Branding is arguably the most important strategy for your firm and one for which success or failure can be the most challenging to measure. Over the last 20 years, branding has gone from a nebulous concept for law firms to a recognized, must-have asset. It is incontrovertible that firms with well-established brands have the ability to charge premium rates versus their competitors, sometimes multiples of the rates charged by competitors in their markets. But, where do you start?
Brands are typically either market-driven (this is how the market perceives our strengths, so we will play to that in our communications) or marketing-driven (this is what we want to market to perceive about us, so we will ensure that this message drives all of our communications). The former is a bit easier to ascertain, demonstrate and communicate. The latter is more challenging – it can take years to accomplish – but more necessary to accomplish strategic goals.
Sometimes particular practices in your firm will have market-leading brands, while others do not. Building and communicating the brand of particular practices may be among your goals, as well, and the same principles apply.
There are a few things you can add to Your Marketing Scorecard regarding brand and measure on a one-time, or preferably, on an ongoing basis.
Often the best place to start is to ask your clients for their perceptions. A short brand survey can glean interesting insights into how you are perceived in your most important “market,” your existing client base. (This is particularly useful for a market-driven brand.)
Questions may include:
- For what is our law firm known?
- How is our law firm perceived in the marketplace?
- Are we known for: a particular practice specialty/specialties? Knowledge of a particular industry/industries? Service delivery? Responsiveness? Client-focus? Innovation? Thought leadership?
- And the money question: How would you describe our firm to others?
If it is the only question asked, the last question above, often leads to the most candid, informative feedback. Clients will often mention a key practice or a few key practices. Sometimes they indicate that they can only provide descriptors for “their” lawyer (which brings up the cross-selling issue). Or, they will provide descriptors that highlight the attributes where you excel or that are most important to them. “Very responsive.” “Thought leaders in intellectual property for life sciences companies.” Or they may mention other qualities that stand out, “Lawyers with great integrity.” “A firm with a more relaxed style but tenacious representation.”
Taken in isolation, particular client’s comments are interesting, but when reviewed as a data set, themes begin to arise in client responses and a picture of your firm’s reputation in its existing marketplace is developed.
If your firm is embarking on a branding or re-branding effort, the same exercise can be conducted with potential clients in your market or markets. The exercise can be very challenging – and costly – when your firm is global, national or super-regional in scope. However, it can be done with a careful analysis of key clients and their competitors (potential clients) as well as leading institutions and high-growth companies in your market or key markets. This research is more easily done when your firm’s geographic scope is limited to one or a few markets or if your firm is a boutique or limited to a few key practices. In either case, with some thoughtful consideration of key players in a given market – some who know you well but do not hire you, some with whom you have some contact and others who may not know you well at all – you can discover some key perceptions of your firm in the markets where you hope to grow.
While I typically take a hard line on keeping client satisfaction surveys strictly limited in scope to issues related to service and satisfaction only, it can be acceptable to include one branding-type question in such surveys – for example, “How do you describe our firm to others?” It can give you some valuable insights about why clients continue to use your firm while at the same time building your data set on your firm’s key attributes for branding purposes. A strong warning, however, if you go beyond a question or two like this when soliciting client satisfaction feedback, you will undermine the purpose of your client satisfaction survey and make it less likely that clients will want to participate in such an effort going forward.
If you firm operates in numerous geographies, industries and practices areas, it is important that detailed demographic information is gathered about the participants in your research – specifically, their geography, industry, type of business (type, stage, organizational structure, etc.). With this information, your data can be sliced and diced to reveal similarities and differences in client perceptions based on their profile.
Timing and Frequency
The research described above should take place at the outset of any branding project, along with secondary research regarding your firm’s market position which can be conducted by your strategy or design firm with your input or by your internal resources. In addition to providing some valuable preliminary insight, it allows your firm to set a benchmark by which you can measure the success of your efforts down the road. If the research is repeated one year, two years and five or more years after you begin, you can identify measurable differences, if any, in perceptions of your firm in the markets where you practice and the legal market at large.
There may be some markets where your firm is planning to enter or has recently entered. While perceptions in these markets may be of most interest, conducting primary research with potential clients may prove costly and may not be justified by the results you receive. Obviously, it is imperative that primary research with clients, secondary market research and other research is/was conducted before entering that market, but interviews of significant players in the business communities in those markets will likely reveal what you already know – that your firm has not yet established a reputation there.
Developing and implementing a new or refreshed firm brand can be one of your firm’s largest investments, but it can also reap the greatest rewards. Conducting the proper research at the outset of your branding initiative and tracking the results following the launch and in the years that follow is critical to ensuring the success of your brand strategy. The data may also form the most important section of Your Marketing Scorecard.