Successful brands are about something. To stand out, a brand needs to occupy a distinct place in the minds of consumers. This is called “market positioning,” and it’s the first step toward successfully marketing any product or service.
In a previous post, we examined how Whole Foods upended the supermarket industry, thanks to superior market positioning. The company’s singular focus on the high end of the market enabled dramatic growth over the past 30 years and led to profit margins several times greater than its competitors'.
What about law firms?
Can law firms benefit from market positioning like Whole Foods has? The answer is, yes and no:
- YES, law firms can benefit from good market positioning. Some law firms are thriving thanks to great positioning.
- NO, the lessons of consumer brands can’t often be directly applied to law firms. When it comes to market positioning, law firms need to be examined through a different lens.
Three flavors of positioning
Having worked with dozens of law firms over the past 20 years, we’ve learned that market positioning for law firms comes in three flavors: hard, soft, and silent.
Flavor #1: Hard Positioning
Hard positioning is when a firm clearly and explicitly communicates what it does, whom it serves, and what makes it different. This is the gold standard. Firms that have hard positioning have the clearest message—and thus the greatest marketing advantage over their competitors.
Quinn Emanuel is a great example of a firm with hard positioning. Its homepage says it all: “a Global Force in Business Litigation.” Like other large firms, it does more than “litigation.” However, the firm doesn't let those other services get in the way of its main message. And that’s what makes the message so powerful.
Beveridge & Diamond
Beveridge & Diamond is another firm with hard positioning. It is “The Environmental Law Firm.” This is presented as fact. That’s great positioning.
Hard positioning is hard
Hard positioning offers tremendous business advantage to those firms that have it. However, hard positioning is nearly impossible for most law firms to attain. This is because most law firms—especially older, larger firms—offer lots of services to many client types. Embracing just one category would do a disservice to partners whose practices fall outside of the firm’s chosen positioning.
Uncovering hard positioning
Over the years, we’ve observed that some firms had hard positioning, but it became hidden and just needed to be uncovered and promoted.
Firms with “hidden” hard positioning are often boutiques that have grown significantly and whose work has expanded into related areas (and caused their positioning to become diluted). In these cases, it’s the marketing department’s job to keep the message as focused as possible, even if it’s not 100% accurate across the entire firm. This is often a challenge, as lawyers tend to be very literal and thus uncomfortable with some marketing language.
Flavor #2: Soft Positioning
Soft positioning is about emphasizing an aspect of the firm’s spirit or culture. This is usually done with a tagline or descriptive headline.
For example, the law firm Novack Macey uses soft positioning, having adopted the tagline “Small but Mighty.” This positioning speaks not to what the firm does, or whom it serves—it speaks to the spirit of the firm. To drive home its message, the firm’s website features imagery of small, powerful things.
The Kasowitz website declares that the firm is “Creative. Aggressive. Relentless.” This is considered soft positioning because the words do not tell you what the firm does—they tell you how the firm does it. And, like Novack Macey, Kasowitz employs imagery throughout its site to reinforce that positioning.
Avoiding empty words
The challenge with soft positioning is that the words often ring hollow. Many law firms have adopted (and discarded) bland taglines like “Challenge. Opportunity. Success.” These efforts in positioning failed because the words didn’t resonate inside or outside of the firm.
For soft positioning to be successful (and resonate), it needs four things:
- An Existing Truth – It needs to reflect something factual about the firm. It can’t be aspirational.
- A Meaningful Differentiator – It needs to express something that your clients care about.
- Internal Buy-in – Your attorneys need to believe it and talk about it.
- Substantiation – You need to somehow demonstrate that it's true.
If your positioning can address each of these four criteria, it’ll be effective. If hitting all four is not possible, soft positioning might not be right for your firm. The final flavor, silent positioning, might be a better fit.
Flavor #3: Silent Positioning
Hard positioning and soft positioning are a bridge-too-far for many law firms. It’s simply too difficult to find a meaningful differentiator that is true across the entire firm. For these firms, silent positioning is often the best option.
With silent positioning, there are no explicit headlines or taglines. Instead, the firm’s positioning is subtly expressed using design and selective content.
Skadden is a great example of a firm with silent positioning. Its website homepage contains very few words. Rather, it uses lush imagery of global centers of commerce and power in order to reinforce the firm's superior position in the marketplace.
Armstrong Teasdale also uses silent positioning. Its website features an engaging homepage video to position the firm as elite.
Often a defensive play
Many firms employ silent positioning as a means of dispelling misconceptions about themselves. For example, a firm might be wrongly perceived as old and stogy and therefore tied to traditional ideas about how a law firm operates. To dispel this misconception, the firm could adopt a highly progressive design and futuristic-looking imagery. Additionally, it might profile clients in cutting-edge disciplines such as cryptocurrency or nanotechnology.
Next: Business Unit Positioning
Nailing your firm’s market positioning is the first step toward marketing success. However, when it comes to law firms, positioning doesn’t stop at the institutional (firmwide) level.
As legal marketers, we know that clients don’t often buy the firm as a whole. They hire an attorney or a group of attorneys. So, it’s vital for firms to be well-positioned at the business-unit level as well.
Please read our next blog post to learn more about positioning your firm’s practice areas, industries, and attorneys. It’s at this level that the marketing department can often have the greatest impact.
Exceptional post and a timely reminder that law firms (like any business) need to ensure their words carry meaning. Thanks for sharing!
This was a really clear and useful post. Great imagery to back up your points. Thanks!
Great post. Smart stuff.
Totally agree with Susan Kostal – great post and smart stuff, regarding a topic that far too few law firm marketers are prepared to tackle.
Nice post, Robert. As always, good food for thought. And just as always, not sure I buy into everything, but you’re thinking deep thoughts and that is always appreciated. Your final note about clients hiring individual attorneys or perhaps a practice unit within a firm is of far more interest to me. In the 20 years I’ve worked at law firms, GC and clients continue to point out they hire an individual attorney and not the firm. Visits to our website add weight to this perspective. Looking forward to the Business Unit Marketing post.