The practice of building relationships is not new to law firms. Networking and word of mouth referrals have long been important parts of practice development. Technology continues to add new dimensions to the ways in which professionals connect with colleagues and clients, but the underlying need to communicate and develop meaningful associations has not changed. Relationship-building requires and ability to listen, understand your audience, share useful information and provide a positive experience in person and online. Relationship-building is brand building.
Like it or not, you are solidifying your brand with everything you do. Your firm's brand is an ongoing story — a series of experiences that continue to play out between you and your market. You can take conscious control of these experiences and shape the connection your firm has with its audience, or you can let the chips fall where they may and hope for the best. The most effective way to construct the narrative in a way that helps your firm is to develop and reaffirm your brand story.
What is a brand story?
Your brand story is the narrative your firm tells about how the world works and your place within it. It is the promise you make to prospective clients about the experience they can expect to have with your firm. The story should create an emotional connection between your firm and your audience, making your potential clients feel a certain way about you before you have even met.
A successful brand story will meet several criteria:
1. Authenticity. When defining your experience with clients, ask: can you actually deliver on the promise? Prospective clients have an array of tools at their disposal with which to peel back the layers of your marketing and research whether you are the type of firm who truly lives up to its values. Most consumers now go online to research companies before they choose to do business with them, and attorneys are no exception. People want to dig deeper than platitudes about tough or compassionate representation to see if that is what you actually provide. Make sure your actions match your words.
2. Meaningful differentiation. Your brand story must be many things, but most of all it must be memorable. In order to build authority within your market, your firm must tell a story that is different — in a substantial way — from that of your competitors. Think of the words you use to describe your firm. Can others use them as well? Most firms in your market can claim experience and knowledge, and all will promise to fight for the best outcome possible. Your story must go beyond generalities to truly resonate.
To stand out in a significant way, first define your place within the market. Start by refining your understanding of what your firm does. Focus on areas in which you have deep knowledge and experience and market within that niche. Do not be afraid to reduce and simplify. Clients come to you with specific problems and will appreciate an attorney who has an extensive understanding of a particular area. Offering more options does not always work in your favor; studies have repeatedly shown that fewer choices lead to faster purchasing decisions.
When you offer a selection of what you do best rather than trying to please everyone, you will find it is easier to move beyond vague marketing statements into a defined story.
3. Reinforcement through action. Storytelling is a long-term process that cannot be completed within days, weeks or even months, and good brand stories are backed up with action. Action can take the form of programs your firm develops to give back to the community or involvement in already established organizations with values that align with those of your firm.
An example of this on a larger scale is the LifeSkills program launched by Barclays Bank in the wake of the Libor rate-fixing scandal. The Barclays name suffered worldwide after the Libor revelations, an assertion confirmed by research conducted by OnePoll. In an effort to recover, the bank began a long-term campaign to rebrand itself as “values-driven.” LifeSkills brings individuals, educators and businesses together in an effort to train and employ young job seekers. The program reinforces the story that Barclay's cares about the communities it serves. While your firm may not be in the position to launch a worldwide initiative, it can contribute to or lead worthy local causes.
4. A definitive world view. A brand story is more than just a history of your firm. A story conveys your sense of mission and sense of purpose within a larger context. How would your ideal world look? How do your clients fit into that world?
The best brands build their audiences up within this worldview. It is easy to simply broadcast your skills but more difficult to turn the positive aspects of your practice into positive emotional experiences for your audience. Nike says very little about its products in its advertising. Instead, it builds its consumers up as everyday heroes, finding greatness through sport. Consumers can see themselves in that image, which is an invaluable brand asset.
In a legal marketing context, a firm that concentrates on special needs planning for children with disabilities could market themselves by saying their attorneys have over 100 years of combined experience and that their partners have been named SuperLawyers. While these are laudable credentials, they do not provide an opportunity for the firm to communicate real values.
Instead, the firm could market the worldview that children with disabilities deserve to lead empowered, meaningful lives. It could reinforce that story by starting a scholarship fund for local children or by participating in events that support relevant charities. It could also include success stories in its marketing materials. Prospective clients can understand and see themselves within such a narrative.
5. Consistency. Research performed by Edelman for their Global Trust Barometer confirmed that consumers need to hear messages multiple times before believing them. The study showed that 64 percent of consumers must hear the same information from a brand at least three to five times before they begin to trust the claims. Develop messaging guidelines and train associates to follow them in all communications, from client phone calls to social media posts. Reinforce your messaging with thoughtful design; colors, fonts, images and even the quality of paper on which you print advertising materials all reinforce (or break) your story.
Confirm your story through brand experience
Once you have established a good story, back it up with a positive brand experience. If clients have come to know you as a friendly, modern firm that can adapt quickly to client needs, this must come through in your daily interactions. Live up to the promise by hiring helpful staff who can answer questions without an abundance of legal jargon. Return phone calls and emails within a prescribed amount of time. Anticipate issues and adjust rather than being in a state of constant reactivity. Clients will not think you are listening and providing thoughtful solutions if they can never reach you for a conversation, or if you are constantly encountering stumbling blocks that could have been foreseen.
Client service is still one of the most essential elements in any marketing strategy. You can write an amazing brand story and convince people to believe it, but the myth will fall apart without consistent attention to the real interactions clients have with your firm every day.