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Drive around the interstate highways of the South and you see a lot of one thing. No, we're not talking about McDonald's or truck stops, though there are certainly plenty of those at seemingly every exit. We're talking billboards, and specifically billboards that feature a smiling man, almost exclusively always a handsome "white guy," who can help you with your legal problems.
Since the signs want to capture your attention while you are zooming by at 65, 70, 75, 80 or more miles per hour, their message—quite rightly—needs to be simple. And for legal services, that is this, "Got a problem; call this guy now; he will help you!" Usually, there may be one other graphic on the billboard, and typically that item takes the form of money: stacks of it, bags of it, the '$' sign symbol for it. And so the messaging is clear from a marketing standpoint (throw out the ethics of all of this): You want money (and who doesn't!); call this guy, now! Car accident? Get money! Motorcycle wreck? Get money! Hit by an 18-wheeler: Even better, as you will get even more money!
The examples of the simple billboard message can be spotted as soon as you venture onto a highway today—anywhere in America!
And some law firms not only go to great creative lengths to market themselves...
...they will even make fun of themselves at times.
They even know that their marketing can be so omnipresent that others will take their original billboards...
...and through memes, help spread their bran—and raise awareness of their law firm—for free on social media.
There is also one other consistent theme to not just these billboards, but one that extends across all of legal advertising today. That is the fact that law firms are increasingly aware of the importance of branding and name recognition. And that is causing a radical change not just in the advertising for such firms, but in the actual names of these organizations. Brand names for legal services are today as important for law firms as a brand name is for any product or service.
Legal services advertising—of all types—is a relatively new phenomenon. In the days before 1977, attorneys largely could not advertise their services—anywhere—let alone on billboards. While many watching television today might not believe it, there was a day before you were bombarded by ads for attorneys when trying to watch the news or Law & Order: SVU reruns. It has been 50 years now since the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, allowing law firms to advertise for the first time as protected "commercial speech" under the First Amendment. In fact, according to a recent analysis compiled by Victor Li for the American Bar Association's ABA Journal, aggregate legal advertising spending has now surpassed the $1 billion dollar mark annually—with no signs of slowing. And per Marketing 101, all across the country, there is a trend toward simplicity in their branding, and that means that their brand name—their firm's identity in the minds of consumers—is critically important. So what is a law firm's brand name—it is increasingly one name.
Now this runs counter to the thinking that has driven careers not just in law firms, but in areas as diverse as advertising, accounting, and real estate as well. What is your career goal? Well, for most aspiring professionals in these companies, the aim is simple: To get your name on the firm. The equation is simple: Be promoted to partner; See your name on the letterhead, the door, the lobby sign, etc.; Watch the money roll-in. Ask an expert like Don Draper from "Mad Men," many will do almost anything to make partner!
So, if you are a partner in a law firm, you would naturally want to see your name up in lights—or on the billboard, right? Wrong! At least that is the biggest trend in law firm branding today. What we see is that while a firm may have multiple names on its actual, formal name, when it comes to marketing, simpler is indeed seen as better.
According to a recent article by David Gialanella, a bureau chief for Law.com, entitled "Midsize Firms Can Do 'Superior Branding,' if They Can Get the Ball Rolling," what you see rolling down the average interstate highway in the South or watching 10 minutes of daytime cable television is indicative of how law firms are choosing to brand themselves these days. Like as in the show "Better Call Saul," the idea is simple—get your face, your name, and your message out there as frequently—and as simply as possible. How simply? Well, according to Gialanella's analysis, the trend is for law firms - no matter the actual legal name of the firm and no matter how many actual partners there might be—to use a single name to market themselves, no matter their size or even what type of law they might specialize in. So, just as we see in ads aimed at the consumer level for everything from car accidents, work injuries, medical malpractice, Social Security claims, and of course, mesothelioma, even corporate oriented law firms that do no consumer marketing have been trending toward using shorter, simplified, and often single names as they brand their organizations.
The goal is simply to make the law firm's brand, well, simple. Gialanella cited legal marketing experts who pointed to a number of instances where firms not only went to a single name for branding purposes, but took other steps, such as eliminating hyphens and even the word "and" in names to make for simpler, easier branding. As Ross Fishman of Chicago-based Fishman Marketing put it bluntly, such rebranding is "not personal," but rather, it is "purely a marketing issue." And when you talk about law firm branding, according to Fishman in a classic line: "It's not people or professionals, it's math, (and) we're counting syllables. These are words, not names." And so the lure of gaining your name in the law firm signage and letterhead may not happen when you achieve that promotion to being a partner. Likewise, some history may seem to be erased and some egos might be bruised in this process. Think about if you happen to be the third, fourth, fifth, etc. partner in a firm that becomes simply known by the the first two names in the list (or even the two names that sound best together - ouch!), such as the recently rebranded firms of Halloran Sage and Norris McLaughlin.
And so, in the end, what does all of this mean? Well, with the success of mega law firms and the litigious nature of our country, all signs would point to more legal advertising and thus, more emphasis on how to properly brand your organization. So, law firms are realizing a marketing truth—simplicity works! In the minds of consumers, whether you are selling shampoo or legal services, you want to have a brand that is recognizable and accessible. You want to make your brand memorable. And the single name firm identity—whether there are in fact three, four, seven, 10, 21 actual partners in the actual legal organization—works in the marketplace. As Morris Bart—our local New Orleans legend and pioneer in legal services marketing (and one rich guy to boot!)—has shown, one name, one call works—and it works very well.
Now, the real challenge is how to distinguish your law firm from all the others. With more and more legal service organizations following the same playbook to push "the name," how do you standout from the crowd? Some may argue that you can take things a bit too far with the "how" in legal advertising. Take for instance this Florida lawyer, who has unique messaging that yes, may appeal to some folks....
One thing is for certain: There is much more to come. Like it or not, law firm advertising is a big, growing part of the ad market—especially online, where studies show that law firms are among the biggest aggregate spenders on Google Adwords and PPC (pay-per-click) advertising. Why? It's simple - one of the top things people do today online, well, of course except for social media, porn, and fantasy football, is search for a lawyer! So, if you think you have seen a lot of legal ads—on your TV or on your various screens—you likely will see a whole lot more. That's because it works—for good or for bad it works. And a simple, recognizable—and memorable—brand identity is indeed key to marketing legal services.
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