Inside: What’s your brand?

Branding can be difficult, but only because so many don't understand the basic concepts

In the last column of this series, “Going Corporate,” by my partner Fred Lautz, we talked about the need for law firms to act more like their corporate clients, now that they operate in a competitive environment not unlike that of their clients. Sooner or later, following through on that imperative will lead us to the higher-level functions of marketing, such as branding. This topic has perplexed and challenged the best of businesses through the years, not only because it can be so difficult to build a brand but because so many individuals and organizations don’t understand even the basic concepts.

Some people think a great logo constitutes a successful brand. Others think it’s a catchy slogan. Nearly everyone thinks branding is about creating a “differentiated position” in the marketplace. The trouble is, they’re all right, and they’re all wrong, all at the same time. That’s because we use the terms “brand” and “branding” to mean a lot of things, and we often use them interchangeably, and we sometimes assume they mean things they don’t.

Branding isn’t an exercise for beginners, though it seems like something anyone can do. On the other hand, if you have a clear idea of what it is, the process of branding is pretty straightforward. So let me clarify with some definitions and their implications:

Brand is what the market thinks you are. It is the collective consensus of who or what you represent in the eyes of those who purchase or otherwise utilize your goods and/or services. It’s essential to understand this basic concept because you don’t get to decide what your brand is — only the market does. More importantly, if you attempt to define your brand and it doesn’t match the market’s perceptions, then your “brand” is a joke, and in today’s interconnected society, a joke spreads very quickly.

A brand is often called “a promise” in marketing circles, because it represents everything the market expects when it purchases the branded product or service, and breaking that promise is a fatal mistake. Once again, it’s important to understand that the market defines those expectations — the company or firm doesn’t get to dictate what they are.

Branding, on the other hand, is what you do to influence those perceptions. What you consistently do from day to day creates impressions in the market that become associated with you, and once those impressions are generalized to the entire market, they become part or all of your brand. It’s important to be extremely careful when branding, because those who attempt to convey particular qualities upon their brands need to build on existing (if any) perceptions, or they risk compromising any good will the market has for them, and the process of re-branding — of substantively changing your market identity — is a long and laborious effort that often fails.

So when you see marketing materials that say things like, “We’re smart, tough lawyers who always get the job done,” roll your eyes (or tell your marketing staff to get serious) because, as far as I know, nobody owns that brand, and it’s not much of a brand in an industry chock full of tough, smart lawyers who always get the job done, anyway. This is a perfect example of attempting to tell the market what you are rather than reflecting what the market really thinks of you. I’ve seen a lot of extremely creative ads that try to position firms variously as smarter or tougher or better or faster or you-name-it-er, and while they may make the reader pay attention, they ultimately fail unless the market already agrees with whatever “-er” the ads claim.

Once you achieve clarity on the distinction of brand vs. branding, the process becomes much more straightforward. Now to determine your brand, you need only look to your clients for the answer. And to engage in branding, you need only understand what your brand is and then decide how to reinforce it through actions that clearly comport with market perceptions, or grow it through actions that extend and expand on current perceptions, or change it by abandoning products and practices that create perceptions with which you do not wish to associate your firm. Straightforward, but not easy.

With regard to differentiation, it’s a grail that every company pursues, and there seems to be a popular assumption that everybody can differentiate themselves in one way or another, but too many businesses end up inventing “differentiated” positions for themselves, which (once again) may or may not match market perceptions of brand, and thus they can be more bane than boon. If your firm can make claims about itself that no other can, (1) congratulations and (2) I’ll believe it when I see it. As most of us have discovered, to our disappointment, clients don’t differentiate much between us, and that’s because there isn’t much difference between one law firm and the next as far as the market is concerned.

But fear not! You have a brand, whether you know what it is or not, and if you take the time to learn what it is, then differentiation strategies will often suggest themselves. For example, Quarles clients broadly give us very high scores on our “commitment to help.” It’s not a rare, let alone unique, position, but it is what our clients think; ergo, it’s essentially our brand. Thus, we could talk about ourselves in a thousand complimentary ways, all of which might be absolutely true, but we are at our best, brand-wise, when our ads say, simply, “We’re here to help.”

Branding applies to individual attorneys, by the way, not just law firms and other collectives. Your personal brand can affect your position, your salary, your promotional trajectory, your ability to simply get things done, and countless other critical aspects of your career. But whether you’re branding on a personal or organizational level, know your brand, be your brand, and build your brand from there. Anything less is empty posturing.

Contributing Author

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Kimberly Leach Johnson

Kimberly Leach Johnson has held numerous positions of high-level responsibility in addition to that of firm chair of Quarles & Brady, including chair of...

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