The Basics of Branding (and How Law Firms Mess It Up)

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Your firm’s “brand” is not your logo, letterhead or tagline. It is your fundamental identity, the essential truth of your organization, and the characteristics, values and attributes that support this identity.

It’s important for law firms to get it right – and there are compelling business reasons to do so. Altman Weil reports that well-positioned firms can:

  • Improve cross-selling and organic growth among current clients;
  • Attract more targeted, desirable new clients;
  • Weaken the competition;
  • Recruit better laterals and associates; and
  • Become a more attractive candidate for mergers.

Need a more tangible motivation? Altman Weil also cites research that brand recognition in professional services firms can garner a 10 to 20 percent premium in fees.

If you are assessing your law firm’s brand (or lack thereof), it’s helpful to start by learning the basics. Then, by reviewing the common mistakes law firms make with their identities, you can lessen your risk of a brand blunder.

Brand 101

As defined by the definitive Kellogg on Marketing, “a brand is a name or some symbol or mark that is associated with a product or service and to which buyers attach psychological meanings.” The psychological meaning can come in three ways, sparking three types of brands: functional, image and experiential.

Functional brands help buyers solve a current problem or prevent a potential problem. They strive to differentiate on the basis of superior performance or superior savings; they compete on product, price and place (convenience and/or ubiquity). For a consumer brand, think about Bounty, the “quicker thicker picker-upper”; in the legal context, look to many legal tech solutions, such as Hello Divorce (“Get lawyer results without lawyer costs”).

Image brands help buyers achieve higher self-worth or feel part of a desirable group (good parents, cool guys, powerful business executives). They strive to differentiate based on their ability to deliver and reinforce the desired image; they compete through aggressive marketing communications, such as advertising and social media. On the consumer side, consider Dos Equis, which associates its drinkers with The Most Interesting Man in the World, or Jif’s targeting of choosy moms. In the legal industry, image brands are most powerfully harnessed by the white-shoe stalwarts; the colloquialism “Nobody ever got fired for hiring Skadden” may be the most enduring example of an effective law firm brand.

Experiential brands help buyers escape the everyday; they meet our needs for self-actualization by providing experiences, memories and bragging points. They differentiate based on the uniqueness of their offering; they compete through inimitable service delivery. The experience can be grand, like a trip to Walt Disney World, or more commonplace, like a cup of coffee at a Starbucks; either way, the experience is delivered with precise consistency. Pure experiential brands are rare in the business-to-business category, perhaps nonexistent in legal.

Though these types of brands differ on tactics and differentiation, all three are focused on helping the buyer: They make our lives safer, easier, better.

It’s this emotional tie that leads to brand loyalty – and long-term, profitable growth. It’s also where most law firm brands miss the mark.

Where Law Firm Brands Fall Short

While not a comprehensive list, these are the issues we most often see with dysfunctional law firm branding:

  • Focusing on “Permission-to-Play Values.” As Harvard Business Review defines them, permission-to-play values “simply reflect the minimum behavioral and social standards.” Examples are integrity, competence, experience, decent customer service. These are table stakes. It is a reasonable expectation that when you give money to a lawyer, in return you get someone who is smart, educated and informed, and who will not treat you like garbage. Statements like, “Our purpose is to assist clients in achieving their goals” is permission-to-play branding: If I’m paying you, I should hope you would not hinder me in achieving my goals.
  • Trying to Please Everyone. It can be far more fun and effective to market a niche law firm: It’s extremely hard to find a unifying brand identity for hundreds of lawyers practicing in dozens of practice areas in multiple time zones. Far too often large full-service firms make milquetoast brands in an effort to find some sort of identity that fits everyone (or worse, doesn’t offend anyone). This leads to identities that are the equivalent of a one-size-fits-all t-shirt: too big, far from special, and nobody’s favorite.
  • Telling vs. Showing. The snazziest brand concept will collapse if there isn’t a structure to back it up. (Or far worse, if it’s not a genuine reflection of the firm.) If you claim you have superior service, process or abilities, prove it with evidence. What’s your process? What are examples of your work? What do your clients say?
  • Relying on Features vs. Benefits. Your firm’s age, size, footprint: These are features of your organization – but hiring decisions are made on benefits. (No one spends $150 on AirPods because they are small, white and funny-looking. You buy AirPods because they bring you your favorite podcast, they drown out office noise, and maybe they make you look hip.) When features appear in your marketing, switch them to benefits by asking why they help the client: If you’re touting your geography, for instance, does your significant presence mean more access, better connections, faster results?
  • Delivering Inconsistently. A brand is a promise; can you keep it? Can every partner, associate, professional staff member? A brand of “exceptional client service” will quickly fizzle if clients are ignored in a cold and sterile reception area (yes, your reception area is marketing, too). Law firms are not Starbucks, so this is a challenge, but it’s an important one: In interviews with more than 300 chief legal officers and general counsel, more than half said their primary law firm’s biggest weakness was inconsistency.

Above all, law firm brands fail by focusing on the law firms themselves – not the clients. Instead of thinking about who we are, we should focus on who we serve. We should go back to the basics, dust off the Kellogg and consider the essentials.

Form Follows Function

For most firms, that will mean thinking like a functional brand. What problems do you solve? What problems do you prevent? For whom? Why are you a truly superior solution for people with these problems? How do you know? How can you prove it?

Having defined functional brands with paper towels above, I understand that they are not the most exciting or glamorous – but the world truly needs more functional law firm brands. It’s highly unlikely your firm is the next Skadden. But if you focus on the functional value you provide, you are by default focusing on the reasons people hire lawyers in the first place: to solve their problems. You are making their lives safer and easier, not just offering platitudes.

The function should be your foundation. Commit to solving a specific set of problems for a specific set of clients, and back up your ability to do so.

From there, you can try on some image possibilities. From there, you can even meditate on the experiential. (We know a firm that underscores its commitment to personal service with homemade chocolate chip cookies, and we salute this wholeheartedly.) From there, you can start to build a marketing strategy that will be consistent, authoritative and client-focused.

(And cookies never hurt.)

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