The differentiation equation

  • August 13, 2014
  • Suzanne Lowe

In a world where one's competitors are only a phone call or a mouse click away, standing out from the competition is increasingly important. For law firms, the question is becoming critical, as more and more firms embark on aggressive image-oriented campaigns to build visibility.

Branding in itself is not a bad idea. But the question goes much deeper than to embark on high-volume branding campaigns that lack the foundation of a valued distinction. Clients know empty self-promotion when they see it. And they know when they see a valuable difference.

Savvy law firms will ask themselves: "How do we not just look different from our competition, but show ourselves as actually offering something fundamentally and beneficially distinct from our competition?"

Our company, Expertise Marketing of Concord, Massachusetts, considered this question in its recent study: "Differentiation: how are professional service firms using it to compete?" which received responses from more than 400 firms in Canada and the United States. Respondents included firms in law, accounting, consulting, architecture, engineering, construction and general contracting.

Based on the results of this research, and our experience dealing directly with firms in law and other professions across North America, we have developed some recommendations on how law firms can embark on strategically robust differentiation strategies in today's market.

More than a slogan
As the hype about branding increases, some firms try to set themselves apart from the competition by articulating what they see as their "difference." Often, though, they'll simply end up with a tag line or slogan as bland as "Where the client comes first!" Other firms will come up with a new logo and stationery, and believe that this alone will help them stand out.

We ask these firms to complete a simple fill-in-the-blank sentence: "Our firm is the only firm that _______" If a firm can't articulate anything beneficial that it is the only firm to be or to do, then that firm is undifferentiated, and ultimately vulnerable to more distinctly valuable competitors.

Truly beneficial differentiation fosters loyal clients who happily pay their bills on time, faster business development cycles, lower turnover of associates and partners, higher recruiting percentages, and, yes, more successful branding initiatives.

A differentiation strategy must fulfill these six requirements:

It's something of value to clients. Being big is not necessarily attractive to clients. If, however, your firm's size makes it uniquely capable of practising law in a way that competitors could not replicate, then that capability could become a valuable differentiator.

It can be protected from copycats. Our research found that this factor ("copyability") was among the most difficult aspects of developing true differentiation. Those firms that pursued the most demanding differentiation strategies also experienced the most success. In today's market, it's not enough to be just "the best" at something. Your firm needs to have a differentiation that no other firm can replicate today or in the reasonable future.

It's credible and believable. If people don't believe your firm's differentiation claims, you've actually done more harm than if you hadn't made the claims at all. Be certain that your firm can deliver on its chosen differentiation platform. And be sure to research the competition's claims of being different, that your claims for being the only firm are correct.

It's sustainable. Your firm must be able to grow its differentiation. For example, you might say that your firm provides the widest range of services in your city, and that no other firm can match this claim. But a forceful differentiator has to have longevity in the marketplace. As competing firms grow, you must then invest in continuing to offer the broadest range of services.

It's a compelling attraction. This is the "Wow!" element, that which makes a potential client take notice. Will your targeted audience be drawn to your differentiation platform? If your differentiator doesn't have some pull towards some kind of attractive value for the client, it might not be truly robust.

It has a narrow focus. You can't be all things to all potential clients. Our work for our clients has shown us that professional service clients view claims of "we can do it all" with great skepticism. While your firm may actually be different on a number of fronts, clients will believe that fewer is better.

Defining features
Differentiation may take unusual forms. Take humor and entertainment value as a strategic differentiator – one that you might not think could survive in a law firm environment. Yet this approach worked in an industry where these characteristics were virtually unknown: the air travel industry. Southwest Airlines' fun-loving flight attendants and their corny jokes have helped the airline grow and succeed for more than three decades.

Could your law firm become known as one that includes a fun element in its proposals, newsletters, Website and mailings? In this case, it might make sense if your firm is strategically targeting dynamic organizations run by young people. Fun may be a differentiation that those prospective clients would value.

An example of a law firm that has successfully pursued differentiation is the Venture Law Group (VLG) headquartered in Menlo Park, California. The Venture Law Group's nearly 100 lawyers specialize in helping technology companies get started, find financing, structure and grow their businesses. This law firm differentiates itself primarily through three platforms:

Target audience. VLG only works with deal-intensive technology companies and the investment firms that support them. This is a good example of how a narrow focus helps a firm funnel its efforts into the most appropriate marketing, selling and service delivery initiatives.

Talent. The lawyers at VLG have professional backgrounds that include the fields in which they now practise law (computer science, civil engineering, mathematics, market research, accounting, finance, the life sciences and other fields). This differentiator is highly difficult to copy, and highly valuable to clients.

Service delivery. VLG uses its straightforward and egalitarian culture as a foundation for its delivery of services. It touts a number of solid service delivery approaches: use of plain English in all its agreements, responsiveness, partnering with clients, and flexible billing policies. Each of these approaches could be copied by competitors, but VLG uses them in combination, with rapid development of recognizable procedures to implement them, making VLG robustly differentiated from its competitors.

Making it happen
True differentiation is intentional. It has the power to create and sustain a defensible competitive advantage for your law firm.

Our experience, and the findings of our research, confirm that a differentiation process takes longer and costs more than originally expected. We've also found that no marketing director, no matter how well connected, can implement a differentiation strategy without the strong support of the firm's partners. Indeed, it requires a firm-wide, cultural effort.

If you remember that differentiation is not a marketing add-on to pull out when there is some budget money available, you'll be poised to turbocharge your firm's marketing efforts and lead your firm to greater successes.

Suzanne Lowe is President of Expertise Marketing, based in Concord, Massachusetts. She can be reached at (978) 287-5080 or at