What's in a name? Potential to attract clients and employees, lower costs, higher levels of competitiveness ... and more, writes Sue-Ella McDowall.
It is well known that a clear brand identity provides a distinct competitive advantage for businesses across all sectors. Identity is also a prerequisite for your legal business to be in a position to communicate its integrity.
The history of law firms and the system of partnerships has meant that legal firms have taken a while to catch up with other professional services in the use of branding to recruit and retain clients.
Naturally, the legal sector tends to be dominated by professionals who are absorbed in the interpretation of law and, in most cases, are having their time clocked by the all-powerful 6-minute billing unit.
Work on brand development is not only non-billable but is also creative, time consuming and - as with all great marketing - somewhat risky. It is no wonder it has taken the legal profession some time to be ready for modern branding.
There are now so many legal firms making basic branding mistakes that any firm that sticks to the basics will stand out like a beacon in a sea of sameness, which is exactly what you want when it comes to your branding.
McDowall has been building brands for more than 20 years and one of the biggest mistakes we see in the legal sector is that many legal firms do not have a clear brand identity. Some have not even attempted to brand their business.
It's very common for legal firms to begin branding with their partners' names. The problem with this is that names almost never help clients connect to the values of a firm, and don't communicate the clear benefit of one firm over the next.
Moreover, legal firms often brand using partner names by tradition - even though the partner may no longer work at the firm. Although some firms are so old and well-known that they have effectively established a "real" brand using partners' names, most firms need to think twice about this identity strategy.
The most important perspective on any brand identity comes from clients, so it's fascinating to note the number of existing firms (we estimate as many as 20 per cent) that ignore the fact that their clients have already abbreviated their firm (partners') names to effectively create their own, client-driven, brand name. This habit needs to be considered when working on a new brand and - for existing brands - embraced as part of healthy brand development.
A great brand identity, consistently applied, becomes a mark of integrity. It is an essential core to any business, and, of course, this is even more important in the field of legal practice.
Integrity in branding is all about standing for something important, and doing so consistently. This consistency needs to be demonstrated over time, and implemented across each division of the firm. Clients have always been experts at spotting inconsistencies between what legal firms say and what they do - but in these days of digital communication, they can pick up inconsistencies more easily than ever.
A brand with integrity needs to be consistent across every layer of a firm, starting with the employees on the inside, and radiating out to the marketplace and clients.
It is incredibly important that the branding demonstrates a commitment to values and client benefits which are consistent from deep inside the business, and are carried right through to each client interaction.
It is critical for firms to do the work to understand which aspects of their brand are most appreciated by clients. In this regard, look for emotional and values-based differentiation, rather than functional areas of expertise, which can change over time.
A clearly understood brand proposition acts as the anchor for the brand - a clear identity that allows clients to begin to respect the firm's integrity.
The proven benefits of having a strong legal brand are clear:
- Easier client recognition: Reduces client recruitment and advertising costs so you can grow your business faster.
- Expressing your competitive advantage: Gives you an advantage over your competitors and protects the value of your business.
- Expressing your position and space in the market: You become known in the market as standing for and owning a position that your competitors cannot claim.
- Increased response rates: Tapping client benefits in branding increases the reaction rate from your activities.
- Lowers costs of communication to clients: Brand consistency can dramatically lower the cost of communicating to your clients.
- Builds affinity: Great clients love to be associated with a great legal brand.
- Recruitment of new employees: Great staff want to be associated with and work for a great legal brand.
Marketing is no longer considered a back-office support function, but as a "core function," critical to the growth and success of legal firms. Top firms are making transitions in their approaches to branding, recognising their brand is a sophisticated way to engage and obtain a unique, consistent and evocative status in the marketplace.
Branding is simply the expression of your firm's competitive advantage in everything you do. It is an expression of your business strategy - not just a logo, nameplate or a brochure. Brand integrity is more than image - it is the prerequisite to establishing a reputation for integrity, delivering consistent client value - exactly as promised.
The challenge for legal firms is to make a stand on their point of difference, their values, the benefit they provide to their clients and their staff, and an effective and successful brand will communicate all this to clients, competitors, the market and the general public.
Sue-Ella McDowall is the CEO of McDowall creative design company.