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By Kevin Wheeler
Nothing infuriates me more than when I hear that a law firm has “rebranded” only to find that what it has really done is get a design agency to come up with a new logo (in a different font and colour), a new style for its literature and marketing materials, and a fancy new website (with no new content). Law firm branding is a complex issue and such treatment only illustrates how little understanding the firm concerned (and its agency) has about branding.
What is a “brand”?
As consumers, all of us are familiar with brands, be they product brands like Coca-Cola or service brands like Virgin Atlantic. In effect, names that we know and trust. So, perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that the word “brand” is derived from the Old Norse brandr, meaning “to burn”, in reference to the practice of producers burning their mark or name onto their products or livestock.
But from these early days, branding has moved far beyond the visual identity – name, term, logo, design or colours – associated with a product or service. These days, organisations talk about the “brand experience” which also encapsulates psychological aspects like thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, experiences, beliefs and attitudes which they wish customers to associate with their products or services. In doing this, organisations want customers to feel that their brand has certain qualities or characteristics that make it special or unique, and for which they can then often charge a premium.
It sounds simple but, unlike a new visual identity that is relatively easy to create and implement, communicating and delivering the values of your brand in such a way that individuals respond positively to your message and choose to use your products and services over others that are available to them in the marketplace is a much more difficult challenge.
The challenge of delivering the brand experience becomes even more difficult for service providers as they are at the mercy of the behaviours of their staff, who have to deliver the service to the required standards on a consistent basis. In a factory, provided the manufacturing process is robust, every product will look and perform as well as the next. Human behaviours are not as easy to control.
Branding and legal services
The “science” of branding has been most fully developed in B2C (business-to-consumer) markets and revolves very heavily around advertising. Coca-Cola, the world’s leading brand, is supported by annual global advertising of more than $2bn. In legal services, branding is less well understood. Many agencies have attempted to apply their B2C branding experience in the sector, often with disastrous consequences because they do not fully understand how clients purchase legal services from and interact with their lawyers.
A legal services brand has three components:
Law firms wishing to manage their brands effectively need to understand how these three elements work together. Unlike in B2C markets where “image” plays an important part in promoting the “brand promise”, in legal markets it is the least important of the three elements. Lack of recognition of this fact is often the reason why law firm rebrands fail to deliver the hoped-for benefits.
An effective brand is one built around a clear, differentiated proposition. In legal services this equates to an identification of the types of clients that are going to be targeted, in which markets, with which services, and the ways in which these services are to be packaged, priced, promoted and delivered.
Currently, in the legal market there are many law firms which are effectively undifferentiated, particularly in the mid-market. They all look, feel and behave very similarly. That many of these firms lack a clear strategy for differentiating their service offering causes major problems when it comes to building their brands.
In the service sector, the brand experience is heavily dependent on the interactions between the organisation’s employees and its customers. In legal services, these interactions are even more important, with the brand image that a firm builds in the market being the aggregated result of all the experiences that clients, targets and opinion formers have when they interact with the firm’s staff, from partners at one end to receptionists at the other. Rude and arrogant behaviour and sloppy or negligent advice from just a few people can easily damage a firm’s reputation and hence its band.
So, a firm must think very carefully about the sorts of individuals that it wishes to employ and what behaviour traits it expects from these, as the resulting culture will either underpin or undermine the brand. For this reason, recruitment, training and career development are very important for a law firm and the success of its brand.
The final element of a law firm brand is its visual identity which comprises the firm’s name, logo, strapline, and other components associated with its visual communications including fonts, colors, and graphic elements. It also includes the style and production values of its website, advertising and other promotional activities, as well as the design and feel of its offices and reception areas. In a law firm, all of these have to be aligned with the “positioning” and “behaviour” for the brand to work effectively.
Unfortunately, many law firms attempt to rebrand by just changing their image. One large Scottish law firm that I came across a number of years ago operated out of a Georgian terrace in Edinburgh and had a very traditional image. In an attempt to make the firm feel more contemporary and modern, the interior designers were let loose on the reception area and the result was a sea of red leather, chrome and glass. However, the receptionists were still little, old ladies dressed in black and the lawyers greeting clients looked like they had just stepped out of a Dickens novel.
So, the next time your firm invites a design agency in to “refresh” your brand think about how much money you are just about to waste as changing your firm’s logo and corporate design style will do nothing to enhance the brand or the fortunes of the business, as fundamentally there will be no change to the brand offering.
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