Online Brand

19 November 2000

Graeme Fearon

1. Why is on-line brand awareness important?

Who today can deny the importance of on-line business? You may not subscribe to all the hype and you may find some of the statistics and jargon a little hard to swallow but the champagne bottle has swung and smashed, the Good Ship E-commerce is even now sliding inexorably down the ramp into the harbour and everyone's scrambling for a lounger by the pool on the sundeck.

In all the excitement and hoopla, it can be hard to keep a clear head and remember exactly why you're fighting for a deckchair with the thousands of other passengers. So lets start with a definition. Everyone will have their own favourite (not to say different) one but this is mine:

E-commerce:

"individuals and organisations deriving value from the exploitation of the Internet"

What's this all about? Is it just to do with having another advertising medium, somewhere else to stick your logo or mugshot? No.

Is it to do with utilising a technology that the CEO of IBM described a few years ago as "so profound, so powerful, so universal that its impact changes everything"? Yes.

What an on-line brand can give you is not just 24/7 access to contacts but 24/7/365/100% access. And contacts aren't just clients or potential clients. They're everyone - private individuals, journalists, potential employees, other law firms.... A website is not just another format of brochure - it should mirror in cyberspace everything about you in the physical world.

But it can do more than merely passively reflect - it gives you the capability to tailor information to the needs of individual users. One fundamental aspect of the Internet revolution in business is that the consumer is now firmly in the driving seat. It's no longer sufficient to tell the customer what you think he needs to know about you and what you offer. What your website can do for you is to give your client access to all the information he might need in order to let him make up his own mind.

It can also allow you to pitch your information at the right level. If you're dealing with a dotcom startup, your approach will likely be less academic than if you're advising an inventor on how to protect and exploit his latest gadget.

A mindblowingly obvious point: if you're a law firm which deals in any way with IT then you're going to want a web presence to back up in practice what you preach in the meeting room.

Even if you don't specialise in this kind of work, clients and potential contacts are going to be looking for you on the web. Can you afford for them not to find you there? For good or bad, we live in a wired world and you can't do business or compete in such a world unless you too are wired up.

In 1999, IBM generated $14.8 billion of revenue from e-commerce, up from $3.3 billion in 1998 and expected to double in 2000. So it certainly seems worth looking into. But like I said, it's hard to know who to trust, what to believe, what to do. The Internet is a new medium for branding, to which everyone is more or less a novice but I'll try to give you some ideas to think about, based on Bird & Bird's own experiences in this field.

Too often the web is underestimated and undervalued by law firms. We're cautious by nature and we like to think we're not susceptible to the vagaries of fashion. Our authority, our respectability is rooted in tradition and experience and we can be slow to embrace change. Well, this is one change we can't afford to ignore. It's also one which, although it may be daunting beforehand, won't actually seem all that profound once you've got used to the idea.

2.The Value of Branding in Professional Services

This is something else which is underestimated and undervalued by lawyers. It could be the subject of a whole conference in its own right and most branding consultants wouldn't know whether to shake their heads in despair or rub their hands in glee at the prospect. Professional services on the whole don't appreciate branding. For a start, they're not like other services. Law firms are probably the worst offenders. They aren't like other professional services.

What is a brand? In a brands-and-trade-marks sense, it's:

a name or design which distinguishes one seller's goods or services from those of another.

But for our purposes a brand is much more than just a logo or corporate image - although that's an important element and usually the most obvious and accessible one - the outward sign of an inward virtue. Try this for an alternative definition:

Your brand is every aspect of the promise you make to your customer that what you are going to deliver is what he expects, wants and needs.

A brand must permeate and surround the entity it represents. It must be a unified concept, which is where law firms often find trouble. A law firm does not tend to be a homogenous unit - it's a collection of individuals, independent, successful, often autonomous. Dealing with a workforce of solicitors is not like dealing with a workforce of burger flippers. Solicitors don't usually need to be told what to do to the nth degree and they certainly wont want it. The side effect of this is that you can have a multi-headed approach to marketing and trying to graft a brand on to this is no meagre feat.

The very difficulty of the task seems to put many firms off the idea, or at least to give them an excuse to believe that it's not important. But the need for branding is becoming more and more acute. In an effort to reduce costs to the client, many common services are becoming commoditised - obvious examples such as domestic conveyancing, wills, audits. Linklaters' Blue Flag project is another prime illustration. The competition is so great and the production process so mechanical that there is little demand or reason for added value.

But that leaves us all crowding for the same high ground where added value can still equate to added income. Buyers of services are becoming more sophisticated (and the web is only one example of this trend) and are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between sellers. All law firms are in constant danger of coming across as to some extent indistinguishable, impersonal and expensive. Instead we need to portray ourselves as special, individual and high value. Branding is how to achieve this, online branding is the best and most timely way of achieving this.

Of course, these solutions bring with them the seeds of new problems - when everyone is trying to stake out the same high value territory, how do you stand out from the crowd? When everyone is touting their new website, how do you steal a march on them? When everyone is claiming to offer globalised services, how do you come across as giving individual attention?

There is no magic answer - it's a question of constant change, progress, action and reaction. The first step is to identify your real differences - what sets you aside from the cowboys down the road? Why should I, as a client, come to you? The second step is to concentrate on these differences, no matter how small they are. The third is to make sure the world can see them and value them for what they are.

What you're trying to achieve is a unity of the promise you (plural) as a law firm (singular) are giving your clients concerning the unique approach you can offer to doing business, theirs as well as yours.

3. How strong is your brand?

A successful brand is shared, not enforced. It's real, not imagined. Its worn on the sleeves of the firm and doesn't just exist in the minds of the partners. It may start from the top down (although this is by no means the best way to go) but it is definitely spread through out the entire firm. I don't want to sound too evangelical but remember, it's not a logo - it's a philosophy.

How do you value your brand? Well, first you've got to know what it is you're valuing. So start by identifying it. Ask yourself what is the promise you're trying to make to your clients? And don't stop at the usual platitudes about quality, delivery, expertise... Let's assume we can take those as read. We need to get deeper down into the details and start grubbing around at root level.

At Bird & Bird we're in the process, which will last about 5 months, of adopting a new corporate image and at the same time developing a new website. In order to do this, we have started with internal focus groups and found out what the internal brand values of the firm are. In other words:

  • who do we think we are?
  • how do we think we come across to others?
  • what do we think they think of us?
  • what do we want them to think of us?

From this (since we've been concerned in particular with the new image) we have produced several design concepts for our new image. The next step is to put these to particular clients selected from our major sectors and service departments - to see what they say we mean to them and to help choose the image that best reflects this. We will of course also choose one which best reflects what we aspire to be.

How strong is our brand? We'll know when we find out how closely our internal and external images and values match. When you think you're providing what your clients think they're getting and when you both think the same about you, then your brand is as strong as it can be. That's not necessarily the end of the story. There's a risk that your brand, strong though it is, is not quite what you want it to be, in which case you might need to do a little more tweaking.

It might also, it's true, turn out to stand very strongly for very undesirable things - think of Rattners. Apparently they were under no illusions as to the quality of their produce, which many of us had had doubts about all along. But market forces soon took care of that. I'm sure I don't need to exhort you not to make the same mistake.

4. Brands from the clients' point of view

I was trying to track down a quote from PT Barnum to use here. I couldn't find it and so I'm not sure if he ever said it. But if he didn't, he should have done.

"No-one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the general public"

This may well hold true in the big wide world of advertising but, and this is another statement of the wholly obvious, you're not dealing with the general public. Internet users as a whole are traditionally a cautious, cynical bunch and web-surfing lawyers are all the more so. Surveys of consumers who have purchased goods or services over the Internet have shown that they place less emphasis and reliance on trade marks than the general public. They aren't going to have the wool pulled over their eyes and will not necessarily take a brand at face value. They will want to find out more, probe around a bit and finally make up their own minds. They wont just accept that "Red Bull gives you wings" or that "a Mars a day helps you work rest and play", not without first finding out for themselves.

They like innovation, intelligence and (to an extent) excitement and they're going to be looking for evidence of these in your brand.

What you should be aiming for in your brand is conveying your vision, your 3-dimensional personality in a way which promises quality, earns respect, gives assurance but which doesn't annoy, patronise, sidetrack or insult.

Too many legal websites make too many assumptions about their visitors. They assume that the person on the other end of the browser knows as much about law and the legal profession as they do. They assume that a client or contact will categorise his business and his needs in the same rigid way they do. They assume he knows exactly what he wants to find out and where to find it.

In short, they make all the mistakes I mentioned before in treating the web like it's just another glossy brochure.

5. Advantages of branding online

Clearly the major advantage of online branding, the very essence of what we're talking about here, is the freedom it gives you to deliver information about yourself to a contact at the contact's convenience. Not only can it be made quicker and more interesting than a printed brochure, it can be dynamically tailored to the individual needs of each enquirer. Think back to our dotcom and our boffin.

A further advantage is that, no matter whether you're planning to set up a new web presence or to revamp an existing one, it's the perfect opportunity to have a good look at your brand in its entirety.

A website is your opportunity to exceed your clients' expectations. Don't think of it as merely an electric hoarding - treat it as a total experience. Give your client high quality information and design, a bit of energy, keep it quick and topical. Remember that attention spans are dropping and no-one wants to have to wait for clip-art or graphics to load, no matter how groovy they are. Let entertainment services provide entertainment. Lawyers are in the information service sector. Concentrate on providing information.

You can also use your website to strengthen your bonds with individual clients and bring them closer into the fold. Your brand is in part a reflection of your firms' internal image and self-perception and so you could consider using an intranet to deliver and reinforce your brand message to your colleagues. This can then easily be extended to a secure extranet available to selected clients where they have more direct access to information, whether that's the latest legislation or your most recent recruits. It's horses for courses or course, but that is where online scores head and shoulders above traditional media. You can use it to make a difference - to make a client feel less like a guest and more like one of the family. More than that, an extranet can make them feel like you've given them a key to the front door of your office - no more standing outside waiting for you to answer the doorbell! It's all about added value and making the client feel wanted.

Whatever you do, it is essential to the efficacy of your brand that you reflect and compliment the important attributes of your firm: its behaviour, its structures, its beliefs, its attitude, its skills.

By 2003, so they tell us, 92% of e-commerce will be B2B. That's how important your online presence will be to your client.

6. Scope of the implementation challenge

Make no mistake, it's huge. Perhaps the first point is

  • don't just do it for its own sake.

The e-sector is a fickle and unforgiving place. It's a bit like a beach, regularly washed by tides of fashion, and there's no telling what you might find washed up or washed away after the next high water. If you don't have a clear idea of what you're dealing with and what you want to gain from it, you could be heading for deep water. A website is not a toy, it's not a gimmick and it's not a status symbol. Its a promotional medium (perhaps the promotional medium), a distribution channel and a working business tool.

This begs the question "Well then, why should we do it?" and so the second point is:

  • think about it - why do you want it and what do you want it to achieve?

Identify your potential users and rate them in terms of importance to you and in terms of their requirements. Decide who are your primary influences, your secondaries, who is presently a valued client and who may represent future value.

Then, armed with your 'who' and 'what', you can move on to 'how'. What do you mean to these people and what do you want to mean to them? How can you enhance and reinforce your existing brand through your online presence? By remembering point three:

  • plan ahead.

Work out what your strategic objectives are, then set your immediate goals and implement these methodically. Analyse your brand, compare yourself to the rest of the market. Know what you want and what you're doing before you set out.

Point four is a word of warning:

  • don't get too clever.

Imagination is more important than technology. Nothing is less impressive than a glitzy but vacuous website. It's like wrapping a cheap present in expensive paper - not only does it not fool anyone, but the disappointment on realisation can be hard to repair. Also bear in mind that it's YOU you're trying to sell. Back on our beach, don't let yourself get swept out of your depth by the currents of fashion. At the end of the day you're a lawyer and a business adviser - even the youngest, hippest e-commerce startup is paying you for sober advice it can rely on. Make sure you're delivering content and not just decoration. Having said that, a well-structured and easy-to-navigate site will often lend itself to eye-catching design.

But, while not over-reaching yourselves:

- be ambitious. Try to exceed expectations, try to impress, try to differentiate yourselves from the herd.

- keep it flexible. Don't incur all that effort and expense to develop a site which then can't be improved, or altered or (heaven forbid) updated as and when the need arises (which will be regularly and often).

- spare no expense. It may seem costly at the time but the cracks in a cheap site soon show and quality comes at a price.

- be consistent. Keep the site in tune with all other aspects of your marketing and, indeed, (since we've established that branding is a fairly holistic creature) with all other aspects of your firm.

How do you know how well you're doing? Point five:

  • keep an eye on your progress.

Establish your benchmarks for success. These can be obvious (such as attaining a target number of hits) or slightly fuzzier (such as deriving a target amount of fees from web-attracted custom). In order to understand these benchmarks and therefore to be able to set and achieve them, use real-time tracking software to analyse interest in your site. Work with your site developers to set the site up so that it specifically targets search engines - there's no point in being out there if no one can find you.. In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

And when D-day arrives in a deluge of champagne and press releases, the hard work has only just begun. Point 6:

  • constantly review and update the content and format of the site.

A website is not like the printed page. It's never finished, it's never published once and for all. If you miss the opportunity to benefit from the dynamic fluid nature of the medium, you might as well stick to hand-printed bills to extol your virtues.

First published in MIP in November 2000.