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Marketing Matters: Branding Your Law Firm

  • March 06, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

Most of us can’t tell one beer from the next, but slap on a few labels and the opinions will come pouring out. Those opinions are based largely on branding. Is the beer cheap? Imported? Domestic? Does the label indicate Light or Low-carb? Unless you’re among the 2% of the population with a scientific palate, you generally won’t be able to tell one type of beer from another.

Marketing is not a battle of products or services—it’s a battle of perceptions. And to win, you have to become the leader in a category. Leaders are assumed to be better because, well, everybody knows the better product or service wins in the marketplace, right?

To become a leader, you need to launch a new category you can be first in. This needn’t be complex. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the easiest to stick in people’s heads, which is the battleground where most brands are won and lost. Marketing tools establish the brand in the mind of the prospect.

Consider this: is legal advice in a remote town really less valuable than advice from a metropolitan centre? Many prospects seem to think so, but it’s only a perception. Some clients will use the services of a large firm because of the perceived leadership of that firm—bigger must be better.

Think clients can tell if they’re getting the best legal advice? Most can’t. Most firms of similar tier or size are thought to be the same; it’s a wash. Sure, members of the legal community may know differently, but unfortunately clients don’t. It’s not necessarily the firm with the best legal services that has the highest billings – it’s the ones that reside in the minds of prospects. Branding and personal relationships get prospects through the door, and good service keeps them from leaving.

The Power of Branding

The process of establishing a brand includes the use of logotypes, colors, type faces, names, etc. Back when cowboys branded their cattle, it was their mark or brand that identified a promise of quality that buyers could depend on. It distinguished their cattle from all the others on the range. Branding has come a long way.

Today, a successful brand captures the essence of a company and connects you in the hearts and minds of current and prospective clients. It says, “You’ll feel this way when you use our services.”

There is no better example of the power of branding than that of Evian water. We have decent water available from nearly every tap across North America, and in many countries beyond. But the Evian brand is influential despite that fact that, drop for drop, it has been known to cost more than beer in some places.

A successful brand evokes emotion. It resonates with us in a significant way. It is singular in voice and, as a result, may not appeal to every one of your current and prospective clients.

You must own the category – be the first in a position. “Client service,” “Going the extra mile,” and “Attention to detail” are not positioning statements. We could interchange firm names and it wouldn’t make a speck of difference to clients or prospects. Differentiation is key.

Choose your position carefully. Positioning statements can often be found in a firm’s tagline (i.e. McCarthy TĂ©trault is “Canada’s National Law Firm”; Goodman and Carr is the “Hard Working Law” firm). Once you’ve identified your position, own it and stay the course. Change your position and you’ll confuse prospects.

The only exception to repositioning is if your position isn’t penetrating the minds of prospects. If you own a position, a change will be difficult, costly and likely ineffective. Do so at your peril.

To build a brand, you have to stand for something in people’s collective mind. BMW stands for "driving," Volvo stands for "safety," Mercedes-Benz stands for "prestige." There are also truckloads of consumer-goods examples of branding.

But what about professional-service firms? Quick - what's the difference between KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche? Unless you’ve just hired one of them, your hand’s probably still hovering over the buzzer. Mine too.

So, what’s the point of branding? It all comes down to a brand’s power to influence purchasing behaviour of one firm over another. A brand name on a Web site or a document is different than a brand name in the mind. Get into the mind as a leader and you will secure the single most important motivating factor in purchasing behaviour.

Is Branding Right for Your Firm?

How do you know if your firm should engage in branding? Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Can you succinctly describe your brand without resorting to the words “service”, “attention to detail” or “client-oriented”?
  2. Is your firm making the short lists? Are you on the radar?
  3. Can clients or prospects clearly differentiate between your firm and another of similar size, tier or region?
  4. Are you losing market share? Is there growth in your areas of law, while your billings are flat?

Market research will also provide good indicators of where your firm is positioned in the legal marketplace. To some extent you can do this yourself.

To get a brand off the ground, you’ll need solid leadership and most of your partners on side. You will not get unanimous consent on issues of branding and some might even get downright cranky, so be prepared.

Talk to your senior administrative staff and get their cooperation. Brand conception takes time and patience.

Where to Start & What to Consider

Go Short

The most effective brand names are short (single words are best) and memorable. The problem is, every partner attempts to secure their rightful place on the reception wall.

However, some firms are beginning to catch on that while their legal name may be overzealous, their marketing name should not. Blakes’ “Blakes Means Business” is more memorable that “Blake Cassels Graydon Means Business”. Gowling Lafleur Henderson is better known now as simply “Gowlings”. These firms get more mileage for their marketing by going short.

Be First

So your firm wasn’t the first national firm, the first full service firm or the first that was hard working. Now what?

It’s easy. Create a new category for leadership and keep it simple. Anticipate the characteristics of a law firm that will motivate prospects. Will it be the convenience of a full-service online law firm, supported by a call centre, but no bricks and mortar? Or will prospects respond to a “fast” law firm?

What if your firm was the first to demonstrate – I mean really live and breathe – detailed standards of client service? What if you returned calls within 24 hours, reported on files every week, never had clients wait in reception for more than five minutes beyond the meeting time, and so on. Tough to implement in a law firm? You betcha. Effective? If these are significant motivational issues for your clients, absolutely.

Be True to Your Brand

Even a strong brand will fail in the face of poor client service. A brand is not skin deep. You must meet the expectations of clients to keep their business. A brand can get your firm chosen, but it’s the service—the delivery of the brand’s promise—that will keep them returning.

A brand that is skin deep, relying on packaging alone, will not be successful. The differentiation must run through the entire firm. The “fast” firm will soon be the “desperate” firm if they don’t deliver on their fast service promise. Clients will try them once, but never return. If the brand promise isn’t delivered, credibility is lost.

Think Beyond Visuals

The right message is key to staking your place in the mind, and the visuals will have significant impact.

A logo is part of your brand, as is everything about your firm. But your logo is not your brand alone. A firm can have a strong brand and still update its logo without compromising the essence of the brand. Think of a brand as a person. Every time you think of this “person” you think of certain attributes. This is how a brand is able to live in the mind. It has a personality and behaves predictably and consistently. It looks the same wherever you come across it. Once in a while, though, it refreshes its appearance just as a person will do so, with a haircut or new outfit. The packaging is slightly different, but the personality remains intact.

Establish Brand Credibility

Credibility is best built on third-party endorsements. The “fast” firm should use PR tactics – where others comment on your value – around the news that deals were made at record speed, saving clients loads of money. PR has credibility because we believe statements of others before we believe advertised claims. Any firm can make a claim in an ad, but why should we believe them?

Positioning ads, then, are only effective when they espouse a currently held opinion or thought. Introduce a new position and it will fail. Why? There’s no automatic credibility. Advertising is inherently less trustworthy than someone they know and trust, even if that “someone” is a publisher.

Develop Ads that Motivate

Some brands are fed a steady diet of advertising. We’ve all seen national firms run image advertising to maintain their market position. Many non-marketers believe the money is wasted. But these large ads that don’t tell us anything new are cleverly maintaining their firm’s position in the mind. Provided they own the word or position in a category, it’s a sound strategy. Could another firm develop faster service? Quite possibly, but they don’t “own” the word and will never be the leader in the category.

Effective advertising messages reinforce the positioning that exists in the mind, but should also provide a motivating reason to consider your firm.

These ads are expensive. Purchasing the ad space, hiring skilled designers, contracting with copywriters…it’s all costly. Every element is prepared with precise techniques – right down to the placement of the firm’s logo. (In Canada, almost all advertisers favor print media for positioning ads, reserving broadcast media for other marketing strategies).

“Experience has shown us that different ads developed from the same successful concept can produce significantly different on-going sales profiles, sometime by as much as 30%,” according to Ipsos Ideas (Ipsos Ideas: Ten Guidelines for Successful Brand Management If you can, then, pretest your ads on a sample of your prospects (not your lawyers).

Look Inward First

First though, a firm-wide marketing program should be presented to those expected to support and live it – members of your firm. Nothing will take the wind out of a freshly launched marketing program (such as branding, mergers, hiring professionals, anniversaries, etc.) like lawyers and staff who learn of it at the same time as clients. So start internally. Reveal your new brand with a presentation to firm members first, and then roll it out externally.

Letterhead, Web sites, newsletters, special-event invitations, all types of advertising and all other communication vehicles a firm uses must support the brand message. A departure from the core message will reek of an imposter and dilute the brand.

But can it be done on a smaller scale, say in a regional firm? Certainly. Some even say it’s easier. In most cases, your geographic market is smaller and easier to understand and manage, it’s easier to make an impact on a smaller market, you can execute strategies more quickly, and you have fewer firm members to train and help with policy changes.

Leave It to the Experts

DO NOT try to build a brand yourself (risk of injury to yourself and others is likely). To build an effective long lasting brand, you’ll need a brand specialist. They usually come in the form of a creative director, marketing consultant or a combination of the two. Be sure to ask them some critical questions when interviewing:

  1. Have you built a brand in the professional services field?
  2. What’s your branding philosophy?
  3. What’s your process?
  4. What are your fees?
  5. Can I call former clients?

When you view their portfolio, ask questions about the essence of the brand and evaluate for yourself if it’s been captured. Ask former clients if they stayed on budget.

There are a few things you can do yourself. Research your competitors and understand their brand and positioning, collect and consider all their visual materials, and ask your clients or prospects for their perceptions of various firms.

Get Everyone on the Same Page

You’ll also need to call on your human-resources professional. If HR in a firm wasn’t difficult enough, it might get tougher. Not only do new hires need to fit in with the corporate culture of your firm, they need to understand and support the brand.

A singular approach to service delivery is critical and new hires – staff or lawyers – must be willing to fit in to the mold. Still though, the right hire needs to be trained on the essence of the brand and how services are carried out. Manuals, policies and restrictions (“No, you can’t have your favorite colour on your e-mail signature block”) must be clear as day. Sure, it sounds tough, but successful brands weren’t built on a whim or the individual preferences of firm members. Internal preferences does not a brand make.

Instead, HR professionals will need to balance the necessity of rigid control of the brand with firm members’ need for flexibility. No easy task.

Additional Resources

Ries, Al and Ries, Laura. The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2002.

Ipsos Ideas: Ten Guidelines for Successful Brand Management

"The Persuaders," FRONTLINE delves into a fascinating discussion of how the cultures of marketing and advertising have come to influence not only what Americans buy, but also how they view themselves and the world around them:

Susan Van Dyke, Principal, Van Dyke Marketing & Communications is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver, B.C. She can be reached at 604-876-7769 or

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