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Publishing Becomes an Academic Discipline

More back-seat drivers for the major legal publishers.

Robert Mackay’s recent post about how publishing is becoming an academic discipline highlights yet another source of analysis and commentary on the strategies being pursued with varying degrees of success by the legal publishers. To the growing list of blogs such as House of Butter and the Justitia Blawg, to name but two, has been now added the academic community.

This point was brought home to me by one of Robert’s students who recently completed an MA dissertation on corporate branding in the publishing industry. Her research included a survey of present and former publishers, regarding our experience with corporate branding. I was happy to participate.

My only reservation was that a more valuable survey would be one of the members of the legal research community who have lived through a frenzy of frequently meaningless branding changes that have occurred in recent years. Nonetheless, a survey of publishers is a very good start for the first of what I expect will be many surveys of corporate branding in the publishing industry.

Survey on Corporate Branding

I have set out below the questions, my answers, and some further reflections on the answers I provided. Her questions were good questions and I have no doubt that her conclusions and the conclusions of those who will follow in her footsteps will challenge the conventional wisdom of the “professional business development strategists” who populate publishing houses today.

In my experience, corporate surveys are frequently constructed to reach a foreordained conclusion, be it the personal view of the CEO or the professional business strategist, who all too frequently has little or no knowledge of the industry in which he or she is employed. The benefit of an independent survey, by someone without a vested interest in the outcome of the study, is that it should provide a fresh perspective on the issue being studied.

My answers were based on my personal experience in the legal publishing industry. They do not reflect any particular “corporate” point of view and undoubtedly include some politically incorrect views that are not shared by many marketing professionals. So be it.

Question 1: Would you agree or disagree that strategic exploitation of brands is a method of making a product or service stand out over the competition?

Answer 1: I disagree with the proposition that strategic exploitation of corporate brands is a method of making a product or service stand out over the competition in so far as legal publishing is concerned. The major corporate brands with which I was associated are perceived as entities that exist to acquire businesses rather than act as product innovators. As well, the major legal publishers are seen by many consumers of legal information as being out of sync with their customers needs and expectations, especially regarding pricing and servicing.

As you can see, my view is that the strategic exploitation of corporate brands would not be an effective marketing tool. While the use of a corporate brand would not detract from the value of a product, I don’t believe that it would make a product or service stand out from the competition. In my experience, “corporate brands” are just that – “corporate”. Corporate branding exists primarily for the purpose of enhancing shareholder value in the corporation. Logos, signage, the design and placement of advertising material, are geared to the idea of creating and enhancing the image of the corporation per se and only incidentally, if at all, to encourage the sales of specific legal information products.

That was not always the case. Early in my career in legal publishing, the corporate brand was the key product differentiator for launching new products. A case in point was the publication of Carswell’s topical law reports series. The series were an immediate commercial success. While meeting a real market need at the time, their speedy acceptance by the market was made possible by The Carswell Company brand name that appeared on each publication. Despite being new and different from anything else in the market at the time, it was the corporate name that gave the customer the belief that the law report series would live up to expectation. Assumptions were made about the quality of the product based on faith in the Carswell brand.

Unfortunately, most of the old brands recognized for quality by the legal research community have been discontinued – Carswell itself is one of the exceptions having survived as after several attempts to link the name to The Thomson Corporation. Today we have perhaps the best possible outcome in the name Carswell – A Thomson Reuters Company. Unlike many other acquisitions, the core brand name survived. The brand for Richard de Boo, a company that was merged with The Carswell Company Limited, did not fare as well – it was simply dropped, although its turkey feather (quill pen?) logo was retained for a few years longer, linked to the name Carswell.

There was a reason to drop many of the old brands. The legal and regulatory businesses of the major legal publishers were created by acquiring dozens of small, medium and large legal publishing companies and merging their operations. Dozens of publishing companies meant that there were dozens of established corporate brands within the same multinational company. The creation of a new global brand was a necessary step in creating a single new corporate culture from many diverse and sometimes competing businesses. At the same time, however, something important was lost – the very real link that existed between the customer and the product through the brands of the merged businesses.

As the multinationals acquired their first legal publishing companies, branding confusion was the norm. There was uncertainty as to which brands to drop and which brands to save. Decisions made in one year and were reversed the next. The classic example was the merger of Butterworths and Lexis Nexis in Canada. For almost a year, the name Butterworths was changed to Butterworths Lexis Nexis. Then it was changed to Lexis Nexis Butterworths. Was that really necessary? In year two, I could scarcely remember which came first. For that matter, neither could the customers. Fortunately it did not seem to matter all that much, apart from being made the butt of occasional jokes. Now, of course, it has become LexisNexis Canada Inc, with Lexis Nexis as a single word. In Canada, at least, the Butterworths brand was thought to be expendable.

The most recent example of the demise of an established brand is CCH. When customers purchased a CCH publication, the customers felt as if they knew and understood the content and format of the publication sight unseen. Nonetheless, a shift to a new corporate brand is now underway. See the recent announcement that CCH is changing its corporate brand name to Wolters Kluwer, a brand virtually unknown in legal publishing circles, at least in Canada if not elsewhere (see Appendix A below). This decision appears to reflect the generally held view of the market position of CCH, i.e. that it doesn’t matter what Wolters Kluwer does, the market position of CCH will not improve. So why not change the brand?

The professional business strategists who make these decisions are probably right. The time may have come to drop many of the old brands. The shift to the corporate brand of the multinational may simply reflect the fact that the old corporate brands no longer matter in an era in which the legal publishers now purport to offer “solutions” instead of mere “publications” or “legal information”. The corporate view is that it is the corporate brand that matters most, and this idea is reflected in the change from CCH to Wolters Kluwer. For the CCH brand, it would appear that the time has come to go big, or go home.

Question 2: In an age of seemingly infinite consumer choice, will branding play a more important or a less important role in selling content?

Answer 2: The brands with which I am familiar do stand for reliability in the minds of the Canadian consumers of legal information, but also for inflated pricing and customer alienation. Consequently, it is difficult to see how the corporate brand could be used effectively in selling new content.

Product branding as opposed to corporate branding continues to play an important role in selling content. In legal publishing, it is the norm for competing titles to be published by the same company. Examples of this include (1) Martin’s Criminal Code and Tremeears Criminal Code, and (2) Chitty’s Ontario Civil Practice and Watson and McGowan’s Ontario Civil Procedure. These publications offer essentially the same content with relatively minor variations in style. In such cases, the purchasing decision is clearly based on other factors. In the mind of the consumer of legal information, a preference for the brand name and what it represents to the customer personally, be it Martin’s, Tremeears, Chittys and Watson & McGowan, is the basis of decision making. It could be safely said that dropping the name Martin’s or Tremeears and the like would be fatal to the publication.

By way of contrast with the products mentioned above, just think about the blowback that would come from any decision by a multinational legal publisher to launch a major new print publication in a looseleaf format. The decision to publish Halsburys Laws of Canada in bound volumes was necessary to give the customer some assurance that they would not be updated to death with releases that would provide little or no added value to the base work.

As for a sense of how customers feel about the corporate brands of multinational legal publishers, one need only attend the annual meetings of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries to get a sense of the disconnect that exists in the market between the providers and consumers of legal information on issues relating to updating and pricing in particular. It is not a pretty picture.

Question 3:Which is the first publishing brand that comes to your mind (aside from the company at which you are currently employed or have been employed, if they publish any content)?

Answer 3: Thomson Reuters.

In answer to this question, both Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis both come instantly to mind, with CCH a distant third. Although a major player globally, Wolters Kluwer is a virtual unknown in the Canadian market for legal information. If asked in a casual conversation. I would have said Carswell and LexisNexis. I doubt that very many Canadian consumers of legal information would recognize the nameWolters Kluwer. The change is a belated and somewhat desperate attempt to copy its competitors in an attempt to enhance shareholder value in the global market. In Canada, at least, the change is not expected to have any positive effect on the business of CCH.

Question 4: Do you regard branding as a critical factor in the publishing sector, at present and in the future?

Answer 4: Respect for the corporate brand declined among consumers as the companies grew by acquiring their competitors. While the corporate brand came to mean less to consumers, the importance of the product brand – usually an author or an editor’s name – grew. Halsburys and Juris Classeur are examples of product brands that have held their value in the minds of the consumers of legal information. Within recent memory I launched Canadian legal information products using these names instead of Lexis Nexis as the product brand.

Branding remains a critical factor in legal publishing, but I would suggest that the product brand matters more than the corporate brand. The big titles in legal publishing generally incorporate the name of an author or an editor in the title. The examples are almost too numerous to mention. In the United Kingdom, Halsburys is the biggest money maker for Butterworths, while in France, the name of the Juris Classeur encyclopedias became the name of the company itself.

The Halsburys Laws of Canada and Juris Classeur Quebec Encyclopedias are the two most recent large scale product launches in Canada. The brands chosen reflect a product concept rather than a corporate brand. Without the connection to the Halsburys and Juris Classeur names, it would have been impossible to generate author interest in creating these scholarly works, let alone interest by the legal researchers in buying and using the products. As for online services, consumers are more interested in the product brands included in composite digital products than they are in the brand of the multinational that produced the digital product, or the simple (minded) title given them, be they called a Source, or Essentials, or a Partner. Such attempts at branding are even less meaningful than the corporate brand.

Question 5: As published content changes format (from print to digital formats, games, apps, etc.), could publishers use or try to use strategic brand exploitation to make what they publish stand out among others (self-publications, other publishing houses)?

Answer 5: The major corporate brands have been diminished in value in the eyes of consumers but this reality seems to have escaped corporate executives who continue to tout the corporate brand at all costs. In legal publishing, the corporate brand is of limited appeal at this point in time and needs to be used with caution.

To make the point that business strategists need to proceed with caution in dealing with brand names, I have used hyperbole in answering this question. The corporate brands of legal publishers are reputable and the products of good quality, but the corporate brands by themselves do not influence decision making as they once did. The consumers of legal information are generally more information savvy than in the past and rarely if ever make decisions based on a corporate brand name alone.

Question 6: “Cross-media publishing: a combination of content, distribution and technology”. Would you say this title is a peek into the future or a vain hope? It has been said that the strategic exploitation of a brand could make it possible. Would you agree or disagree? How?

Answer 6: Cross media publishing defined as a combination of content distribution and technology is what the major publishers of legal information have been doing for most of the last decade. It is not a new idea, but rather an old idea that has been exhausted. The strategy has failed to deliver growth expectations. It is a peek into the recent past, and not the future. It was a vain hope.

Legal publishers have been at the cutting edge of cross media publishing. As I noted above, cross-media publishing has been the driving force behind the transformation of the legal publishing industry over the past two decades. Vision of fortunes to be made by transitioning print content to an array of digital formats, led to the consolidation of an industry that characterized by scores of smallish family owned businesses, to one dominated by three or four multinationals with high profile corporate brands. At this point, cross media publishing is the norm. It was the financial resources of the multinationals combined with a receptive market, that made it possible, not the corporate brand.

Academics may become future sources of new ideas and new thinking

Branding is the first of many issues affecting publishing where new thinking will be brought to bear on the issues of the day. The questions in this survey were provocative and a sign of things to come as more academics question the fundamentals of the publishing industry at a time of massive change. Insight into critical trends will be enhanced as the number and scope of surveys increases. This is a good thing. Publishers will have a new source of market intelligence to use as they see fit.

Some suggested topics for future dissertations that I would like to see include a study of looseleaf publications – could their decline into disrepute have been avoided or delayed if the publishers had not decided to increase the number of looseleaf releases to compensate for declining subscription lists? Should the publishers have reduced their revenue expectations rather than sought to maintain them as they transitioned content from looseleaf to digital formats? Would they have larger subscription lists and more revenue today as a result of more moderate pricing decisions regarding updates in recent years.

Another intriguing question worthy of study relates to print law reports – who is it that continues to buy them and why? What is the profile of the last person expected to maintain a print subscription to a law report series, i.e the last man (or woman) standing? Consumers of legal information undoubtedly have many other topics regarding both past practices and future expectations to suggest to academics.

To some publishing executives, the future contributions of academics will be welcomed as well as a new source of ideas, and the academics themselves as a hiring pool for tomorrow’s business strategists. To others, the work of academics will be seen as an unwelcome challenge to the established order, i.e. still more back seat drivers, some without first hand publishing experience, engaged in second guessing the decision makers in an industry that is being overwhelmed by the forces of change. Either way, we will all have to learn to live with a steady stream of dissertations on publishing, telling us what should have happened, as well as what might happen next. Embrace it.

Appendix A

May 17, 2013 9:12:51 AM EDT Subject: Letter to Customers re: Move to Wolters Kluwer master brand

Over the next year, CCH Canadian Limited is going to have a new look and feel. Gradually, you will notice that our email addresses, logos on invoices, business cards, stationery, and promotional materials will feature the brand of our parent company, Wolters Kluwer.

Wolters Kluwer is a leading global information services and solutions company that purchased CCH in 1996. The company provides information, software, and services that help legal, tax, finance, and healthcare professionals make their most critical decisions effectively and with confidence. Customers worldwide depend on Wolters Kluwer services and solutions to successfully move through the complex layers of data and regulation that define modern business and government. We are proud to be part of the Wolters Kluwer family.

While our move to adopt the Wolters Kluwer brand will better align CCH Canadian with our parent company and its subsidiaries around the world, I want to assure you that there will be no changes made at CCH Canadian. We are simply moving to the Wolters Kluwer brand with no impact to our customers.

Please drop us a line at cservice@cch.ca if you have any questions about this change. We welcome feedback from valued customers like you.

Thank you for your continued support of CCH Canadian.

Best regards,

Steve Monk Vice President,
Wolters Kluwer Law & Business

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Comments

  1. Hi Gary

    What a comprehensive and though-provoking piece! I was especially pleased that my excellent student’s research was a source of Slaw inspiration for you, as we discussed in London the other day.
    There’s a lot to take in here, even though I suspect I agree with everything you write. In fact it ties in well with an extract from the next column from me on Slaw in which I have written on The Changed and Changing Landscape of Legal and Professional Publishing:

    “I rather regret the suppression, in whole or in part, of some of the great brand names of professional publishing, such as Sweet and Maxwell, Butterworths, Tolley, CCH, Carswell, Matthew Bender, Clark Boardman and others, in favour of somewhat faceless corporate identities that have less meaning”.

    If you are right in your suggestion that the CCH name will disappear completely, then I will indeed be taken aback, though it could be connected in some way with the sort of sell-off that I have suggested in:

    http://www.slaw.ca/2013/03/18/an-exciting-time-for-legal-and-professional-publishing/, http://www.slaw.ca/2011/03/04/professional-publishing-mergers-and-acquisitions-why-not/ and elsewhere.

    Starting with the assumption that these are clever people making the decision, surrounded by and advised by armies of experts, they must surely know what they are doing. I’d certainly like to think so.

  2. This is an interesting post. But, how does or does national loyality or sentimentality factor into whether a customer chooses one brand over another? Is this a moot point in our age of globalization? Has the continuing economic crisis had any effect on how customers choose one brand over another – other than of course price; in other words are customers decisions being driven by emotion or necessity?

  3. Gary P Rodrigues

    Robert, I am looking forward to your next post. The suppression of many or most the grand old legal publishing brands of our youth seems to be an inevitability.

    Regarding the future of the CCH brand, reference to it on its Canadian web site and in the Canadian monthly newsletter continues, but in a much smaller type size than Wolters Kluwer, which has been placed directly above the reference to CCH. It looks to me as if it could be step 1 in the execution of a plan to replace CCH with Wolters Kluwer, but no one from Wolters Kluwer has shared any information with me on the subject. It just looks like something we have seen before when companies seek to change their brand.

    The next brand potentially at risk in Canada is that of the Canada Law Book Company which was acquired by Carswell not that long ago. Unlike the treatment of the Carswell name, there has been no attempt to add the phrase “A Thomson Reuters Business” after the name Canada Law Book. Unless the Cartwright family negotiated a requirement at the time that the business was sold that their brand be continued on their products, it seems inevitable that it will disappear over time. On the other hand, Les Editions Yvon Blais, the Quebec business unit of Carswell, continues much as before, with no reference to either Carswell or Thomson Reuters in the title. This is likely to ensure that no attention is being drawn to the ongoing receipt by Thomson Reuters of large annual federal government publishing grants from the Department of Canadian Heritage on account of the Yvon Blais publishing program.

    The Butterworths brand name was banished from Canadian print titles published by LexisNexis Canada at the direction of the former global leader of LexisNexis when reviewing the mock-ups that had been prepared for Halsburys Laws of Canada. This proved to be the smart thing to do in Quebec where the Butterworths brand would have been perceived in a negative light if it had been added to the covers of the Juris Classeur encyclopedias.