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No. 1 asset? Reputation, says one chief creative officer

Professional firms around state investing in their brands

How can professional firms market themselves and build a brand? A few years ago it was unheard of for these firms to have marketing directors. Now law, accounting and other professional firms are hiring marketing specialists to reach new clients and get the firms’ names before the public.

Advertising executive Todd Ballard says the concept is not new for national firms but is new for local firms trying to grow. “Those firms trying to extend from Jackson to a regional basis need to have some presence as a brand,” he said. “It is definitely harder for professional firms because there are a lot of ethical and legal issues. They’re under intense scrutiny. They can’t promise much of anything so they have to find something different to set themselves apart.”

Because today’s law schools are turning out more lawyers than ever before, the legal market has become very crowded, believes Josh Huff, marketing director at the Butler Snow law firm.

“Law firms continue to get larger through law school and lateral hiring and law firm mergers,” he said. “As Butler Snow continues to grow, the firm has recognized the importance of keeping our clients informed, and marketing is just one vehicle to help accomplish that goal.”

Big changes

Shawn McGregor, marketing director at the firm of Watkins Ludlam Winter and Stennis, says there were very few marketing directors at professional firms 10 years ago.

“At that time, an administrative person who seemed to be creative and organized was given the task of marketing the firm — which largely consisted of creating brochures in Word Perfect, planning receptions and a little advertising,” he said. “Today, most of the large firms and even many of the smaller firms have a full-time marketing person or marketing department responsible for reaching clients and building the brand.

“In fact, marketing professionals are becoming more involved in the strategic planning of firms. Firm leaders look to marketers to provide research on emerging market trends, opportunities for geographic expansion and even client retention.”

A smaller firm, Wells Marble & Hurst, hired Nicole Buchanan as director of marketing and client relations approximately three years ago. With the firm’s marketing committee, she assists in providing clients with solutions to their legal needs.

“Because we believe that the practice of law begins and ends with the relationship between attorney and client, we work closely with our clients to achieve results,” she said. “The firm’s first priority is to serve existing clients well.”

Recruiting, retaining

All say that relationships are key to recruiting and retaining clients. “One of the most important aspects of marketing a law firm like Butler Snow is to keep the clients and their needs at the forefront when developing marketing plans,” Huff said.

Ballard, executive vice president and chief creative officer with the GodwinGroup, affirms that marketing principle. “It’s not about themselves. It’s what they do for their clients and how they do it,” he said. “That’s what clients look for. One size does not fit all. A firm’s personality will make clients gravitate to them.”

He says word of mouth is important to branding and for that purpose a firm’s reputation is the number one asset. Branding also can be done through Web sites, direct mail, electronic seminars and sponsorship of events.

Huff says electronic methods will continue to grow. “Our efforts in this area have been driven by the desire to offer timely and relevant information to clients,” he said. “We believe law firms should strive to serve the individual needs of their clients, and our marketing efforts reflect that goal.”

All electronic marketing, even blogs, are becoming more prevalent as consumers of legal services become more sophisticated and technologically savvy, McGregor said. “As technology advances and clients’ needs change, professional service firms are adapting to new methods of reaching clients and building a brand,” he added.

Buchanan agrees. “Marketing is, first and foremost, listening to the client base to confirm that the firm is meeting the clients’ objectives,” she said. “This, in turn, determines whether the firm’s objectives can be met.”

Ballard points out that community involvement is a huge part of branding for professional firms and is getting bigger.

“It’s not just hanging their sign up at a ballgame,” he said. “They go into the community for things that fit their mission and the firm’s personality. It’s incredibly important and involves time and presence. Something hands on.”

Great work — and relationships

Firms, he said, are doing meaningful things that affect the quality of life in their communities whether it’s building Habitat for Humanity homes, working to improve education or cooking in soup kitchens.

“Loyal clients are created through a combination of great legal work and nourished relationships,” says Huff. “Often, one of the best ways to build those relationships is in an environment outside the office. A commitment to community involvement has been an essential part of Butler Snow for more than 50 years and continues to be vital within our firm.”

In addition to involvement as a firm and individually with a number of events and charities in Jackson, Buchanan says Wells Marble & Hurst attorneys speak at seminars to offer information to the public.

Ballard emphasizes that all businesses should be true to their brand. “It’s who you are, your core values and what you bring to your clients,” he said. “We give that advice to all our clients. It’s new to professional firms. It’s easy to talk about yourself in terms that are relevant to you, but you must do what’s relevant to your client.”

Buchanan notes that the Wells Marble & Hurst firm’s brand is its name and reputation. “They have served us well inasmuch as some of our client relationships with national companies date back over 100 years,” she said of the firm that was founded in 1871 by William Calvin Wells.

McGregor sees another change occurring for professional firms. “The perceived gap between a large firm’s ability to market and a small firm’s ability to market is narrowing significantly,” he said. “We compete with firms much larger than us and much smaller. The playing field is leveling quickly, which again points back to the need for a professional marketer.

“While there is a definite difference in the resources available to marketers in large firms versus small firms, the key for today’s professional services marketer and the professional firms is to stay focused on activities that produce a return on the firm’s investment in marketing and to not try to be all things to all people. Understanding the firm’s strengths, strategy and target market is imperative.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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