By Kalev Peekna, One North Interactive
“Brand” is not a four-letter word – though you wouldn’t know it from listening to how most law firms react to the idea. When we ask our legal clients about the state of their firms’ brands we hear a lot of different things: we hear sighs; we hear groans; we hear the stupefying silence of complete indifference. Branding is rarely a serious component of business development strategy for law firms unless there is a clear and present need to take immediate action – for example, after a merger.
However, when we talk to our clients’ clients, the people who make critical buying decisions for legal services among Fortune 1000 companies, we hear a completely different perspective. Here’s a comment from One North’s most recent survey of General Counsel that might shock both lawyers and their business development teams: “Brand is as important to [law firms], as it is to Procter & Gamble, Nestle or anybody else”
So why the disconnect? Why do so many lawyers and legal marketers treat branding with an alternating sense of fatigue and dismissal, while their own clients claim that branding is a key component of how they evaluate outside firms?
The first part of the answer lies in a misunderstanding of what branding has come to mean in today’s highly connected marketplace. The second part of the answer lies in a lack of awareness about how good branding enables effective relationship development.
Your Logo is Not Your Brand
The most common misconception among our legal clients when we ask about the “brand” is that we want to change to firm’s name, logo, tagline, palette, or all of the above. The unwillingness to even start such a conversation is driven by a nexus of connected fears: political battles over naming structures, skepticism among partners about the importance of “colors and fonts,” and geometrically increasing costs for redesigned websites, printed collateral, letterhead, business cards, office signage, client gifts – even the pens and pencils stocked in the conference rooms.
To be completely fair, those of us who work in agencies or other kinds of marketing professions frequently perpetuate this misunderstanding. It’s not uncommon to find marketers who use “brand” as a shorthand for logos, colors, and other visual elements.
However, if you asked today’s top corporate marketers and business development professionals to define “a brand,” they wouldn’t start by talking about visual design. The most successful market leaders would probably start by talking about purpose.
The idea of the Purpose-Driven Brand is currently one of the most innovative topics in business development. Several prominent thought leaders, most of them not from traditional marketing backgrounds, have urged businesses to define their purpose and place that purpose at the center of their identities as organizations. Though each author approaches the idea from a different perspective, they all agree that defining a business’s purpose is not only important, but ultimately inevitable – at least if that business is to thrive in a socially driven marketplace.
So when marketers and agencies pose a question about brand to a law firm, we aren’t really asking about your name, or your carefully chosen shade of “corporate blue.” We’re asking about your firm’s purpose, and we’re asking because it’s especially important to Relationship-Based Businesses like law firms. Brand Purpose is ultimately about how, why, and whether clients establish long-term relationships with other businesses. Even the biggest skeptics recognize that these questions lie at the heart of a law firm’s success.
So What Is a Brand Purpose?
The idea of a Brand Purpose isn’t hard to define in words: A clear statement that serves as a central objective for everyone interested in an organization’s success.
It’s a little harder to explain what a Brand Purpose looks like in real life, since it should, by definition, be different for each organization. A Brand Purpose is not simply the answer to “why you are in business,” because for most businesses this equates to “return profit and/or shareholder value.” Though true from the perspective of the owners, that statement excludes, and often actually antagonizes, key participants like clients and employees. Perhaps the best way to understand the nature of a Brand Purpose is to look at some in action. Here are how some prominent corporations define their purpose:
To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.
Just do it
Make it count
Imagination at work
To provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world’s consumers, now and for generations to come.
The everyday effect
Though these companies are all primarily consumer-focused, one of the most interesting recent examples comes from the Big Four. When Ernst & Young (now simply “EY”) announced its new brand earlier this year, it focused squarely on a newly articulated purpose: Building a better working world:
As part of the rebranding, EY launched a minisite that presents stories illustrating the compelling focus created by its purpose. What is perhaps most surprising about the campaign is how much of the visual toolkit has remained the same: the colors, the angle logo mark, bold typography – arguably even the new name, which was already a common abbreviation for the firm (and not coincidentally, its website domain). For EY, “rebranding” in a competitive market for high-end professional services means first and foremost leading with a strong purpose.
There are no set rules to creating a Brand Purpose, but there are qualities that successful purpose statements share. A good brand purpose:
• Is honest, straight-forward and authentic.
• Is broad and open-ended, but also unambiguous.
• Articulates a goal or objective that attracts participation.
• Includes your shareholders, employees, clients and communities as constituents in your success.
• Connects what your business does to what it contributes.
As Bob Garfield and Doug Levy observed, a clear and effective purpose “inspires people not merely to patronize the brand, but to join it.” If you get your purpose right, the response from your clients and employees will simply be: Yes.
Putting Purpose at the Center
Starting with a purpose helps firms understand the relationship between other, more visual brand components. When working on a branding project with our legal and professional services clients, we first evaluate their purpose, and then explore other expressions of the brand in progressive layers:
One North’s Brand Platform for Relationship-Based Businesses
A key indicator of a compelling brand platform is how well each layer informs the next. Does the purpose guide the firm’s market strategy and competitive positioning? Is the positioning apparent in visual elements like the logo and imagery? How present is the firm’s identity in the content it offers?
Often, our clients discover that certain elements in the brand platform are out of alignment, and that suggests that improvements can be made. However, recognizing the need to care for the brand does not mean that the firm needs to fully “rebrand” by changing their name, logo or other visual artifacts. Indeed, in some situations a simple name change would only amount to a superficial improvement. As the EY example demonstrates, some of the most effective branding in professional services attends to non-visual components like purpose, positioning or content.
Even as firms align their brands to a central purpose, they should resist attempts to impose a formal rigidity or foolish consistency. Anyone who has encountered the sort of “brand police” who conflate consistency with conformity knows the negative outcomes of over-structured branding. Centering your brand on purpose rather than on visual artifacts actually allows greater flexibility in your brand platform – an aspect that becomes apparent once you look at how clients experience your brand.
Building Relationships on a Flexible Brand
The goal of all good branding is to create a compelling experience, and bringing clients into your brand model helps demonstrate why having a clear purpose is critical for relationship-based businesses like law firms.
From a law firm’s perspective, audiences begin their awareness on the outermost layer of your brand platform: with the previous work/experience, publications, news, events and other kinds of informative content. Over the course of their relationships, your audiences gain a deeper understanding of each progressive layer. We encourage our clients to keep in mind the following points as they consider their firm’s brand performance:
• Each client – even each individual – approaches your firm from a different perspective and experiences a different aspect of your firm.
• Reaching those different audiences requires greater flexibility in each layer as you move out from the center. It’s both natural and desirable for your firm to develop different facets or perspectives on your brand. This is particularly important for firms building relationships with different kinds of professionals, in different industries, located in different cities or countries. One size will never fit all.
• The goal of your brand strategy should be to draw clients towards your purpose. It’s the unity of purpose, and not the consistency of colors, that gives coherence to the brand experience.
• In a relationship-based business, driven by referrals and networks, clients should be considered constituents of the brand. A clear and authentic purpose will help align what clients say about you with what you say about yourself.
The client experience is where branding and relationship development meet. Having a flexible brand platform built on a compelling purpose provides an excellent starting point for building long-term client relationships. But it’s only the beginning. In next month’s article we’ll explore more comprehensively how legal marketers and business development professionals can create experiences for current clients that deepen relationships and ensure their firms’ success.
* Kalev Peekna is Managing Director of Strategy at One North Interactive and can be reached at email@example.com