Chalk and cheese, cats and dogs, law firms and branding. Or is this changing? Some law firms are beginning to brand themselves in the way businesses in other fields have done for years. 30 years after the Law Society permitted advertising in England & Wales, we look at how Law Firms are projecting their brands.
Building the brand
It is often misunderstood what a brand actually is. It is not your logo, colour scheme or company name, these are part of the brand, its symbols but not its entirety.
A brand is much more than this, it is how others think of you, their feeling when a firm is mentioned in conversation. Ideally this would be a positive perception when the logo is seen or company name heard, even better is to be thought of when your company name is not even mentioned but rather your product or service. For example if you wanted a fizzy beverage you would think of Coke, a new phone; Apple or Samsung, a lawyer - slightly tougher for the average Joe.
Every business has a brand whether they like it or not. The question is whether it is well known in the laces you want it to be and whether it is what you want it to be.
The problem with law firm brands is how they differentiate from their competitors, many have a logo and brand message littered with marketing buzz words, but word of mouth referral is the best advertising and location determines your customers. Advertising was first permitted in England & Wales in 1986, although building a brand has been slow to take off, with the legal sector lagging behind others. No current law firm could truly be considered a national household name.
Law firms in consumer sectors have probably seen the most advertising and strategy towards creating a well known brand. Bigger firms with bigger budgets advertise on TV during half-time in premier legal matches or have any number of taxis in their black and blue colouring (you can guess who).
The lack of a current general public perception, be it positive or negative leaves the loudest firm the one which is remembered. So, when a member of the public is asked to name a PI firm, their first thought may simply be the name on a taxi they just saw. This does not mean it has the best brand, simply it is currently the loudest in a previously quiet sector. It is something which will change as others enter the space, news and good or bad-publicity will constantly change public perception. Over time as brand symbols begin to be recognised and perhaps a national firm does become a household name, the positive or negative gut feelings about the brand will develop. Smaller regional firms will compete by building better brands in their locality over the larger national firms. This has slowly began to happen over the last few years with Slater + Gordon with their blue and black taxis, (although they have not helped their image in the last few days) and Irwin Mitchell currently pursuing large scale branding strategies.
In corporate sectors it seems law firms still find it hard to differentiate and establish brands. It may not necessarily be they find it harder, just do not rank it as high-priority like consumer firms. A recent study carried out in the US on 50 global business managers pitted three fictitious corporate law firms against three industry leaders. Surprisingly, Andersson & Cooper Associates, Reagan Rove Coolidge and JMM Global came out above Baker & McKenzie, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom and DLA Piper. Though this was in the US, much the same can be thought of in the UK with the survey results may appear something obscene to many lawyers. However, these were not lawyers in the know which were asked, but decision makers at global businesses, they could be potential clients. In comparison three real management consultancies were pitted against three fake ones, this time all three real consultancies (Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Company) came out on top. These management consultancies have developed their brand enough to be recognised as market experts, something according to the survey corporate law firms have not. This seems bad for corporate law firms, but it actually offers an opportunity for ambitious firms to portray themselves as market leaders through press and publicity to capture potential clients and establish a brand.
Future of branding
Two arguments from the Harvard Business Review divide the future of branding, both as would be expected revolve around the utilisation of technology. One determines digital technology will cause a demise in brand due to a greater access to information, informing consumers’ purchase decisions and reducing brand effectiveness. The other determines technology will increase the importance of branding in the face of information overkill. Either way law firms and branding will continue, it will be interesting to see how the future pans out. Consumer firms will continue to create their branding strategy in a bid for public recognition and positive perception. However unlikely to happen, corporate firms should take a leaf from their management consulting friends and distinguish themselves as experts in particular fields.