Last week, Scott Goodson – chairman of the advertising agency Strawberry Frog* - posted a guest article on the Forbes magazine blog on the topic of Brand Building For Law Firms. In the article, Goodson relates a conversation with a client, during which a discussion arose as to what branding could mean in the legal sector.
Goodson’s article is not without flaws. To begin with (and to his credit, Goodson does acknowledge the point) he has had little or no exposure to legal firms’ marketing activity – which some might suggest rather undermines his authority to comment on the matter. Secondly, he commits something of a faux pas by referencing Wikipedia for his definition of what constitutes a brand. And third – as might perhaps be expected from an ad agency – the concept of branding is discussed principally in the context of advertising campaigns.
Notwithstanding the above quibbles, though, any article that encourages debate around the thorny issue of professional services branding must surely be welcomed – and in drawing the conclusion that in the legal sector in particular, opportunities still exist “to build global brands based on universal brand ideas” Goodson’s approach is certainly a refreshing one. But the question remains, what would a “universal brand idea” look like in the context of the legal market?
A brand by any other name…
In Goodson’s view, “a legal firm that builds a global brand, based on a relevant idea on the rise in global culture, could create a powerful platform for growth.” Fair enough, but is it really essential for the ‘brand idea’ to be ‘on the rise in global culture’? Do clients really expect their legal services providers to be on the bleeding edge when it comes to global cultural resonance? Ultimately, is it (to use Goodson’s own term) relevant to clients?
Recent Managing Partners Forum / Financial Times research into the buying behaviour of law firm clients seems, at first sight, to suggest that buyers do not perceive ‘brand and reputation’ to be at all significant in their decisions as to which firms to appoint. Now, I’m afraid I don’t buy that – particularly given that the survey ranks such concepts as ‘understanding of industry’ and ‘cutting edge thinking’ (perceptions of both of which must surely be heavily influenced by brand) very highly among selection criteria. In truth, it seems to me that buyers of legal services ARE influenced by brand – but they do not interpret this influence in the same way that they might if asked a similar question about (say) Disneyworld Resort, the BMW 7-series or the Apple iPad, where buying into the brand is part of the fun.
In a relationship between a professional services firm and its clients, the ‘brand experience’ that drives a preference to engage one firm over another is based on the consistent delivery of great client results and great client service. In turn, this is driven by the firm’s culture. Are the firm’s people smart, collaborative (to get the best expertise to the client), responsive, good to work with, client focused? Ultimately, has the firm clearly defined – and then consistently applied – a set of service values and delivery practices that result in a high quality client experience? Or does everyone in the firm do it their own way?
Firms need to understand the issues that actually matter to their clients, and use those as the basis of their differentiation strategies. That way, it seems to me, they have a decent chance of establishing the sort of ‘universal brand idea’ that Goodson recommends in his article.
* Why DO so many ad agencies seem determined to have wacky names, by the way? Is it a brand thing?