Brands Don’t Matter. Or Do They?

Doug Jasinski

(Authors note:  A version of this article was first published on SLAW

in July, 2010. )

In my experience, lawyers as a whole are not overly enthused about talk of brands and branding. If you must focus time, thought, money or all of the foregoing on a marketing effort of some kind, most would prefer to spend it on something distinctly more tangible – hosting a seminar perhaps, or taking clients to lunch, or even organizing a client golf tournament.  Anything but being locked in a boardroom with the consultant-du-jour talking incoherent marketing-speak as part of an abstract navel-gazing exercise, or being asked to foot an exorbitant bill for a designer squiggle to adorn the firm’s letterhead and business card.  “Where’s the value in that?” many may well (and frequently do) ask.

However, two items in the mainstream news this month relating to Vancouver landmarks have got me thinking afresh about the powerful influence brands can and do exert over all of us.

You Say Stanley Park, I Say XwayXway

In the first instance, a proposal to “rename” Vancouver’s iconic Stanley Park as XwayXway (pronounced “Kwhy-Kway”) in recognition of an ancient Aboriginal settlement in the area surfaced seemingly overnight and caught many Vancouverites utterly by surprise.

While a closer reading of the story revealed that the proposal was not in fact to eradicate the name Stanley Park but rather to add the aboriginal moniker as a second or supplemental name, the wheels of resistance from a startled populace were already in motion.  Comment sections on news media websites were immediately inundated with howls of outrage and vitriol. I noted several hundred comments on the Globe and Mail site alone within hours of the story breaking.  The reactions were intensely visceral – even with dozens upon dozens of what were presumably the most incendiary responses having been expunged from the various media websites for violations of the news outlets’ comment policies. Clearly, a nerve had been touched.

By the next day the story had been covered in all the Vancouver dailies as well as on local TV, and had garnered further national attention. Shortly thereafter, the federal government – no doubt sensing the prevailing political winds – swooped in with an announcement that the Great Stanley Park/XwayXway debate of 2010 was a non-starter, and that the proposal would not even be considered. Game, set and match, nothing to see here folks, please keep it moving.

A Hockey Rink By Any Other Name

In the second story, before the dust even had time to settle on the Stanley Park furor we learned that the Vancouver Canucks’ hockey rink heretofore known as General Motors Place (a.k.a. GM Place, a.k.a The Garage) had been swiftly rechristened Rogers Arena thanks to a shift in corporate sponsorship. Unlike the Stanley Park/XwayXway affair, this time resistance was futile. The twittering classes and sports-talk radio callers were welcome to their opinions and their brand-related chit-chat (of which there has been a great deal), but sponsorship dollars had spoken and the deed was done. Following as it did the temporary re-naming of the same facility as “Canada Hockey Place” during the Olympics, Vancouver hockey fans are now familiarizing themselves with a third name for the same building within the span of six months. As a result, many are left with a distinctly unsettled sensation in that corner of their brains that is reserved for matters pertaining to the local shinny squad.

Most lawyers and other professionals I know like to think ourselves largely above the shallow allure of “branding”; smart enough to ignore the huckster-ish entreaties of marketers, and to make decisions about what goods and services to purchase, use, and invest in based on purely objective factors such as quality, product design, and value rather than illusory distinctions like brand names.

And yet, disproportionate numbers of us continue to buy Tide instead of no-name detergent, and to care what our hockey rink is called, and to have strong opinions on whether a stand of trees in the downtown Vancouver peninsula should be referenced as Stanley Park or XwayXway.  Why?  I suspect that If your clothes were submitted to a blind detergent test you likely couldn’t tell which had been washed in detergent A and which in detergent B if your life depended on it.  The hockey team will play just as well or just as poorly regardless of the name of their rink. Further, the trees and grass in that wonderful Vancouver park won’t change by virtue of the words on the sign, and the grass won’t care what it is called. It’s the same park either way.

I submit that the underlying reason we care about all of these things is identical: the brand has exerted its influence on us. Our experience of the laundry soap, the hockey rink, and the park are all inextricably tied up with specific visual and linguistic cues that the stewards of those places and products have put into place.  Change those cues and you change the experience.

Meanwhile, Back At The Law Firm

So what does all of this have to do with law firms?  Simply this: Your firm’s brand matters.  A great deal in fact.

I am currently working with a handful of different law firms – some new, some of long standing – on name development or name changes.  If branding is truly irrelevant, logic dictates that naming the firm should be the simplest of all marketing exercises.  In reality of course, it is anything but.  Experienced legal marketers (and indeed any partner who has been part of a firm name change and sat in on the decision-making meetings) will tell you that passions are easily inflamed and resentments can run deep when a position on the firm masthead is at stake.  The parallels to the emotional debate about Stanley Park are strong.

So if we can at least acknowledge that brands matter – even to law firms – why is the idea of branding held in such low regard? I believe that part of the reason many lawyers eschew “branding” is that the concept so often lacks the clarity that lawyers invariably crave.   There are seemingly almost as many definitions of “brand” and the process of “branding” extant as there are marketing consultants.

The definitions I prefer are simple ones:

  1. Your brand is what people think about when they think about you.
  2. Branding is the process by which you try to shape and influence those thoughts.

By that standard, brands and branding are very important indeed.


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