Why Brand Activation is So Damn Important for Law Firms (Part 2)

Posted on March 27, 2019 by Joseph Lamport

Why is brand activation so damn important for law firms?  That’s the question I have set out to answer with this series of blogposts.  In the first installment I discussed how, for the most part, law firms have paid next to no attention to brand activation as part of their branding strategy.  In this second installment I’m going to explain why that’s such a mistake.  Brand activation is a huge overlooked opportunity that can deliver enormous benefits in improving the strength of your law firm brand.

So why is brand activation so important in the legal market?  The answer is simple.  Because branding a large multi-national full-service law firm is a next to impossible task.  How do you meaningfully differentiate one AmLaw 50 firm from another?  Just take a look at the way the top tier firms describe their “unique” approach to legal practice on their home pages:

Our long history [at White & Case] as a global firm means we are uniquely placed to help our clients resolve their most complex legal challenges wherever they are

For more than 165 years, Davis Polk has ranked among the premier law firms with practices that are world class across the board … Our professionals collaborate seamlessly across practice groups and geographies to provide our clients with exceptional service, sophisticated advice and creative and practical solutions that reflect a deep understanding of the full legal landscape, market practice and our clients’ businesses and objectives.

Our principal goals [at Kirkland] are to provide the highest quality legal services available anywhere; to be an instrumental part of each client's success; and to recruit, retain and advance the brightest legal talent. We seek long-term, partnering relationships with clients, to the end of providing the best total solution to their legal needs.

Yes, it is a bit unfair to pick a handful of top firms out from the herd to illustrate the sameness of the messaging, so apologies to White & Case, et al.  The problem lies not with the quality of any firm’s marketing team but rather with the nature of the task itself.   All these world-class lawyers seamlessly collaborating with their world-class clients … even the great Leo Burnett would struggle with the assignment of how to differentiate one such pot of porridge from the next. 

Of course, there are some notable exceptions.  The Jones Day website description of “How We Are Different” comes to mind (which you can read right here) as a clear and effective statement of what distinguishes the firm from the rest of the pack.  But there are surprisingly few multi-national firms that have gone down a similar path.  The far more prevalent approach is to stick to bland and generic messaging or simply to omit any statement of purpose from the firm’s website and thereby altogether sidestep the issue of explaining what makes them truly unique.

Part of the reason these top tier firms struggle with brand differentiation is due to the prevalent business model and structure of the modern law firm.  Over the last few decades, mid-sized and large law firms have undergone a period of virtually uninterrupted expansion, by means of merger, lateral hiring and organic growth.  But as firms have continued pursuing a strategy of relentless growth, the basic structure of the legal business has remained more or less unchanged, with a primary reliance placed on individual partners who are expected to amass their own book of business and who then often continue to think and act as independent operators within the larger firm. 

Burkey Belser – one of the most respected and experienced figures in the world of legal marketing -- has described this tendency very aptly and noted its corrosive effect on building an effective law firm brand:

The result in a law firm of any size is a culture of independent business people and a fragmented service portfolio, which leads to an inconsistent, and ultimately broken client experience.  The inconsistency is magnified proportionately in the largest firms.  In the field, some firms are referred to as a “hotel for lawyers” where the glue that binds is weak—amounting to little more than those independent business people sharing space and resources.  On a zero to ten scale with zero being “hotel” and ten being a “team,” nearly all firms (we have asked) assess their position as a four.”  

One of the key implications here is that law firm branding tends to become increasingly difficult as law firms continue to pursue their headlong growth.  The growth at all cost business strategy is at best a hindrance and at worst outright counter-productive to the all-important task of creating an effective law firm brand.

This is very much in accord with my own experience working with law firms.  I can’t claim to have helped build quite as many law firm web sites as Greenfield Belser – several dozen as opposed to several hundred over the years.  And many of the assignments I’ve handled have been for midsized and smaller firms, as opposed to top-tier AmLaw 100 firms.  But one of the very clear lessons I’ve learned in the course of my career is that small and mid-sized professional service firms, in fact, have a far easier time in building and maintaining a coherent brand strategy.  For the very reasons Belser mentions that large firms struggle proportionate to their size, smaller firms and boutiques often excel when it comes to meeting the challenge of successful brand messaging.

This leads us to a striking irony in the legal market today—there is a sacrifice to brand strategy and coherence as law firms continue to succumb to merger and growth mania.  When it comes to the challenge of creating a strong and clearly differentiated brand, there’s a decided reason to be suspicious of the headlong pursuit of growth.  And even though it’s been a struggle for smaller firms to retain their independence in the current market environment, I can attest to the fact that there are a significant number of savvy boutiques and midsized firms that have nonetheless been extremely successful in carving out their niche, in large part by exploiting their inherent advantage in building a clearly differentiated brand.

But larger firms must work harder at it and look beyond the usual arsenal of tools if they are going to succeed in building a strong and effective brand.  Brand activation is one of the tools that can make a big difference.  Even for firms that have a hard time developing a differentiated brand position or message, brand activation may prove highly effective as a marketing strategy.  That’s because brand activation places the emphasis much more on experience than messaging. In other words, it is all about creating a memorable and vital emotional connection between a firm and its employees, which first and foremost needs to be experienced and felt as opposed to expressed through an artfully crafted brand mission statement.   In the absence of a clearly differentiated brand message, each firm member’s personal brand experience has all the more reason to emerge as a primary driver of the firm’s overall brand identity.   Even a mediocre or generic brand message may be deeply felt and forcefully expressed.


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