The Irony of Law Firm Brands and how to Remedy the Situation
Introduction and scope
All lawyers and law firms are brands.
Whether or not they are the brands they would choose to be is another matter, but they are brands nonetheless.
In addition, lawyers and law firms deal with brands, some major, on an ongoing basis.
These brands incorporate individuals, corporates, not-for-profits, products, services, cities and others.
Despite this, few law firms commit meaningful resources to understand, optimise and manage their brands.
After all, it is not physical assets that constitute the largest value of law practices but intangibles such as the calibre of partners and staff, client quality and relationships, and ultimately the brand itself.
Brands generally have significant potential value, if developed and managed in optimal fashion. The same principle applies within the legal genre.
To view the situation in perspective and be fair, lawyers are generally not brand or marketing professionals and their expertise and focus usually lies outside this realm.
In my experience, even lawyers and law firms responsible for negotiating the most complex of commercial contracts for large enterprises often lack the knowledge to understand, let alone optimise, their own brands.
Even a moderate understanding of this topic would, no doubt, enhance not only themselves and their law firms but would, in many cases, result in even better contractual, and other outcomes, for all stakeholders.
There is a spectrum of attitudes across law firms when it comes to brands. Some give it no thought at all. Others give it fleeting thought, but no more.
There are those who feel that because they have some marketing collateral or have placed a few advertisements that they are definitely ‘on the case’ when it comes to their corporate brand.
Some legal practitioners view brands as simply constituting a name, trademark, logo, tagline, website or similar. This is understandable as these are often the touch points that lawyers are most exposed to, or work with on a regular basis.
Whilst these all have relevance when correctly developed, they fall far short of what a brand is, its potential value and what it fully entails to develop it.
A stance some law firms adopt is that brand development takes time and money and detracts from short term profits.
Furthermore, I have been asked, “Why spend time and money on my brand if I am doing well anyway”?
Whilst ‘doing well’ may be acceptable in the short term, aspiring to improve in the future is far more commendable and highly advantageous.
The fact is that competition for law work is intensifying and law firms that actively develop and differentiate their brands meaningfully over time will generally outperform those that don’t.
Brands that resonate well with their target markets clearly have many advantages, including the ability to garner more on-going work at better rates.
This is as a consequence of the perceived extra benefits and value that the specific law brand is believed to provide over others and the principle applies to other markets as well.
To provide a balanced view, though, there is a minority of law firms that do place more professional emphasis on their law firm brand than most, although as in most things in life, there is often still room for enhancement on an ongoing basis, especially in the rapidly changing world in which we live.
What follows includes insight into what brands are, as well as an overview of some of the considerations and processes law firms can use to develop and enhance their brands going forward.
We also highlight the fact that brand development goes beyond branding alone and should always precede general marketing endeavours.
So What Exactly are Brands?
Brands have been around, originally in simple forms, for thousands of years, a topic comprehensively covered in an informative and entertaining post that can be accessed at: http://bit.ly/1SSAr0K
Like marketing, brands and brand development are not exact sciences and are defined, developed and implemented in different ways, by different practitioners.
One view of brands is that they constitute the sum of a user’s total experience with the product or service that the brand represents over time.
This view has merit in that it underlies two important properties, namely it adopts a ‘holistic’ approach and focuses on the brand’s perception in the eyes of the beholder, or more simply put, what is referred to as brand image.
From my personal perspective, though, I prefer a definition along these lines:
A successful brand is a uniquely identifiable product or service (person or place, etc.) enhanced by distinctive and relevant value propositions and benefits that best meet the needs of the target market, relative to competition, that can be successfully sustained or adapted in the face of competition, over time.
Needs can of course also be created, as new technology often does.
Henry Ford famously said that if he had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.
Branding and Brand Development
Branding, on the other hand, is how you go about establishing your brand’s differentiated meaning in people’s minds and communicating these in optimal fashion. As such, branding plays a vital role in brand building.
Branding is not, however, the alpha and omega of brand building as one is so often told, but one important part of a bigger picture.
Brand development, as used in the context of this article goes beyond branding alone and incorporates activities and processes required to create, optimise and sustain a brand over time.
As such, in my view, brand development begins with reviewing or shaping your brand’s objectives and goals and delving into your mission and vision, as part of a preliminary framework.
Ideally, your mission should not only answer what you do and aim to achieve, but alsowhy you do it. Is there a special passion that gets you to do what you do in your law practice? If so, how does this translate into benefits for those choosing your firm? Are these meaningful or simply peripheral, from the perspective of your target market?
As a next step an established brand should commission a strategic brand analysis (brand audit/situational analysis) amongst relevant stakeholders.
Drilling down into the data is not only valuable in attaining an ‘objective’ assessment of current perceptions, but can also help with the choice, and subsequent enrichment, of a brand strategy.
Following the strategic brand analysis, other inputs such as value curves can be formulated, as these highlight the strengths and weaknesses of competitors in a simple, yet powerful graphic format and often show gaps and opportunities in your niche.
As a result, unique opportunities for your law firm may present themselves for consideration immediately or at a later point of the brand development process.
Following on, a brand identity across different components would be formulated.
Your brand identity helps formulate a set of associations that signal what your brand represents and promises, and is undertaken according to a specific process. It also helps shape your brand’s personality and tone of voice.
An optimal brand identity would be in harmony with your brand strategy, which would, in turn, be consistent with your law firm’s culture.
Looked at the situation from another perspective, an excellent brand identity should be strong enough to positively influence your brand image in the market.
Brand development, in our context, also incorporates the formulation of the value propositions that flow from the brand identity, differentiation, brand positioning, and brand architecture, to name but some key areas.
Ultimately though you need to forge a great relationship with your target market, such that you resonate with them. If this is not achieved your efforts will be sub- optimal.
These brand development initiatives, properly undertaken, help build and enhance both brand equity and brand value for your law practice, as discussed shortly.
Branding, specifically, comes into its own when the brand identity, positioning, and other relevant components are implemented in the best strategic and creative manner possible. Tactics, of course, also play a major role, but also need to align with strategy.
Just as strategy always precedes planning and tactical endeavours, brand development and management initiatives should always happen before brand (and other forms of) marketing.
If not it’s putting the cart before the horse.
In fact not only is this a likely waste of funds, but potentially detrimental, should you promote the very essence of your firm in sub- optimal fashion. And it’s brand and culture, not marketing, (as important as it is) that’s at the core of your firm.
Of relevance is the fact that brand identity precedes brand positioning, even though some consulting firms specialising in the legal area take a different view.
Doyen of almost all that is brand, David Aaker, expresses this aspect well by stating that: brand positioning is derived from the brand identity and constitutes the part of brand identity and value proposition chosen to be actively communicated to the target audience, and which demonstrates an advantage over competing brands.
If correctly determined, your brand position will establish meaningful and unique associations in the minds of the target audience. This is the point where your firm should again examine the value curves mentioned earlier, or similar constructs to add even more perspective to your positioning choice.
What Types of Brands are Relevant in this Discussion?
In addition to law firms, individual lawyers are, as mentioned at the outset, also brands and it is important that there is consistency across both brand types.
For example, if your law firm prides itself on client care and a member of staff gets a reputation for being abrasive to clients, this will rub off negatively on the corporate brand.
From the perspective of the law firm it is important for the firm’s brand to be stronger than the sum of the individual brands. This is to ensure that the firm’s image does not diminish should partners leave, retire or die; to the greatest possible extent.
Whilst these two brand types are extremely important, so is the notion of employee brands which is how your law practice is perceived from the standpoint of current staff and potential employees.
This has relevance from many perspectives, including levels of workforce satisfaction, rates of attrition, and the ability to attract highly skilled partners and other staff members into your organisation.
Furthermore, the correct way to build brands sequentially is from the inside out, as ‘buy in’ and acceptance from internal stakeholders, who are the firm’s front line ambassadors, is crucial initially.
If partners and other staff don’t understand your brand’s values, don’t believe in your brand or implement its values, how can you expect others to perceive credibility in your brand? Insight into this important area can be found at http://bit.ly/1JUIZ4M
In addition, depending on your brand architecture, there may be subsidiaries of a law practice, each of which is a sub-brand. Brand architecture options are fascinating but beyond the scope of this article.
Law firms may also be perceived as part of an elite group, such as being a member of London’s famous ‘Magic Circle’. This is yet another brand.
The Relationship Between Brand Value and Brand Equity
Many, including law firms, may be interested in their potential brand value and how this comes about.
In this regard brand value and brand equity are both appropriate. Although different, there is a strong link between the two.
In its simplest form, brand value is the net present value of future cash flows from a branded service or product (e.g. Coca Cola) less the net present value of future cash flows from an unbranded similar product (e.g. a generic cola) that serves the ‘same’ purpose.
In other words it represents the additional value that the brand adds to the brand owners over and above an unbranded product or commodity in the same category.
In terms of your law firm it would be the difference in financial value had you opened your doors simply as your ‘Local/International law firm’, as opposed to your current brand name, and the additional value this creates and captures.
Brand value is impacted by brand equity in its various forms. In other words your brand value is dependent on how good or otherwise your brand equity is.
David Aaker has defined brand equity as: A set of assets (and liabilities) linked to a brand’s name or symbol that adds to (or subtracts from) the value provided by a product or service.
In broad terms brand equity can be divided into three categories, namely:
- Brand attributes and associations
- Brand assets
- Strength in market
In my experience most brand professionals focus primarily on brand attributes and associations.
This generally includes areas such as brand awareness, perceived quality, loyalty, image, relevance, value proposition, etc.
A measure that is more useful than awareness (either recall or recognition) is brand salience, i.e. the extent to which a brand is thought about or noticed when someone is at the point of making a choice.
This happens as a consequence of having pre-established experience, or relevant associations, with the brand and is a step beyond awareness.
Whilst brand loyalty is very important from an on-going cash flow perspective, brand advocacy is also worthy of mention vis- a- vis a brand equity measure.
Brand advocacy is currently used by many companies as the single barometer of brand health in surveys, e.g. on a scale of 1 to 7 (from never to definitely) how likely are you to recommend us to others?
It is however, subjective, in that we cannot be sure that it will definitely happen to the extent stated and could change at any time, depending on circumstances.
Brand assets include elements such as intellectual property (e.g. trademarks and patents), systems and processes that are unique and add value, as well as advantageous trade arrangements, distribution, accessibility and other key areas in which you have exclusivity or a genuine competitive advantage.
Brands are also impacted by the market environment including regulatory, economic and other factors. In addition to competitive aspects, there are also barriers to entry, trends, etc, to consider.
If, for example, new legislation were passed preventing law firms engaging in certain activities, or alternatively opening the door to areas that were previously shut, how would your firm be placed and react, relative to others, to accommodate either?
Brand Benefits, Points of Difference and Parity
Traditionally law firms have included functional benefits in their communications such as: size, local vs international presence, areas of focus and expertise, etc.
There is no denying the importance of functional benefits and theoretically, if outstanding and unique, a law firm could dominate a category with these.
Functional benefits are, however, not usually unique and are often copied.
Generally the most successful brands across categories include other benefits, in addition to functional ones.
As human beings, we all have emotions to a greater or lesser extent. As such, emotional benefits are valuable, if the emotions they conjure are positive and uplifting.
For example, if using your law firm makes clients feel more rest assured, comfortable, trusting, important, cutting edge, intelligent, etc, your brand is perceived at some cognitive level to be providing emotional benefits, over and above functional ones.
Emotional benefits are important for many reasons. Not only can they help forge positive associations through favourable images and feelings, but they can also differentiate your brand and forge closer relationships with clients.
Ultimately it is the relationships you build with clients, through what your brand is perceived to represent, as well as your brand promises and brand actions, that are most crucial in building brand equity and brand value.
This fusion of functional and emotional benefits is often the amalgam that provides the elixir for optimisation, not only for law firm brands, but brands generally.
In the product sector Coke and BMW are prime examples, being so much more that a sweet fizzy brown soft drink and an upmarket car respectively.
Another form of benefit that can be added to functional ones is known as self- expressive.
The principle is that different people align with (or distance themselves from) brands on the basis of all they perceive the brand to stand and how this fits (or does not fit) their self- image.
Consciously or unconsciously many clients want the brands they use to be a ‘best fit’ with their own personality, value system and image.
If, for example, your law firm is perceived as cutting edge, those who see themselves as innovators may find your firm a perfect fit from a personality and lifestyle perspective and express this by telling others about using your law firm.
A law firm that is perceived as having a strong social responsibility will therefore be ideal for a leader of an organisation with similar values and the association with the firm in question may be actively communicated online and in PR, etc, as a consequence.
Just like people, well built brands also have personalities and self- expressive benefits gel these to mutual advantage.
Emotional and self-expressive benefits are closely allied, yet different, and an additional forum could express these differences more fully.
Simply put though the former are more about feelings and the latter more about actions. Feeling emotionally good about owning a Rolls Royce is not the same as what your self-image experiences when actually driving one.
As mentioned earlier, an advantage of emotional and self-expressive benefits is that they are less easily copied than functional benefits, if they are meaningful to your target market, well presented creatively, and resonate.
An area that Law Firms should consider developing is the notion of a brand story which tells the story of the brand, along with its culture and values, in a factual yet creative format. This can be placed on websites and utilised in many other brand marketing endeavours.
When it comes to brands in the legal genre as well as brands generally points of difference play a vital role.
What is your firm’s specific point of difference over the competition and how will you utilise this to build your optimal brand identity, choose your brand position and communicate this?
Generally law firms have not been successful in creating significant points of difference, as is predominantly true of the largest international accounting firms, which although relatively well known by name (to the target audience) are also not easily differentiated.
In the automobile industry Tesla has assumed perceived dominance in the electric car sector over traditional car manufacturers, and others, also trying to enter this space, with billions more at their disposal.
Tesla has done this through outstanding R&D, excellent products (at this stage of the ‘curve’), innovative brand development and marketing & PR initiatives.
In the UK, Eversheds successfully introduced an element of differentiated focus and targeting through well-directed efforts to align its brand with women, to a far greater extent than other law firms.
This is seen as one of the major reasons for the firm entering the top ten rankings of the 2015 Acritas London Law Firm Brand Index.
On a relative scale the Eversheds brand performance index, based only on women is reported to be 45%, more than twice the average of all Magic Circle firms combined.
Eversheds also headed up the overall Acritas UK Law Firm Brand Index in 2015
As important as points of difference are to your law firm, points of parity are also of relevance.
These represent brand offerings your target market expects your brand to have, along with competitors, not necessarily on an equal footing, but rather at an industry sector level of acceptability.
Whilst points of parity are not generally why people choose your brand there lack often causes clients to go elsewhere.
To take an example, the fact that your firm has a conveniently situated office in the Sydney CBD, is not something you would highlight from a unique perspective, but as a point of parity with many other law firms in your niche.
The Hilton Hotel chain would not advertise that it is clean as a reason for choosing it because this goes without saying. If it were not there would, however, be a mass exodus.
Further Interesting Brand Observations in the Legal Sector in the UK
The most recent Acritas London and UK Law Firm Brand Indexes reflect that the most successful law firms, brand wise, are the minority that hit above their weight in strategy and brand development, especially when it comes to value propositions that resonate well with the target market.
In London, the Magic Circle firms (Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May), occupy five of the top six places, with Allen & Overy being the odd one out in sixth spot.
In the broader UK index, however, it is Eversheds, as mentioned, that now occupies the top spot.
From a trend perspective it is interesting to note that the overall Magic Circle brand scores across a number of indices has collectively fallen over time.
This is due not only to competitors placing relatively more emphasis on developing their brands but also, in some instances, as a consequence of matching the international reach of the Magic Circle, thereby converting what was once a point of difference into a point of parity.
In addition, many clients now fail to justify the extent of the price differentiation charged by Magic Circle firms, based on relative value propositions, as compared with those outside the Circle. In other words the magic is no longer as spellbinding as it once was.
Yet another interesting London law firm is Pinsent Masons which has risen six ranks and 30 points in the index, over four years. This as a consequence of excellent brand strategy and other initiatives.
On the global Brand Index front, the once complacent and high flying Magic Circle now has only one firm in the top five, Clifford Chance.
This goes to show that complacency is something one cannot afford, even in the best of circles.
To be fair though, Magic Circle firms have not been devoid of some major initiatives in trying to enhance their brand associations over time.
Take for example Allen & Overy’s staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Glyndebourne Opera House in 2010, with a cast and orchestra comprising employees and alumni.
But, on going back to branding basics, we find that Magic Circle websites do not display taglines (as opposed to slogans, which often change on a regular basis). Taglines are an excellent platform to communicate important branding signals such as points of difference, values, brand promise, etc.
Furthermore only one, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, has a logo, which is, however, difficult to interpret and obscure, and which, after research, was found to be a depiction of Saint Michael, who would in all probability be astounded by this ‘appointment’.
A logo represents the face of the organisation, and should be easy to recognise and understand, and used consistently.
Logos are cues which can trigger associations with the brand and are therefore an important part of branding. In many instances people are able to identify companies from their logo alone, Nike being an excellent case in point.
There is much more that can be said about logos but this is a topic in itself.
The Acritas Law Firm Brand Index for Asia Pacific ranked the first three brands as follows:
- Baker & McKenzie
- King & Wood Mallesons
- Herbert Smith Freehills
Baker & McKenzie retains first spot, in the Asia Pacific as it does globally, but interestingly displays no tagline on its website. It does show a standard globe on its website to depict global reach.
King and Wood Mallesons has developed what could be regarded as a logo through the use of two coloured circles (with an Olympic feel) and has a tagline, ‘The Power of Together’ which is emotional in essence. The tagline is, however, not easily readable, being white against a light blue background.
Herbert Smith Freehills has a logo that is circular in shape and not significantly different from some other circular logos I have seen, and reminiscent of a white lifebuoy with blue stripes.
The firm has no tagline on its website.
Of course logos and taglines are but one of many brand related elements.
The Global Market
Whilst Baker & McKenzie continue to dominate year after year, DLA Piper and Norton Rose have risen sharply from a rankings perspective, over time, as has Hogan Lovells.
Clifford Chance, the only Magic Circle firm still in the top five, has remained relatively stable in the rankings (but lost 31 points since 2010) whilst Freshfields, Linklaters and Allen & Overy have all gone backwards.
The Acritas Law Firm Brand Index : Perspective
The Acritas Law Firm Brand Indices are formulated on the basis of interviews with key decision makers within the geographical market under review. Those interviewed in the global survey included heads of legal departments or their deputies, and COO’s. Sample sizes vary between regional and global surveys.
Pertinent for scoring in the global survey are answers pertaining to: the first five law firms that come to mind, (brand awareness), the three firms interviewees feel most favourably towards, and the three firms they are most likely to consider for multijurisdictional litigation, in three or more countries. Points are awarded from 1 to 5.
The interesting aspect about the Acritas’ Law Firm Brand regional indices is that they reflect a relative scale within that specific region, with the top firm setting the index at 100 in that region, from which all other scores are calculated.
The global index is the index that is truly a test of international strength.
It appears that even where firms are well ranked within their own geography, that brand enhancements are still possible, even recommended.
This should begin with the basics.
This done, what follows will be that much more meaningful. Organisations often make the error in brand devolvement of enhancing ‘items down the chain’ before ensuring that the foundations are optimised. This is much like building a mansion on marshland.
Brand Development vs Marketing: The Relationship
Most simply lump brand and marketing together or view brand development as a subset of marketing.
Personally, I prefer to regard brand and marketing as highly intertwined, yet distinct entities.
Brand is far more strategic than marketing from an organisational hierarchal perspective, although both are required. Brand is also far more closely linked to your firm’s culture.
Whilst marketing can, and often does, change on a very regular basis (consider retail for example), your brand should strive for consistency and longevity across all stakeholder groups both internal and external.
Your brand is part of your organisational core and reflects who you are, your values and culture, establishes your firm’s explicit and implicit promises, personality, tone of voice and so much more.
Ultimately what you do to, and with, your brand will determine how you are perceived at the mind level, because that’s precisely where all brands reside, along with any associations good, bad or indifferent that they have. And the importance of these linked associations cannot be stressed enough.
In addition, as discussed earlier, a successful brand has the capacity to develop and build brand equity, command premium pricing, and stimulate ongoing cash flows, as happens with top tier law firms.
In fact, according to historical figures published by Interbrand, (arguably the most renowned brand valuator internationally) the entire value of some companies such as Disney is attributed more to brand than all other factors combined.
Shifting the discussion to marketing, how can we define it? As with most areas, there is no single agreed definition, but amongst the myriad postulated the following has considerable merit.
According to the American Marketing Association (AMA):
Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.
Marketing is, therefore, the platform used to communicate relevant brand issues to your target audience, in the most appropriate manner and voice, at the optimal time, through the most appropriate channels; in the broad sense of the term.
Where is Your Law Firm on the Brand Development and Management Spectrum and what should you do?
Most law firms have not actively taken steps to shape their brands.
Some hire consultants or maintain in-house marketing staff who may be competent at many of the tasks they do.
The question though, is do they have sufficient in-depth knowledge of the brand development and management process?
Many marketing generalists claim to, but unfortunately don’t and, to be fair, can’t be expected to be all things, to all people.
To develop marketing, content, and communications endeavours without first optimising your brand is folly, as brand is the asset you should build and promote for your law firm in the most optimal manner.
Even international law firms whose brand policies are said to be ‘cast in stone’ may discover ways to creatively enhance or tailor their brand within their specific domain.
This proved the case with large multinationals, such as Agrevo, to whom I consulted and undertook brand, marketing and communications initiatives, (including on-going multimedia and PR campaigns), for over a decade.
So ensure that you have specialist brand expertise internally, or hire an outside professional to develop, build and manage your brand in the most optimal manner.
It just makes excellent business sense.
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