The “House of Brands” vs. the “Branded House”


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Guest post by Kristien Vermoesen.

Brand: A name, sign or symbol used to identify items or services of the seller(s) and to differentiate them from goods of competitors. (Dictionary of business and

In recent years, law firms have begun to understand the need for branding, hence the arrival of the “fantasy” name in law circles like Altius, Elegis, Eubelius and more recently, Lydian. Unfortunately, having a brand is not the same as having brand equity (“a measure of the influence that a brand exerts on the buying behaviour of customers”).

Law firms are still, for the most part, “houses of brands” instead of “branded houses.” The archetypical house of brands in consumer markets is Procter & Gamble. P&G is relatively unknown to supermarket shoppers, but currently holds 24 billion dollar brands like Tide, Duracell, Gilette, Vicks, Pampers, Pantene etc. No consumer chooses Pampers based on the fact that it is a Procter & Gamble brand. Few consumers even realise that by buying Gilette and Pampers, they are actually buying products from the same company.

Opposed to this is the so called “branded house”, which chooses to sell all its products under the same name, like Nivea. It sells shaving cream, skin lotion, sunscreen, etc. Here, shoppers do choose Nivea products because of the Nivea brand, which has succesfully positioned itself to signify skin care.

In law firms, the predominant model is still that of the house of brands, where partners attract clients based on their individual reputation. The name of the firm is of little or no importance to the client.

Partly, this strategy is understandable and even unavoidable: the “house of brands” strategy is especially useful when trying to dominate niche segments of the market, especially in a market as specialised as lawyering. A partner’s name might well be a ‘billion dollar brand’ in his chosen specialty.

But for the managing partner interested in cross selling and in making the tide rise for all the ships, there is a clear need to move towards more of a “branded house” position. This need not be disadvantageous for the individual partners. Consider: a strong niche specialty will, when handled correctly, translate into a stronger firm name or brand. A stronger brand, will attract top talent and retain them better. This in turn will strengthen the other departments. For a successful law firm, a common ground will have to be found between the “branded house” strategy and the “house of brands” strategy. The question is: how?

Branding the law firm through media exposure

One area that is consistently overlooked in the branding efforts of many firms: consistent, strategically embedded media exposure. Sometimes because lawyers are suspicious of journalists or media. Sometimes because they don’t know how to approach media. Sometimes because they misunderstand the needs of media outlets: a ‘radical’ ruling by a judge is met with indifference, while a legal triviality can suddenly appear in bold uppercases on the front pages of newspapers.

And yet it is the experience of the author that media exposure is probably one of the most cost effective means of branding a law firm currently available. Due to the nature of the law firm, it is also ideally suited to make regular appearances in the business and financial press.

Lawyers are experts. Law is difficult, and it changes often. Journalists have too much work to understand and digest all changes themselves – few journalists have a law degree. They need a reliable guide. In return, they will give the guide exposure. They will also invariably mention the firm brand. This status as “expert” will empower both the partner who is mentioned, and the firm. The “expert” status will attract new clients and convince recruits to apply for a position at your firm.

Law firms are confronted with the public interest on a daily basis. Law is (mostly) made on the basis of policy choices, and policy is made for the public interest, “the greater good”. In a way, everytime a lawyer gets involved, some principle of the legal system, the democracy, is being put to a miniature ‘stress test’.

The lawyer is in the unique position of seeing our system probed continually for weaknesses and fault lines. These are also matters that the media are naturally interested in.

This does not in any way mean that the firm brand must become a synonym for controversy and conflict. Rather, what should be highlighted in media communication is the ability of lawyers to rise above the “stress test” and make rational and reasonable assessments of the problem, to propose avenues for resolving common types of problems.

This can easily be done because law firms are, above all, centers of learning and expertise. As we said, the goal for the managing partner is to have as many of his partners considered experts by leading journalists. That way, the firm is continually in the news.

CASE: In one case, the author worked together with a lawyer who had done extensive research on rulings in matters of automobile concessions. An article was written and released to coincide with a large automobile trade show. Result: the article was not only picked up by a business newspaper, but the firm was mentioned on the front page. Media exposure is about knowing what to tell, how to tell it, and when to tell it.

Law firms are divided into departments, and so are media. This provides a tactical advantage to the law firm. The fact that a HR lawyer of Firm A appeared in the jobs section of a large business paper, is not likely to dissuade a journalist specialised in mergers and acquisitions to call a lawyer of Firm A the same week to ask his or her opinion on a certain merger. For the media outlet, two specialists gave their opinion on two unrelated matters. For the managing partner, the firm brand was mentioned twice in one week in the same newspaper.

Kristien Vermoesen runs her own marketing and PR firm, FINN, specialized in professional services firms.


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