Bothwell Marketing Print Article

Light the Way

Laying the Groundwork for a New Marketing Initiative

The end of the year, and the beginning of the year are often the times when lawyers and law firms decide to upgrade their marketing efforts and develop a marketing plan.   Perhaps the firm wants more name recognition, or there is a feeling the firm’s reputation does not reflect the practice.  In trying to address marketing weaknesses many ideas and initiatives are often thrown into the mix.  It can become difficult to decide which strategies are best, and how to prioritize.  But before starting to fix things, it is usually a good idea to find out what’s wrong. Too often law firms jump into tactical activities without first covering the basics.

Before making any major decisions, it helps to accurately pinpoint the firm’s current position in the marketplace. For example, how do you know that the firm’s name recognition and reputation need enhancing? And, you want to change and improve -- from what to what? The best marketing plans follow a straightforward trail map: where you are now, where you want to go, and what you need to do to get there.

Some firms have a keen sense of their position in the marketplace -- others don't. It's not always easy to gauge a firm’s current position without testing a wide spectrum of opinions from clients, peers, competitors and industry experts, as well as members of the firm. Lawyers often conclude they already know everything there is to know about their firm, when in fact that is rarely the case. An anonymous witticism wisely states "A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking."

Ultimately, marketing plans should address the firm’s current position, envision the criteria of future success, divide that overarching vision into a set of realistic goals and develop the strategies and programs to move the firm in that direction.

An accurate assessment of the starting point then becomes critical, since it is the very essence of the question "from where to where." Once this research is done, most organizations will find themselves in one of these categories with regard to brand position:

  • Some degree of name recognition and positive reputation has been achieved. This position would benefit from a strategy that builds and leverages existing brand recognition and goodwill — referred to as positive brand equity.
  • An organization has no brand awareness, and thus their position is neutral. The positive aspect of this position is that the firm has a clean slate with which to work. The negative aspect is that potential customers are not even considering the firm’s services because they are not thinking of them at all. The strategy here would be to build brand awareness and educate the target audience as to the firm’s capabilities.
  • A firm causes a negative response in the marketplace. When an organization engenders negative responses from its target client base, either because of bad press, poor results or long-term problems, the strategy needs to be one of repositioning and rebuilding the brand. Such negative brand awareness needs to be overcome.
  • The organization has misunderstood or outdated brand awareness that does not fit the image it wants to convey, or does not reflect the current reality of the firm’s capabilities and services. The strategy here is one of reeducating the target audience to replace outdated views.

Establishing where a firm falls within any of these camps requires solid, independent, outside market research. You are unlikely to get independent and unbiased information from internal, firm-based sources.

This is a critical step because if an incorrect assessment is made of the firm’s current positioning, the plan will be based on a false premise. For example, a firm may believe they are one of the leading firms in their region in a particular area of law. Perhaps they have more clients in this practice area than others, or have spent the most money on developing and promoting this area, or they have a lawyer who is a recognized name in this field.   Independent research involving interviews with clients, competitors and others in the industry may reveal the market has no such view of the firm, and that the firm needs to do more to earn the spot they believe they already occupy.

In this scenario, the firm needs to elevate name recognition and reputation to gain an edge on competitors. Such research — sometimes called positioning research or an "environmental scan" — involves much more than just a client survey. It is a detailed look at how your firm is positioned competitively in the legal marketplace, in relation to other firms and clients' expectations.

It will answer such questions as: do you know how others in the legal industry describe your firm? Is your firm perceived as traditional or innovative, a specialist in one area or another, as good value or expensive, formal or informal? What is it that truly differentiates you from other firms — not what you think differentiates your firm, but what key players in the profession perceive as noteworthy or unique?

A comprehensive independent review should also include a broad swath of viewpoints. The more well-rounded the data, the more helpful it is likely to be. A marketing plan based on the personal opinion of the managing partner or other members in the firm, who may or may not agree with each other, is not likely to be as effective as one based on adequately qualitative and quantitative analysis.

A competent reviewer will not only interviewing competitors, but also past, present and future clients; judges; lawyers at the firm (particularly new recruits) and industry influencers, such as journalists, judges and headhunters.

Interview prospects usually respond positively when asked to give their time to such an effort. It is human nature to appreciate being asked for one's opinion and advice. Clients usually appreciate being interviewed because it demonstrates that the firm cares about their opinion. Competitors provide their own unique perspective and rarely hold back on giving open and candid comments.

Certainly there will be a few individuals who are too busy, or not interested in participating. But in general, when this type of research is conducted with the honest intention of finding out the firm's competitive position and service standards, most people respond positively. Editors and reporters in the legal and business media are also a good resource, as they have their own experiences upon which they judge law firms.

There are benefits to having the study done by an outside company. For example, a firm which has negative brand associations may be in denial about the effect of some bad publicity or a bad result.  In other cases, even if a firm has noticed that certain clients have reduced their caseload lately, nobody enjoys acknowledging that mistakes have been made.  Only an independent study is likely to bring the problem to light and allow the firm to implement damage control without blame.

Other times, problems are systemic to the organization's processes and management. Independent research will help identify trends and depersonalize issues, and thereby encourage team efforts and responses to problem solving. When conducting this type of research, all "stakeholders" at the firm should be aware of the scope and purpose of the project. People can feel threatened when not included in the process. Getting approval from the leaders of the firm and sharing results with as many individuals as possible will maximize the potential for positive impact.   Nothing encourages change and improvement more that hearing independent feedback from outside the firm. Fresh eyes see the things that we no longer notice. Whether the information you hear is viewed as valid, or not, is not as important as the fact that the perception is out there.

A favorite marketing adage states, "there is no reality — there is only the market's perception." People hire your firm based on their perception, whether it is accurate or not.

Protecting and enhancing your firm's reputation is critical to your future success. Your starting pointing in that effort is key. Think of a locator map with a "You Are Here" position sign. It helps you establish exactly where you are so you can then set your course, since you can't find your way to the next destination without first nailing down your current position. Do that accurately and your marketing efforts will build from a solid foundation.

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