Patrick Horan critically analyses the optimisation of firms’ marketing and branding

It’s hard to accept, I know – but for most firms it’s the truth. You don’t have a brand. Sorry. You’ve probably heard colleagues talking about “branding” or even “re-branding” – and then nodded sagely as if acknowledging that they know what they were talking about. They don’t. It’s fashionable to talk about branding. It’s a nice word, perfect actually because it’s so ambiguous. None of your colleagues know what you’re talking about, so you get to sound all modern and even techie. The trouble is you don’t know what you’re talking about either.

A can of worms?

Humans process information differently depending on the filter through which they experience the information. The wonderfully eccentric and funny Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, Rory Sutherland, reminds us of this in his book, Alchemy. Think of Pepsi v Coke. No, this isn’t a legal case – but how one of Pepsi’s greatest marketing coups was the discovery that in blind taste tests, more people preferred Pepsi over Coca Cola.

But what about the opposite scenario? What if you removed the blindfolds? What if you offered a person a can of Pepsi and a can of Coke and asked them to tell you which one tasted better? Neuroscientist Read Montague of Baylor University conducted such a test in 2004. He discovered that when people were told what they were drinking most people opted for Coke. They picked Coke because something had changed: they could see what they were tasting.

As Sutherland succinctly puts it, Coke’s brand was the filter through which people experienced their drink. In blind taste tests people couldn’t see the Coke logo and so it didn’t act on their perception. They then opted for Pepsi. But when the blindfolds were removed Coke’s brand filter was so powerful that it overrode people’s subjective taste preference for Pepsi and they opted for Coke instead. That’s what a brand does.

McDonalds, Toyota and Nike all have a brand. What is Nike’s brand? Take a close look at their advertising. Nike never try to tell you why their clothing is better than Adidas or Under Armour. They never claim that their running shoes are better than Asics. In the mid-1980s, Nike switched advertising agencies and began celebrating top athletes like Michael Jordan. Today Nike is synonymous with great athletes and great athletics. That is Nike’s brand.

What about Apple? You think about something more than a technology company when you think about Apple don’t you? That feeling that you experience is their brand. Maybe it’s the ease of use, the intuitiveness of the product line, the fact that there  are only two laptops to choose from instead of a million with other companies, the beautiful glass and polished steel build-quality of the iPhone, iPad or MacBook. All these features are part of Apple’s brand, and just like Nike, they never try to convince you that they’re better than Samsung or Huawei. They don’t have to. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 the company was, according to him, “three months away from bankruptcy”. Today it’s the world’s most valuable technology company.

Harnessing the power of our brand

What caused people to opt for Coke over Pepsi was Coke’s brand. That is what a brand is – a powerful, intangible feeling within us. Frequently, it’s an emotion, but that intangible feeling is invaluable to Coke. A company’s brand “lives in the mind” of its customers.

Seth Godin is one of the world’s leading marketing experts. He’s written 18 books, has given TED Talks and is a former VP of Yahoo. He knows some things.

Godin has views on branding and many companies’ obsession about it: “Most companies don’t have a brand. They have a logo. There’s a big difference. Your logo is a referent, a symbol, a reminder of your brand. But your brand is a story, a set of emotions and expectations and a stand-in for how we think and feel about what you do.”

What do brands “say” about us?

You can make certain assumptions about a company based on their brand. For instance, as Godin points out in This is Marketing, if Nike decided tomorrow to start building hotels you could imagine what those hotels might be like. You mightn’t know what they would look like, but you know they’d be built to a very high standard. That’s because of Nike’s brand.

Apple are developing a car. It might be unveiled in 2025. None of us know what it will look like, but again, we know one thing: it’s probably going to be a game-changer, because every time Apple develops a new product for a market it changes everything. Remember the Blackberry phone? It became extinct after iPhone. That’s Apple’s brand.

You know that “swoosh” symbol Nike has? In 1971, Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, paid a young graphic design student, Carolyn Davidson, $35 to come up with a symbol for his company. What she came up with was the swoosh. Nike’s logo cost $35. Nike’s brand is worth billions. That’s the difference between a logo and a brand. It’s enormous.   

What does all this mean for my practice?

The biggest firms on the planet possess brands. To their clients, these firms mean something. It means something to retain them. As a client, you can make certain assumptions about the service and professionalism you’ll receive. That peace of mind, that assumption, is that firm’s brand.

Most firms are not “Magic Circle” firms. They don’t have blue chip clients and government contracts to oversee vast public sector contracts. They compete on the open market for new clients every day. It’s a very competitive space.

And yet quite a lot of them decide that they need to “re-brand”, as they call it. If you ask them what this means, they usually tell you that they’ve hired somebody to create a new letterhead, new signage with a different font or colour, or added some new – (dread word) “content” to their website. This isn’t branding or even re-branding. This is just creating a logo – and it’s largely pointless – and almost certainly a huge waste of money and resources.

What is your firm’s brand? What does the public think of your firm when they think of it? I know what you think of your company, but what does the public think? That is what you need to focus on. Not changing logos and inventing “cool” new imagery.

Focus on what the world’s greatest brands focus on: the customer experience. Amazon, Apple, Toyota, Hyundai and Nike are all united by a relentless focus on improving the lives of their customers who use their products. They know that if you design a product that the customer will like, they’ll buy it.

But the focus is always on the customer: what they would like, not what Apple or Toyota or Nike decide to create and then spend a ton of money advertising.

When your law firm focuses, laser-like, on what your client needs, rather than what you think they need, that will eventually become your brand. And that’s the best kind of brand to have.  

Patrick Horan is the managing partner of Patrick Horan Solicitors: phoransolicitors.com. In 2018, he co-founded Legal Index Ireland, a legal marketing website which uses advanced AI to position firms on page 1 of Google: legalindexireland.com

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