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A brand name: You’d think it was the Holy Grail, the magical solution to every law firm marketing director’s troubles. Legal marketing publications are filled with articles on the most effective ways for law firms to establish their brands. The firms themselves have spent millions on marketing specialists and consultants. The past five years, in fact, have seen the development of a small industry in law firm “branding.” This is akin to developing an industry to supply the nonexistent/invisible garb in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The flurry of interest, activity, and spending on branding has made consultants wealthier, but it hasn’t created valuable law firm brands — at least not in the accepted sense of the word — and law firms are not reaping the benefits that a true brand name provides. What law firms call “brands” are not at all what corporate America and the rest of the marketing world call a brand. This isn’t just a semantic quibble. Clients want their law firms to think like businesses and to be run like them. My firm conducts thousands of client satisfaction interviews and market surveys for law firms, and we continually hear the frustration of in-house counsel who believe that law firms do not empathize with their business problems. When it comes to marketing, clients want (and some even expect) their law firms to use traditional marketing vehicles that clearly put forth the firm’s selling proposition. Ever since law firms took their first tentative steps into marketing in the ’80s, they have done so in a vacuum, not bothering to learn from the rest of the business community. A network of consultants and marketing firms has grown up strictly to serve the needs of the legal profession. Unfortunately, this closed community has not integrated the legal profession into the rest of American business, and now it is creating unrealistic expectations among its law firm clients. Part of the fallout is the current branding fad. Law firm marketers have used the word “brand” to mean all sorts of silly things, such as “whatever your firm truly is, that’s its brand.” But corporate marketers generally agree on the following basic definitions and statements about brands (although some differences of nuance exist): • A brand symbol is a name, phrase, or image that uniquely identifies a source of goods or services. • A brand links a purchaser’s ideas and feelings with brand symbols. When evoked, a brand can change a purchaser’s motivation, intention, and, ultimately, behavior. A brand enhances the value of a product or service. • Brand equity is the value that the brand adds to a product or service, based on the brand’s power to motivate purchasers. • Brand differentiation is comparative brand identity — that is, how one brand is perceived in relation to competitors’ brands. • Brand preference cannot exist without brand differentiation. Here’s how these concepts come together in a law firm environment: When a potential client encounters the firm’s name (the brand symbol), that name evokes an expectation of a unique set of benefits from using the firm (something like “responsiveness,” “effective use of technology,” or “likely to keep me out of court”). The brand is the link between the firm name (the brand symbol) and a unique set of benefits (brand differentiation). This differentiation creates a reason to choose this firm over competitors (brand preference). The brand equity is the enhanced likelihood of choosing one firm over its competitors on the basis of the brand differentiation. A brand only yields equity and motivates purchases when there is brand differentiation, so establishing a brand is of little value if it does not distinguish you from your competitors. Look at the Big Five accounting firms. They have established a brand, but none has the courage to distinguish itself from the other four. They spend money on advertising largely out of fear of being left behind in a brand awareness race. But none enjoys the substantial benefit of brand differentiation: solid, clearly established knowledge in the marketplace of when and why one should engage the services of, say, PricewaterhouseCoopers instead of Deloitte & Touche. They have unintentionally established a Big Five brand, which is differentiated from all other accounting firms, but the individual firms in the Big Five are not clearly differentiated from each other. KPMG is spending $60 million on its branding campaign, “It’s time for clarity.” Has this created brand differentiation and thus added equity to KPMG’s brand in your mind? Law firms make the same mistake. Even if a law firm were to commit the substantial financial resources required to establish a brand, it would not achieve brand equity unless it had the courage to brand itself as something other than “a full-service firm with great lawyers committed to outstanding client service.” As long as most firms share that positioning strategy, there will be no brand differentiation and, thus, no brand equity. A few firms have made progress with positioning statements like that of White Plains, N.Y.’s Jackson Lewis Schnitzler & Krupman: “All we do is work. Workplace law. In four time zones and 20 major locations coast to coast.” This is about as far as most law firms have dared to go. It clearly positions Jackson Lewis as a labor and employment firm, but it does not give the prospective client a reason to choose that firm over other labor and employment firms. My company conducts surveys of buyers of corporate legal services every day, and we often ask questions like, “When you think of a provider of high-quality intellectual property services in the Cleveland area, what firm first comes to mind?” If a firm were cited frequently in response to such questions, that would be a clear indicator of brand differentiation and preference, and thus brand equity. It does not happen. In a few extraordinary instances, a firm will be cited by 10 percent to 20 percent of the buyers of the legal service in question. Most very successful large firms (whose partners believe their expertise is very well known) are cited by between only 2 and 5 percent of the survey respondents. Most law firms have been effectively led to believe that significant brand equity is within their grasp, and that it can be achieved with a ludicrously small marketing expenditure. In a survey of law firm marketing budgets, the Legal Marketing Association, whose research committee I chair, asked the senior marketer in firms with an average of 258 lawyers, “Has your firm ever created a comprehensive branding campaign?” Those who answered “yes” (about half) were asked, “What has your firm’s total expenditure for branding campaigns been?” The median expenditure for these “comprehensive branding campaigns” was about $150,000, and the mean was about $500,000. These amounts may pay for a redesign of the firm’s stationery, a new set of brochures, some client dinners, a handful of sponsorships, and a few seminars, but these things do not constitute a comprehensive branding campaign, and they will not result in substantial brand equity. The truth is that creating a national business brand is beyond the financial reach of today’s law firms. Recent estimates of the cost of establishing a national business-to-business brand are around $100 million. Accenture’s current rebranding advertising budget, for example, is $175 million, a figure that does not include the associated Web site redesign, consultant fees, market research, and the like. In other words, the advertising expenditure alone in Accenture’s rebranding effort is more than 1,000 times greater than the median amount spent by large law firms for what they believe to be a “comprehensive branding campaign.” Some argue that New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Washington, D.C.’s Howrey Simon Arnold & White have successfully created brand names. These firms have realized some of the benefits of significant marketing expenditures (such as name awareness and some positioning), but they have not achieved anything approaching dominant brands, and neither spent the money necessary to do so. Although other law firms have high public profiles or are recognized as leaders in particular niches, surveys of in-house counsel show that Skadden comes closer than any law firm to having a brand. But this has come primarily from public awareness of the deals Skadden has been involved with, not a brilliant advertising campaign supported by $100 million in paid media. Howrey Simon became well known largely because of the extensive press coverage it received in 1991 for launching the first bold (for the time) law firm print advertising campaign, “The Human Side of Genius.” The impact of this press coverage was probably greater than the direct impact of the advertising. The same thing may happen with San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and its innovative television advertising, which has received a great deal of press coverage despite being hidden on CNNfn. The firm may have received more hits from coverage of the ads by The Wall Street Journal than it will by running the ads on television for a year. (Disclosure: My firm has conducted studies for Skadden and Jackson Lewis in the past, although neither firm is a current client.) Obscured by branding mania is the fact that there is no reason for a corporate law firm to want to become a national household brand or, in most cases, even a regional boardroom brand. Law firms’ brand aspirations should be generally limited to specific individuals, in a targeted set of corporations, who purchase legal services. Were a law firm to restrict its target market to a few thousand persons — say, the purchasers of legal services for large corporations in Greater Atlanta — the firm could afford to create brand preference within this very narrowly defined market. Doing so would be accomplished not by the use of mass media, but by direct mail and e-mail of materials to these individuals, sales calls, seminar invitations sent only to them, and other direct marketing methods where media waste would be almost nonexistent. This tactic could work for a firm that can answer these questions: • What very limited population of specific individuals constitutes our target market? • How can we position ourselves to these individuals in a way that will set us apart from competitors in a very positive way (to establish brand differentiation and brand preference)? • Through what direct methods can we communicate with these specific individuals? • Are we prepared to spend what it takes to achieve brand equity within this very targeted market? The result would not be a business-to-business brand in the traditional sense because the impact would be very targeted and limited. But many of the benefits of branding might be achieved vis-à-vis this most important audience. (Of course, this all is conjecture — no firm has accomplished this feat.) So where does this leave the branding services that consultants provide to law firms? Those are little more than the positioning services that some firms have been engaging for the past 15 years. They just have the sizzle of being sold under the name of the latest fad. That’s not to say that these positioning services are all bad. Many should be continued. It is very important for every law firm to develop a unique, or at least distinctive, positioning strategy — a clear proposition of what the firm is and is not. These statements should spell out the firm’s strengths and culture, appeal to the target market, and distinguish it from competitors. A clear and distinctive positioning proposition greatly facilitates selling. It should be applied to all sales and marketing activities. Although such a positioning strategy will definitely assist a firm’s business growth, don’t expect it to accrue the benefits of brand equity, and don’t expect your corporate clients to think of it as your brand. In other words, it’s fine for the emperor to run around naked. Just don’t let yourself believe that he’s dressed in splendor. Mark T. Greene is managing director of FGI Customer Research and Quality Consulting, which directs research for large law firms and conducts global research studies for Fortune Global 500 corporations. He has been conducting client research and marketing research for the legal industry since 1985. Greene’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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