Pearse McCabe of brand and digital agency Rufus Leonard explains how important branding will become in the post-ABS world and considers some of the key issues that traditional law firms need to look at in response
The Legal Services Act is shaking the market to its core. Not only does it create new ways for traditional law firms to compete with one another, it makes it possible for high street brands like the Co-operative Group to throw their hats into the legal ring.
The shorthand ‘Tesco Law’ sums it up nicely. Firms used to thrive on their reputation, perceived expertise and, crucially, relationships. Now, they are competing with some of the world’s most powerful household names. Tesco still hasn’t announced an intention to offer legal services, but a throng of other high-level companies is poised and ready for battle.
So if traditional strategies are under threat, how can firms compete with these big business heavyweights? The answer is on the branding battlefield. Here, companies can create a unique identity to differentiate themselves and give clients something to buy into. This is particularly pertinent in the world of professional services, where firms can look similar from the outside and buying decisions are therefore underpinned by emotional preferences as much as rational needs.
Crucially, brand positioning, market understanding and the ability to listen and respond to consumers as the market goes through initial growing pains will be critical to law firms’ success.
Keeping an ear to the ground
The Act changes the market so fundamentally as to create completely new territory for everyone involved. Until it comes into effect, it is virtually impossible to know what shape the market will take and how clients will react to the various sales propositions.
On the one hand, legal services provision has been dominated to date by highly trained, professionally qualified lawyers characterised by voluminous texts, arcane language and complex issues that no mere mortal could ever truly understand. Legal issues are also highly sensitive and can be very personal in nature, with a lot riding on the outcome. As a result of this, traditional law firms still maintain some competitive brand advantage.
On the other hand, other market deregulation has demonstrated the ease with which some brands can quickly diversify into professional services. The Co-operative, for example, has proven that it can stretch into retail, financial services, funeral care and pharmacy to name a few. Likewise, few would now bat an eyelid at Tesco’s banking and insurance offerings.
Clearly, with the right strategy new market entrants can win over clients on existing brand reputation alone. Traditional law firms cannot afford to rest on their laurels.
What we can be sure of is that all will not become clear for some time. Legal services providers will need to watch what’s happening in the market, how clients are responding and, as a result, how they should present themselves to the world. This naturally begs a decision as to what commercial success looks like to them, and how they will manage their brands in a fundamentally changed landscape.
Given this world of unknowns, it is interesting to see the launch of QualitySolicitors. This new ‘superbrand’ appears to have a very clear view of how it should present itself and how to back this up with a clear attitude and service proposition. But despite its seemingly powerful nature, other legal services providers should be wary of simply putting a badge on something. Presence and distribution does not guarantee success and there is room for more than one positioning in a single market.
As new business models like this emerge, new categories of legal services provider will form. This makes it even more crucial for firms to manage their brand positioning dynamically, at least while uncertainties remain.
Education will play an important role in the development of this new market, not just for firms but also in educating clients about how to buy legal services. This process has already begun, with PR and advertising campaigns entering the home, the Internet and the high street from the more bullish new market entrants. Law firms need to factor the impact of these messages into their marketing campaigns if they are to stay relevant and resonate with potential clients.
One of the biggest challenges will be the rise and rise of digital and social media. While some competitors have already established a following and devised a strategy for reaching clients on the web and through their smartphones and tablets, most law firms are lagging behind. Also, firms will need to be more open and relinquish some control of the understanding of legal services in order to simplify and market their offerings. Social media will be vital in aiding this process and making the market more transparent.
There has been a lot of speculation about the new legal services market and how this might look. Considerations of the visual, use of language, price positioning and synergies with existing brands, will be central to pitching services correctly and creating the brands that properly meet consumer demand. Those vying for a place at the table need to unleash their agility to establish a strong legal brand that truly stands out from the rest.