acknowledges the firm’s growth, from the time Walter Francl founded it in 1994 to the present team of dozens of architectural and support staff.

“Our unique design process has always been very collaborative,” says founder Walter Francl. “We encourage our clients and stakeholders to get involved, from conception to completion. I think this new brand reflects that level of engagement and inclusivity.”

Of course this trend is constrained to lawyers and architects. Construction companies have long used founder names, with one notable Canadian example being Poole Construction Ltd eventually rebranding as the better known PCL.

In most professional service firms attracting top talent is critical and keeping that talent is also a high priority. Career building aside, employees spend a significant portion of their lives at work, and in the professional services sector, it is usually not solely for the purposes of a paycheque. As owners and managers of these types of firms, if you cannot convince people that you do meaningful work and stand for something, and that they have a future there, you will lose them. Same goes for your clients.

The name in and of itself really has little connection to the meaningful nature of the work. What a unique name does, however, is create a more equanimous team environment that is less reliant on the ego and values of the individual. It also future-proofs the company to be less reliant on one or a few named individuals for growth, and sets that stage for (renewed) marketing efforts.

For most professional services firms the top reasons for a name change are:

  1. A triggering event such as the departure or arrival of a partner (assuming the firm name is composed of the names of partners) or a merger with another firm.
  2. Giving clients, prospects and staff something to relate to that is not dependent on any one key person being an active (or even an alive) partner of the firm.
  3. Positioning your firm to grow over the long term based on the merits, talents, and contributions of the many who comprise it.

So, what’s in a name? We’re curious, does your firm name accurately reflect what you offer?

Industrial Brand is a leader in the development and application of brand strategy for partner-driven professional services firms in North America. We bring brand clarity, cohesion and authenticity to Where Ideas Work.
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