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As law firm strategists, we have watched the rising interest in and discussion of “branding” in law firm marketing and management circles. Though we do not provide marketing program implementation services, we are troubled by the noise and misinformation that has emerged around the term brandingin law firm management circles. If the misunderstandings surrounding branding were limited to consultant speeches, advertising agency bromides, and self-serving Internet listserv discussions, we would not give the topic a second thought. However, we have seen some stark examples of branding efforts leading to outright destructive and wasteful allocations of resources in law firm marketing budgets. Undoubtedly the most egregious example of this was Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison’s $10 million television image advertising campaign. Certainly, many other factors led to the demise of Brobeck — partner defections, massive overhead growth, aggressive and irrational use of debt, an excessive focus on IPOs at the expense of traditional commercial practices — but the unconscionable spending on a branding campaign spotlighted how wasteful such efforts can be. Make no mistake, Brobeck’s branding campaign followed the rules of good branding by reflecting the firm’s direction and the “promise” it was making to the marketplace, by actively seeking to differentiate Brobeck from its competition, and by being reasonably consistent with what the firm was “known for.” But it was a tremendous waste of resources precisely at the moment that the firm’s core market was crashing. Over the past four or five years, the meaning of branding has been hijacked by marketing professionals and consultants — some well-meaning and earnest, others self-interested, still others willfully ignorant — who are attempting to make a renewed case for the importance of marketing and business development in a law firm environment. We applaud the broader intent: to underscore the value of marketing. But the definition and application of branding have been contorted. First, and most obviously, branding is a concept best-suited to business-to-consumer applications. Ultimately, a brand is a combination of image, reputation, and performance. It is the gestalt of the rational, emotional, and psychological reactions that individual consumers have when they are exposed not only to the product, but also to the cues associated with the brand (e.g., the golden arches, the Nike swoosh, the Intel “chimes,” and countless other examples). Successfully marrying cues, advertising, and other communications with consumer experiences that are consistently in line with those cues and communications is extraordinarily difficult, despite the fact that manufacturing lends itself to measured, controlled processes. Controlling a service experience is even more difficult. NO PAIN, NO GAIN Many attorneys continually search for silver bullets to make marketing easy and painless. As professionals, we would all like to rely purely on the excellent work we have done in the past and the brilliant articles we have published to get new business. Unfortunately, it does not usually happen that way. Getting work from new and existing clients often requires hard work on the part of attorneys. Furthermore, the business development process puts lawyers in a position where a client or prospective client might say no — and no one, least of all successful professionals, enjoys rejection. We have long believed that marketing and business development activities can be charted on a “pain/effectiveness scale.” While activities should be undertaken across the full range of the scale — from writing thoughtful articles to meeting with prospects — it is the more painful activities (i.e., those with the greatest chance for rejection) that are the most effective in bringing in new legal work. Branding initiatives tend to put an emphasis on the less painful side of the scale — brochures, advertisements, public relations, and the like. That is enormously appealing to the psyche of attorneys: It promises results without pain. And firms and attorneys are, and have been, willing to pay for pain-free results. Unfortunately, putting those less painful activities under the branding umbrella does not make them any more effective. Yet it is not enough to commit yourself to doing painful things. The branding advocates are right when they say that marketing initiatives must be closely aligned with strategy. That means allocating market resources to the practices and activities that are expected to drive the growth of the firm (rather than to service practices). It means planning and budgeting for marketing and business development at the firm, practice group, and client service group levels. MANAGING PARTNERS AGREE Among the topics of discussion at a recent roundtable for managing partners was: What’s really working in marketing and business development? Managing partners agreed that campaigns that highlight genuine practice strengths, extraordinary individuals, and/or uniquely positive client relationships have the greatest chance of success. Ads that highlight genuine practice strengths are considered more productive than firm image ads, but they do have a political cost (“Why wasn’t my practice featured in those ads?”). Ads that break from the mainstream — whether they focus on individual attorneys, unique client relationships, or other novel insights about the firm — are also considered more valuable than general image advertising. Branding efforts that lead to consistent design standards across all firm marketing materials (e.g., brochures, letterhead, Web site, invitations, etc.) help to ensure a high level of marketing professionalism and quality, said the managing partners at the roundtable. They went on to identify some performance criteria for in-house marketing departments: • Having high-energy professionals, positive thinkers, and self-starters — people who generate ideas, but do not become too attached to any single one. A firm is better served, it was agreed, by spending more on fewer, really effective marketing professionals. • Realizing that a firm’s first marketing director (and often the second or third) is likely to fail — which is more a reflection on the firm’s inability to understand what it needs or wants than on its marketing director. • Recognizing that professional marketing people can only help lawyers who want and can effectively use the help. Some simply do not or cannot use marketing assistance. • Having a “concierge for marketing” — someone to organize parties, seminars, and social events (a junior-level function). • Understanding that experience in classical product marketing organizations is often a barrier to success for a law firm marketing director. INVESTMENTS IN CLIENTS There was widespread enthusiasm among the managing partners for client visits (by the managing partner and/or others not handling the relationship day-to-day) and for client service planning. Clients generally appreciate the investment of time and effort in improving the relationship, and the long-term outcome is almost always growth of quality work for good clients. Managing partners agreed that involvement in industry trade groups and industry meetings and shows are highly valuable investments of marketing resources and efforts. All of these activities yield positive results for practice groups that have genuine expertise and experience. Targeting specific companies for direct marketing is an effective tactic, particularly at the practice group level. Cold calling prospective clients generally has a low success rate. Waiting for an RFP opportunity is too passive. It’s not that difficult to find a path that is “two degrees of separation” (or less) from the decision-makers at most target companies. “Warm” contacts give lawyers an opportunity to present their qualifications to targets. This approach requires taking the most “painful” steps along the continuum discussed above. And the sales cycle is long — rarely will you meet someone with an immediate need and desire to hire you. But a face-to-face meeting with the target eventually leads to good things. Surveys of CEOs and general counsel demonstrate over and over that decision-makers like getting newsletters and other information from their professional services vendors, provided that the information is timely and useful. And these executives will attend seminars and even host in-house workshops if a firm or practice group demonstrates that it can deliver valuable content. Effective marketing and business development is critical to the profitable growth of a law firm. But focusing time, effort, and scarce resources on a “branding” campaign — relying on image advertising at the firm level — is both ineffective and wasteful. Instead, the focus must be on a mix of activities that result in qualified attorneys getting in front of true decision-makers and referral sources. John Sterling is a partner at Smock-Sterling Strategic Marketing Consultants, a management consulting firm based in Lake Forest, Ill. He can be reached at (847) 615-8833 or [email protected].

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