The Minister’s beans
Some years ago, in an attempt to promote market competition, Bridget Prentice, then Minister for the Department of Constitutional Affairs, caused something of a ruckus by seeming to compare legal services to a can of beans. Perhaps her intentions were lost in translation as her precise words were, “I don’t see why consumers should not be able to get legal services as easily as they can buy a tin of beans”.
Like for like it was a poor comparison though because whatever your thoughts on baked beans, legal services suggest a higher level of complexity and expertise beyond nipping to the shops for something to go with toast.
However, from the perspective of law firm marketing, there is something in what the Minister said. Honest.
Ten soda bottles sitting on a wall
Forget baked beans if you can, and imagine instead soda drinks of the kind you might find in your local bar or multiplex cinema. Now ponder that whilst flavour and ownership might vary, soda drinks tend to share similarities in the shape and size of can or bottle, core ingredients, liquid consistency and sparkle. They probably also fulfil the same need of quenching thirst or just giving you something to do with your hands.
Ergo the soda-drinker is facing a choice between different products that look, feel, and perhaps even taste fundamentally the same.
A key question worth considering (momentarily at least) is what makes a person choose one brand of soda over another? Is it an unconscious choice or a preference over other brands based on taste, price, something in the artwork and logo, habit, or simply because it is the only drink of its kind available at the time?
The answer to this question is key to soda manufacturers since in a competitive market it’s essential to know what maximises sales, or in the case of soda bottles what might make the competitors’ sales ‘accidentally fall’.
The law firm paradigm
Unless you’re in the soda-selling industry you might not care to think too hard about this, but if you are in the business of selling legal services then it’s a fundamental issue.
It wasn’t Bridget Prentice’s point but soda drinks (or even cans of beans) are a bit like law firms, in that law firms have a tendency to look, feel, and even sound much like their rivals, which is a problem when they’re competing in the same circle for custom.
There is also another, possibly larger, issue, and one that could sound the not-so-distant death-knell of many otherwise successful legal services. Which is that a common pattern of behaviours and beliefs persists in a significant proportion of law firms when it comes to their marketing and consumer engagement.
These patterns and beliefs are having a direct impact on issues around identity, brand, and investment in legal services.
This article goes on to explore some of those behaviours and patterns, and suggests changes from a marketing perspective that many need to make to face competition head on.
There is something akin to schizophrenia within legal professions that doesn’t affect other industries to the same extent. On one hand solicitors, barristers and others are rightly proud of their association with a technically proficient and ethically-driven profession. On the other hand, worries that terms such as ‘the market’ and ‘consumer’ in some way diminish their professionalism can create a barrier between the buyer and seller.
Since some see law, similar to medicine, as a service rather than a commodity, conscious or unconscious mindsets around ‘the market’ and ‘consumers’ are limiting how certain law firms are choosing to promote themselves.
Remember that it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the rules preventing solicitors from advertising their services were changed, and some old beliefs are hard to shake, although most have been.
Unique Selling Points and brand identity
I forget the number of times a firm has described its USP as being great client care. Client care is certainly important, and without it most businesses can expect to lose significant custom. But it is not unique.
Whether firms in fact need to be unique as opposed to having a strong brand identity is really the point, unless they do happen to be unique, for instance by specialising in a rare area of law.
Since so many law firms are difficult to differentiate to the lay consumer, having a clear and therefore recognisable brand identity is essential. In the same way that soda manufacturers want consumers to choose their product over a rival, so law firms need to be in the consumer’s mind at the point of selection.
Typically, the average non-legal business spends 10% of turnover on marketing. By comparison legal services usually record between 1 and 2%, if in fact they have quantified the figure at all.
There are reasons for this.
- First, many law firms rely on repeat business from an established clientele. All very well in a static buyers’ market, but new buying methods and pricing expectations, technology, and unbundling etc, are challenging presumptions around traditional client loyalty and that cannot be taken for granted.
- Second, many hope for referrals for new clients. This is not necessarily a flawed approach, and new studies indicate that social media users are relying more and more on recommendations to help inform buying choice. It is though a passive form of business development, and since it is reliant on the good opinions of others it is less easy to govern.
- Third, crucial business decisions in law firms are usually made by the business owners (equity partners) who, perhaps understandably, can be reluctant to spend money that would otherwise go on other priorities or into their pockets (see Unravelling the Gordian Knot of law firm ownership for a view on this). Accepting that the marketing budget needs to increase and delegating spending decisions to others may be a necessary step for law firm owners.
- Fourth, legal owners tend to be trained in law and not in marketing. This does not stop them from assuming a position of knowledge in the latter however. Qualified lawyers tend to frown on the untrained, unqualified from offering legal services, and the reverse could be said for trained marketers and lawyers.
- And fifth, owners tend to equate business development (networking etc) with marketing, which though connected is not the same thing.
Dominating the market
Using again the comparison with soda drinks, purchase is often dependent on the availability of one or more soda products at any one time. Hence a bar, a pub or a cinema will likely stock a single brand of cola, controlled by the supplier in order to capture the market.
Where soda companies cannot capture the whole market, they will look to take a dominant position and place themselves at the forefront of the consumers’ mind. Hence supermarket stock positioning and advertising play a critical role in brand dominance.
Law firms are no different in needing to look for market position through brand awareness, and are already using familiar media, such as radio advertising (Irwin Mitchell’s television adverts are still rare). This alone is unlikely to motivate client choice but it will raise buyer awareness and influence choice.
Market position and saturation
Domination is not for everyone, and indeed might not be possible or even desirable. However understanding market position will always be important. Where domination is not guaranteed, market saturation is easier (although not easy) to influence. Advertising, legal articles, networking, and social media, all have a role, relying on a clear, well-funded campaign over a consistent period.
Virtual not Virtuous
Any discussion on marketing would be remiss if it failed to stress the importance of social media. For some though a quiet word in your ear. Whilst many law firms fully embrace social media, there remain some lawyers, perhaps more than a few, who seem resistant to its benefits. Fine. Time will tell if they and their businesses suffer the consequence. All that should be said is that if Twitter is good enough for Obama, Dyson and Branson (to name a few) then respectfully it might be good enough for everyone else.
Kicking the can
Remarkably, over ten years have followed since Bridget Prentice’s comparison with beans, and new forms of competition have and continue to enter the legal services market. Some have also exited as quickly as they arrived, perhaps learning that the provision of law, in all its complexities, is not quite like supermarket selling after all.
Choice and the continued availability of legal services are of undeniable benefit to the community as a whole. Business is business though, and whilst it might be in everyone’s interests to maintain a healthy legal services industry, the survival of individual providers cannot be guaranteed.
Considered, well-planned, and well-financed marketing campaigns are likely to place the proactive law firm in the best position for growth and success however.
Legal services might not be a can of beans, or for that matter a can of soda, and however similar they are to their competitors, good providers and marketers can learn from other industries and help differentiate themselves.
None, if they do it well, need fall from the wall.
Matthew Still is a legal services consultant with expertise in management, strategy, innovation, and business development.