Do You Know Your Firm’s DNA?

A desire to redo my living room has caused me to become addicted to reality TV programs involving design. And to prove that you can learn about business from virtually anywhere, here is an important lesson I learned from “Making the Cut” (if you can believe it).

“Making the Cut” is a clothing design contest that begins with a number of accomplished, talented designers and through competition, whittles them down to two or three finalists. These compete in a full runway show where they must present an entire collection, this last task generally undertaken in a three-day period.

Judges can be ruthlessly catty about the outfits presented throughout the competition. At first, I thought they were just being mean, but as I watched more episodes, I began to understand their criticisms. While often, their comments would reference the merits or pitfalls of a particular design choice (why would they put such large pockets on that shirt!), more often than not, negative comments arose from the lack of cohesion or brand demonstrated by designers as the competition progressed. I learned that judges should be able to tell, as a model walks the runway, precisely who designed the outfit simply by its look. This isn’t to suggest that all pieces by a particular designer should look the same. Not at all. But ideally, there should be something about each piece that lets the judges see a brand…what they often called the designer’s DNA…in the garment.

The finalists were the designers who had the strongest sense of their brand. They were able to create an entire collection – from ski wear to couture, that all somehow had the same DNA.

Having spent so much of my life viewing and re-enforcing brands for professional services, I’m used to a far more ethereal understanding of the term. Frankly, it was extremely helpful to see the concept of a brand so tangibly demonstrated in a runway show. It was either there, or it wasn’t. Pieces either fit that brand, or went wildly off brand. When the designer did that, it was obvious to the viewer, and deadly for the designer.

When I first encouraged law firms to define their brand, I got push back. Many lawyers suggested that law firms don’t produce products so they can’t really have a brand. But brands are possible for all types of businesses. They might not be as visual or as easy to put forth, but they exist and their absence is noted.

What is a brand?

A brand is a value or attribute aligned with the name of a product or service. Strong brands can be known by their icons, like the Nike swish. We just need to see that swish to know it’s Nike, and to associate our beliefs about that values or attributes of Nike with those products.

Why do we need brands?

We might not realize it, but we are hit with thousands of messages each day. So many messages, in fact, that our otherwise marvelous brain just can’t compute the data. So, we process those messages, first by organizing them into categories: favourite sports teams, favourite type of car, favourite TV programs, etc. If we receive a message in a category that isn’t important to us, we don’t bother processing them. In one ear, and out the other.

When the message comes from a category that is important to us, we decide if we are going to retain it, or not, based on the values we associate with that category. If the understood values or benefits of the product or service echo our own values or needs around that product of service, we retain the message. For example, if we have a cold and we might need cold mediation, but we want it to primarily work at night so we can get through our day, we will seek out messages from a manufacture that promotes a nighttime cold mediation…probably Nyquil. As messages come in, we scan for those that are in important categories to us, and that align most with our values for that product or service. We retain the top three to five of these in every category. They become our short list of contenders. In this way, they are “branded” into our brains as a short list of contenders. Every time we hear a subsequent message from these brands, they re-enforce themselves in our brains.

What is a law firm brand?

A brand is a declaration about a law firm. It says: this is what we stand for. Or: this is how we are different from our competitors. Law firms don’t have physical products the way that retailers do, so our declaration if often around less tangible things: our service areas, how we treat our clients, our commitment to community, etc.

It can be more challenging, but is just as important, to have a brand in the professional services space. Firms with strong brands tend to be more successful in developing new business because clients have a better sense of what they are buying. In an environment of no brands, there’s very little control. Clients are left to make decisions based on the look of a lawyer, or how much they like the colours on a website. But when we provide accessible information on the firm’s service offerings and brand, clients have a more compelling reason to go to that firm. That message cuts through the clutter.

How is a law firm brand promoted/supported?

Declaring your firm’s brand isn’t enough. You need to live that brand through proof points. Proof points are the points of intersection between your firm and the client that provide opportunities to prove you are who you said you are. Each of those proof points should be aligned with your brand, just like clothing in a collection. When you have a brand, it’s critical that all of your proof points re-enforce it as it’s very difficult to win back trust after failing a proof point. For example, if you hare known as the happy firm, and your receptionist answers the phone with a growl, your brand won’t be seen to be legitimate. So, do develop a brand, and then do ensure it is absolutely supported.

If you have the only law firm in town, you may not need a brand. But for everyone else, a brand can really help to attract the type of clients you want.

If you can’t respond to the question “what is your brand?” with ease, it hasn’t yet been properly formed. If you can’t list your proof points for the brand, that brand hasn’t been fully implemented.

If you still don’t believe you need a brand, my hope is that your competitors feel exactly the same way. Because if they don’t, you might be losing market share soon.

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