Branding is an often misconstrued word. Yes, it refers to the visual expression of your firm – the logo, colour palette and images. But more importantly it refers to an idea, a unique message that is capable of resonating with your target audience. It’s about understanding what makes your firm distinctive and how you can look and sound appealing to your audience in an authentic way. This marketing jargon may sound all well and good but you should still ask – what makes a great Canadian Law Firm brand?
The great Canadian Law Firm Brands
Recently, Acritas, a UK based provider of legal market research, released their annual Canadian Law Firm Brand Index for 2014 revealing the leading Canadian law firm brands most favoured by “influential” clients from Canada and around the world. Based on their research, Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP received top place honours with strong performance in five of the six categories that Acritas measured (I’ve included their methodology at the end of this article). They were praised for their brand with the research stating that “Blakes’ popularity is testament to its success in creating a clear, differentiated offering built on practice areas directly relevant to the largest sectors of the Canadian economy”. Norton Rose Fulbright ranked in second place attaining the best ratings for overall top of mind awareness and being the most used firm for high value work and rounding out the top three was Stikeman Elliott which received high marks in the areas of level of awareness and clients’ use for high value and inbound work.
Commenting on the results, Elizabeth Duffy, Vice President of Acritas US, Inc., said:
In a slow market, law firms which fail to identify their strengths and build their brands and value propositions around them find they are facing even greater downward pressure on rates. In turn, it becomes more difficult to stand out and achieve top of mind awareness among the most lucrative clients. Tightening competition and clients’ use of a greater number of firms than ever, means law firms cannot afford to take the risk of being last in clients’ minds.
Maybe your firm didn’t make the Acritas list but that doesn’t mean your firm doesn’t, or can’t, have a great brand in your market. You don’t need to be one of the largest law firms (or one with the largest marketing budget) to have a great brand. But it does take thoughtfulness, authenticity and patience – and maybe someone to take you through the process.
What not to say.
Let’s start with looking at some of the most common brand messaging we see in the legal market today, be they on a website, in advertising or in the pitches made by lawyers on a daily basis.
- We are client focused
- We get results
- We know your industry
- We provide quality legal advice
- We are relationship driven
- We are a trusted advisor
- We are global/local/regional (as applicable)
Now no one will deny that these are all attributes that you would want your firm to possess but they are seen everywhere and, as such, don’t bring much significant differentiation for your brand. To put it in most simple terms, these attributes are pretty much pre-requisites that a client assumes you have for them to hire you. However, these are the key messages that (too) many law firm brands depend on today. In the world where GC’s are under pressure to cut external counsel fees and there are more firms being formed every day, more is required to connect with your target audience and stay top of mind when the time comes to retaining counsel.
What is common to every great brand?
There are obviously nuances between brands but there are also key elements that are common to every great brand no matter what market or industry they play in. These are essentials that may sound like common sense but they are often difficult to achieve in a meaningful way.
- Firms with great brands know their target market.
To build a great, sustainable brand, you need to focus on the best clients for your firm. You need to discover what your target client values and focus your brand messaging to them. For example, due to simple economics you can’t provide the best legal expertise in the world’s financial centers and be the lowest cost provider. You probably won’t be representing trade unions one day and large corporations the next. Good branding requires letting go of parts of the market. If you try to be all things to every potential purchaser of legal services you will fail and your brand will simply become one of the masses.
- Firms with great brands know who they are and why they exist.
To build a great brand you need to be honest and authentic – with yourselves and your clients. Based on what you are as a firm, the values you, and your lawyers, have, the target markets you wish to, and can, service to the highest level, and the experience you have with your target market you can build an authentic brand. Clients work with firms that have brands that resonate with them not just because of the messages they convey but the type of people that provide their services and the level, and style, of service they bring to bear on the relationship. If you keep your target audience at the forefront of your mind when you’re defining your brand, then your chances of success are greatly improved.
- Great brands are meaningfully different.
The goal of a branding is to differentiate your firm from competitors in your market. It should be noted, however, that great brands are not different simply to be different but because they actually have differentiators that matter to their client base and can communicate it in a meaningful way.
- Great brands have a great commitment by, and to, their people.
Great law firm brands, by the very nature of professional services, begin and end with their people. The best brands are the ones that the lawyers and staff were part of the branding process because the brand must deliver a consistent experience to clients – from initial contact, through mandate, to ongoing work with lawyers and interaction with support staff, the brand experience must be consistent and authentic. Great brands invest in ensuring their lawyers and staff not only understand it but believe in it.
One final tip for creating a great law firm brand.
If your brand has all of the above elements, you are way ahead of the majority of your competitors and peers. So here’s just one last tip to ensure you’ve created a great law firm brand. Steer clear of the usual legal clichés – both in your images and words. That means no images of scales of justice, gavels, court buildings, people shaking hands, or posed groups of lawyers. Please stay away from the copy lines pointed out above as well.
In summary, in this overcrowded Canadian legal market, authentic brand differentiation will put your firm on the road to success – you can drive revenue from there.
(For those of you who need details on the methodology, Acritas disclose that the research was compiled from the unprompted responses of 191 senior general counsel in Canadian organizations with revenues over $50M who were asked about six factors – their awareness of and favorability towards law firms; their consideration of firms for top-level litigation and major M&A; and their use of firms for high value and inbound work. A further 77 senior in-house counsel outside Canada were asked which firms they used for their Canadian legal needs. Interviews were conducted in Ontario, Alberta, Québec and British Columbia across all industry sectors including Finance, Energy and Corporate and Public entities, and among approximately half mid-market ($50M-$1bn revenue) and half elite ($1bn+ revenue) organizations.)