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Internet Roundtable #34 - Branding, Part I: Should Law Firms Try To Build Brands?

By Jerry Lawson, Published on January 2, 2003

Jerry Lawson is a lawyer and author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA LPMS 1999). Mr. Lawson operates the Internet Tools for Lawyers Web site.

Brenda Howard is the owner of CreativeWriting.com, LLC, a Web design firm in the Metro DC area. Ms. Howard is also a Corporate Software Trainer specializing in the Internet.

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site

SideBar

Links

Branding Your Law Firm – Still valuable 1999 White Paper by Greenfield Belser, Ltd.

Building Your Law Firm’s Brand

Penetrating Global Markets With Branding

Branding the Firm AND Its Individual Practices

Why a Down Market it the Right Time to Brand

Establishing Your "Brand" in the Law Firm Marketplace

Law Firms Doing Branding All Wrong

Determine a Tangible Value for Your Brand

Is Branding Law Firms A Mistake?

Links to Branding Resources from Themanager.org

Trend Toward Shorter Law Firm Names

O’Connor and Hannan, LLC, Tag Line

Case Study Links

Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Branding Campaign

An Insurance Litigation Firm’s Branding Campaign

Branding Campaign for a “Square” Law Firm

Brobeck Marketing Campaign

Books

Gobe, Emotional Branding: The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People

Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding

Ries,The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding

Beckwith, Selling the Invisible

Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center for all previous issues of the Internet Roundtable

Jerry Lawson (JL): Coke, Nike, Merrill Lynch. All these names have something in common. Each evokes a certain image, and a certain expectation of quality in consumers’ minds. Is branding also useful for law firms?

Brenda Howard (BH): Most definitely. All products or services should evoke a mental picture or feeling when their organizational name is mentioned. Branding is really about recognition.

Dennis Kennedy (DK): The jury is still out on this question. Greenfield / Belser Ltd.’s 1999 white paper, “Branding Your Law Firm,” makes some convincing arguments and their work for firms is quite impressive. But some firms have dropped branding efforts and it’s still difficult to point to any firms that you identify with a “brand.” It’s seems like a case of great promise, but little concrete results to show as yet.

(JL): I agree that branding hasn’t revolutionized the world of legal marketing, but there are success stories out there. Our bibliography this month contains many case studies that show some of them.

While law firms as we know them can’t, and probably shouldn’t be, promoted in exactly the same way Proctor and Gamble rolls out a new brand name, I think that law firms can effectively adapt many of the branding techniques used by other businesses.

Branding Campaign Basics

(JL): There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what branding is. It involves a lot more than a slogan, a logo and a web site makeover, right?

(BH): Gosh yes. It involves everything from the business cards, flowers in the foyer, the look and feel of the conference room, brochures, or any visual representation the law firm has to project. It starts when you decide to use gold inlay on your cards or go the practical route of black and white. All of these decisions determine how the potential client perceives your law firm. Maybe it is about glitz or you prefer to present and image of hard working and practical. Either way, all visual images must match so that when the potential client sees your law firm name, the image/feeling appears to them.

You want to create a united marketing front where all the elements support each other and work together and everyone and everything “stays on message.” Too often you’ll see web sites, brochures, stationery, announcements and the like sending different messages in different ways. The web site is an important point of contact, but not the only one.

(JL): Branding is tying together all the elements of how your firm is perceived by the public and managing them, with the objective of creating a desired public image. Many of the things law firms already do for marketing is branding. They are just not doing them as systematically and effectively as they could and should.

(DK): There are many different approaches to take. There are also some great resources out there. Harry Beckwith’s book, Selling the Invisible, is an excellent starting point. Two other good books are Emotional Branding: The New Paradigm for Connecting Brands to People and The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. Our bibliography this month contains case studies on what some leading firms have done.

(JL): All good references. Al and Laura Ries have a follow-up book, The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding.

The difficulties of branding a professional services firm should not be overrated, however. Branding involves making a promise of consistent quality. This is difficult enough when you are talking about hamburgers or cameras, but it is even more difficult when your “product” is largely intangible services. Beckwith understands this better than most branding gurus, which is why his book is so popular among law firm marketers.

A Position in the Marketplace

(JL): What is the difference between “brand development” and branding?

(BH): When you decide to utilize your marketing materials to instill a certain feeling or image, then you have started the “brand development” process. Over time, these materials will invoke that image. When you add a new product or service to your offerings, then you’ll use that image to “brand” that new product with the existing brand that has been successful for your law firm.

(DK): Brenda has described the difference well. There is definitely a process and an evolution that takes place with brands and, to the extent you can, you’d like to be able to plan and manage that process.

(DK): Some have likened managing lawyers to herding cats, but it is clearly difficult to meld a group with diverse interests, strong opinions and significant egos to one marketing message and get them to stay on message. I’m not saying impossible, but it’s likely that some people won’t like the logo, tag line, colors or something and will refuse to play along.

(JL): I’m sure you are right, but a well thought out and implemented branding campaign can bring large benefits, even without unanimous support. The support of the key players is essential, however.

(DK): Another point to consider: is Tom Peters’ saying: “The brand is you.” I believe it’s easier to establish branding for individual lawyers, especially in the CNN era, than it is to do so for firms. Try this exercise. Cravath, Brobeck, Baker & McKenzie. What comes to mind? Gerry Spence, Greta Van Susteren, Alan Dershowitz, Johnnie Cochran. Whose brands are stronger?

(JL): You raise a very good point, one that complements our discussion in Internet Roundtable columns 14 and 25 of the benefits of building “cults of personality,” promoting the law firm’s “stars” (or at least letting them promote themselves), to the extent that’s compatible with the firm’s culture. Your point also goes to another reason for not liking branding: it goes against the “eat what you kill” approach to compensation that most firms use. Lawyers tend to overlook that what benefits the firm can benefit them as well.

Objections to Branding for Law Firms

(JL): Let’s consider some of the specific objections to branding. Many law firms shy away from branding because they fear it will be limiting. For example, if they cultivate an image as a litigation-oriented firm, this may make it difficult for them to get other business. What do you think?

(DK): This is just one of many excuses law firms come up with. Get together with any group of law firm marketers and you’ll hear a whole laundry list of others. The fear of “misbranding” strikes me as evidence of not understanding you market or markets or what the mission of your firm is. In other words, I don’t buy it. It’s like excuses for not doing updated web sites – you are sending a message about your firm out 24 hours a day over the Internet and the question is not what your image, site or brand should be. You have one right now. The question is do you want to be sending the message you are currently sending. Brand management is similar.

(BH): I agree with Dennis. Establishing a “brand” is different than establishing a reputation. It’s the visual imagery that is used to instill a feeling of comfort or confidence. When I see the red Coca Cola symbol, I get a warm and fuzzy “family” feeling from all their years of branding family images. This feeling makes me “think” that I’m going to enjoy their soft drink, in the same way that I draw comfort from their visual image advertising.

If I saw a web site with a law firm and its staff and that same image is repeated throughout all their marketing materials, I would get a sense that is it a “caring” law firm. In the reverse, if all the marketing materials were extremely formal, I would expect that the law firm is an older, established law firm that has been around for a while and has years of experience. It’s less about areas of law and more about the “feeling or visual image” that in conjured up by the marketing materials.

(DK): What do you think of criticism that the law firm branding it’s bad because “marketing in about building relationships?”

(JL): While I share the skepticism about multi-million dollar television ad campaigns as a brand-building tool for most law firms, I think the critics are missing a key point: the right brand image can help you build and strengthen those relationships.

(BH): What do you think about the rap that brands are not important because people today are looking for bargains and brand loyalty has lessened?

(JL): Brands may have lost some of their persuasive power over some consumers, but so far as I can judge, they still have great power. Just today, I was thinking about buying a better digital camera. I want a Nikon. It will be more expensive, but I’ve gotten great service out of my Nikon SLR, and I will gladly pay a premium for a Nikon digital camera. Are Nikon digital cameras really better than other digital cameras? I don’t know, but I don’t plan to do a lot of comparative research: I want a Nikon.

While the top quality/premium price niche is not the only possible market space to claim through branding, most law firms will strive to be the Nikon of their segment of the legal market, the one that clients not merely feel comfortable hiring without extensive research but are also glad to pay a premium rate. As Greenfield|Belser observed, “Branding is a short-cut around intellectual proof.”

Will Branding Violate Ethics Rules?

(BH): Do law firm branding campaigns implicate any ethical considerations?

(JL): Trade names, slogans and other parts of a branding campaign could definitely cause problems with state ethics regulators. For example, a slogan could be determined by an unsympathetic ethics board to create unreasonable expectations in the minds of clients. For example, the state of Virginia prohibits the use of phrases such as "the best lawyers," and "the biggest earnings," as self-laudatory statements that cannot be factually substantiated. Also, many states still have restrictions on using trade names instead of the names of lawyers in the firm. These can be important issues, but they are not a reason to shy away from branding completely.

The general rule is that if a law firm can use a marketing technique something off line, it can do the same thing at its web site. In fact, sometimes restrictions are lesser on web sites. See, for example, Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee Opinion No. 02-02 (Issued February 11, 2002)(web site was not “solicitation,” so not required to have “Advertising Material” label that must appear on paper newsletter). The analysis of law firm use of domain names in Arizona Ethics Opinion No. 2001-05 (March 2001) is sensible and would probably be followed in most states.

Conclusion

(BH): It looks like we’ve covered the benefits of branding and have discovered a “hidden benefit” – establishing a “brand” causes one to think about their mission and presentation of their law firm – which is also good for the law firm.

(JL): Definitely. I think for some firms, this self-analysis, and the benefits that accrue from it, may be the most important reason to think about branding.

(DK): Despite some of my skeptical comments earlier, I think that it is worth the effort. Most other types of business use branding successfully. There are some examples where lawyers have definitely carved out a brand, which is obviously to their benefit. It’s definitely worth making an effort.

(JL): Well said. We’ve reached an answer to the question posed at the beginning of this discussion: Yes, many law firms can benefit from building their firm’s brand in the marketplace. In next month’s column, we’ll examine the elements of a successful branding campaign in more detail, focusing on effective integration of Internet components.