Make Some Noise! 5 Ways To Boost A Law Firm BrandApril 11, 2014
Telling a better story about how your law firm differs from every other shop on the block is a tough task, but one even firms with well-established brands must take on if they want to catch the eye of new clients in a buyer’s market.
While many stick to the legal industry’s conventional set of branding messages and images — think scales, bridges, light bulbs and confident-looking people exiting mazes — experts say there is plenty firms can do to hone their message and make their marketing efforts count.
“If you haven’t contributed anything new to the market, you’re just making noise, and that extends to your brand,” said Debra Baker of Legal Vertical Strategies LLC.
Here are five tips for sharpening your law firm brand:
Walk the Walk
A brand isn’t an ad campaign or a slogan: It’s an amalgam of the reputations, communications and behaviors of all the firm’s constituents and the impression they make.
And while firm marketing is replete with words like “innovation” and “efficiency,” such broad claims fall flat unless they are reflected by something concrete in some or all of a brand’s branches, experts said.
“A big problem is that people have all these claims in their branding without any supporting proof points,” said Elonide Semmes, president of marketing and branding firm Right Hat LLC. “People see these things and just roll their eyes.”
Semmes advises firms to find ways to formalize strengths already known to their clients and then build that into a broader brand effort.
Rather than tout “responsiveness,” for example, a firm wanting to emphasize client-friendly billing practices could offer to have a firm representative go on-site and meet regularly with the client’s accounting team. Once the offer is a standing part of the firm’s repertoire, it can then use it as one component in a bigger message about client service.
“Make it real,” Semmes said. “That’s what it means to align the brand.”
Don’t Over-Rely on Personalities
Law firms, along with many other professional service organizations, have a built-in challenge when it comes to marketing and branding: the lack of a physical product that can be communicated simply to a broad audience.
Thus, law firms often gesture broadly to their legal prowess, collegiality and rectitude and then rely on lawyers alone to carry the message in marketing and branding.
While personal messages can be powerful, firm marketing experts say they often fail to show how a particular lawyer is any different from many others or how a partner’s personality represents a unique value to a client.
Ross Fishman, CEO of Fishman Marketing, points to a recent fad in law firm branding in which individual partners or associates, often portrayed in brightly lit close-ups, are profiled about their personal motivations and dedication to client service.
“I can scroll over something about partner Jane, but it doesn’t really say anything about Jane except maybe that Jane is a good lawyer,” he said. “It’s not telling me something that really differentiates the firm. It’s really taking an easy way out.”
Throw Some Attitude
BigLaw firms aren’t known as risk takers when it comes to marketing and branding. And the bigger the firm, the harder it can be to avoid a generic “we do it all, and we’re everywhere” strategy. But experts said more firms, including some bigger shops, are stepping out of the pack with humor and attitude, and without straying into silliness.
Fishman points to a marketing and branding effort he worked on for Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP’s health care “microsite” launched last year, which includes stories about the firm’s role in helping companies provide health care and medical advances. While the subject matter is serious, the tone is optimistic and upbeat, reflecting the attitudes of many of the lawyers themselves, he said.
“Lawyers do important and meaningful work, they can help save lives and families, they create and protect wealth,” he said. “But a lot of their marketing sucks every bit of passion out of it, and it shouldn’t.”
Fishman pointed to another client, North Carolina litigation firm Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo LLP, which uses moodily lit photos of attorneys over tough-sounding slogans like, “We don’t blink.”
“It’s got a little edge, it’s dramatic, and it tells you something about what you’re going to get at this firm and what you’re not going to get,” he said. “It’s not boring.”
A sophisticated law firm brand addresses not only what the lawyers consider to be its strengths and values, but also the impressions of clients and the public. In some cases, the words a firms’ clients uses to describe the firm are the best building blocks for a credible message.
Mary Young, a firm marketing and strategy expert at Zueghauser Group, says client relationship managers are a valuable resource for gathering that feedback.
“It’s a very common practice in every other industry to talk to your clients or your customers and ask them about your product,” she said. Corporate clients “are used to it, and they get it because they’re doing it for their own businesses.”
Firms can also buy surveys and feedback from market researchers like Acritas that they can use to sharpen a brand or scuttle messages that don’t resonate.
“This gives you language you can communicate back to your clients, either literally in their words or not quite literally, about what matters to them,” she said.
Speak to Your Internal Audience
The credibility of a firm’s brand is as dependent on buy-in from the firm’s internal audience — lawyers as well as staff — as it is on clients and marketplace reputation. The reason: A brand is a combination of all the impressions a firm makes, from staff voice mail messages to glossy ad campaigns.
Firm marketing experts say good brands differentiate themselves in part by speaking to the authentic character of the people who work there, from managing partners down to receptionists. That could mean supporting involvement in a community project, reflecting a more casual office culture in marketing materials, and paying attention to how the firm approaches associate recruiting.
“Internally, it’s a rallying cry for how the firm wants to serve their clients, and for the staff too, it’s a call to action,” Young said. “But to pull it off, it has to be believable, and it has to be organic.”