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Branding Your Firm
by Barbara Lewis MBA and Dan Otto MBA

Branding has been prevalent in the product arena for years; however, branding law firms is relatively new.    What is the definition of brand? “A brand is a distinctive identity that differentiates a relevant, enduring, and credible promise of value associated with a product, service, or organization and indicates the source of that promise,” according to Scott Ward, Larry Light and Jonathan Goldstine in the July/August 1999 issue of Harvard Business Review.   Pierre Berthon, James M. Hulbert and Leyland F. Pitt further define the purpose of branding in the Winter 1999 issue of Sloan Management Review.  “The quintessential function of branding is to create a distinction among entities that may satisfy a customer’s need.”

Finding the differentiation of your firm or the value that your firm provides is not an easy exercise.   One of the best ways is to survey your clients and ask them what they like about you, what they see as your strengths and why they refer business to you.  Oftentimes, attorneys can’t see the “forest through the trees” and find it difficult to pinpoint a value that is important to the client.

For example, one firm selected their technical expertise as a potential brand.  To validate their idea of their brand, they contacted a few dozen clients and asked them what they saw as the firm’s strengths.  A majority of clients mentioned the firm’s creativity in solving problems.  The clients had no concept about whether or not the attorneys were technically competent; they assumed that they were.  The value to clients was converting the technical expertise to creative and innovative ideas.  The firm decided to brand themselves as creative problem solvers. 

Branding is not a description of your clients or your area of expertise, unless it’s an extremely narrow focus that is unique with few competitors.  For example, your brand shouldn’t be public companies, because plenty of other law firms focus on this area.  And your brand shouldn’t be employment law for the same reason.

Historically, brands have been established through advertising.  “In the United States, mass-media advertising has long been the cornerstone of most brand-building efforts,” says Erica Joachimsthaler and David A. Aaker in Harvard Business Review of January/February 1997.  During the past few years, law firms have spent millions of dollars in advertising in publications that touted their differential.  

In lieu of spending a fortune on advertising, firms can brand themselves through public relations.  When writing articles and giving speeches, attorneys can highlight the firm’s value and differential.  The web site and written materials can include the branding statement as well. 

Branding support needs to come from the top of the organization and permeate the entire firm.  A brand that’s driven only by the marketing department will have difficulty in succeeding.  The managing partner needs to embrace that brand, communicate the rationale for the branding strategy and monitor the branding campaign while encouraging everyone to consistently brand the firm in public relations and personal relationships.  As the brand builder, the managing partner should inspire everyone, not only to communicate the brand, but to live it as well. 

David D’Alessandro, former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, describes an example of “living the brand” in his book, Branding Warfare – 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand.  John Hancock was about to sign a major deal when, at the last minute before signing, the other company changed the terms of deal to D’Alessandro’s astonishment.  Despite all the work and effort already invested in the deal, he decided to walk away because the other company did not have the same value as John Hancock – integrity – which was their brand. 

Success in branding is difficult to measure. One way is to conduct a visibility survey among randomly selected companies and ask what is notable about the firm.  By performing this survey before and after the branding campaign, you may be able to measure the success of the program. 

Whether you are with a mega law firm or a sole practitioner, determining the qualities that differentiate you from the competition and identifying the value that you give to your clients is the first step in branding your firm. Once the brand is established, communicating it through public relations and advertising is the key to building a strong brand.

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