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The Marcus Perspective

I LEARNED IT IN MBA SCHOOL

By Bruce W. Marcus

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The Differences Between Marketing a Product and Marketing a Law Firm — And Why It Matters

The problem with a lot of law firm marketing is that too many marketers are still using traditional product marketing techniques, as they are taught in business schools, and ignoring the distinctive realities of law firm marketing as opposed to product marketing. But the differences between marketing a profession and marketing a product are profound. The result is that a great deal of effort, time and money is wasted.

What then are these differences, and why do they matter?

  • Product marketing sells products. Law and accounting firm marketing sell capability and skills. A product is static and defined in each iteration. A legal matter is dynamic, and frequently unique to each client.
  • Products have reliable consistency. The next tube of your brand of toothpaste is exactly the same as the last tube you bought. The human element in a product is subsumed by the product. Lawyers’ and accountants’ performances vary case-by-case and by individual professionals, and are the essence of professional services.
  • Product manufacturers are able to generate customer need where none existed before. Lawyers and accountants are constrained in their ability to create a need for their services where none had existed before (except to educate people about rights they didn’t know they had, e.g., class action or personal injury).
  • Product marketing has greater flexibility to meet or shape the desires of the consumer. Professionals have little flexibility to work outside the structure of the law and legal process. A corporation can market test its product, and the company can rapidly change it to adjust to customers’ tastes. Professionals can’t change the laws to suit the needs of their clients, despite the opportunity to be creative within the boundaries of the law.
  • There are flavors, emotional appeals, colors, and bells and whistles that product marketers can use to distinguish a product from its competitors. Professionals are constrained by the law, by legal practice, and by ethical strictures. The adjectives of product marketing find little hospitality in professional services marketing.
  • There may be a thousand people, and complex production processes, behind a product. The interface between these people and the consumer is the product itself. The interface between the professional and the client is the professional.
  • When a salesperson sells you a vacuum cleaner, the vacuum cleaner stays and the salesperson goes. When a lawyer sells you his or her services, the professional stays.
  • Product marketing may specifically claim superiority over competitive products, but while one professional may be smarter, more energetic, more reliable, and more imaginative than another, that professional can hardly promote that difference. You can’t say, “We write better briefs” or “We do better audits” This is both an ethical and practical constraint, because you can’t prove it.
  • The reputation of a law firm can rise or fall on the performance of one lawyer or accountant and one client.
  • The product company is experienced, with a long tradition in understanding its market and the concept of competing. It knows that it must actively define, pursue and nurture the consumer. Lawyers know that most clients have no choice but to use their services (nobody ever woke up and said, “I think I’ll sue somebody today”). The word competing didn’t seriously enter the lawyer’s lexicon until 1977 (Bate) The product marketing tradition goes back centuries. There is virtually no active marketing or promotional tradition as we know it today for lawyers and accountants prior to 1977.
  • Product marketing can be measured by the number of products it sells. But professional services marketing can ultimately have only three significant results — building name recognition and reputation, projecting capabilities that contribute to choosing one lawyer over another when a lawyer is needed, and gaining access to a prospect that affords the professional the opportunity to sell his or her services.
  • An ad campaign may drive a consumer to buy a product, but it can’t drive an individual or company to hire a lawyer. In professional services, the sale must be done by the professional, even when a non-professional supplies the access to the prospect.
  • The product company understands that no matter what product it makes, it is really a marketing company that manufactures products to fill the channel opened by marketing activities. Lawyers too often see themselves, not their consumers (clients), at the center of their universe. Too bad. When professionals begin to understand that basic marketing concept, the earth will shake, walls will crumble, and the practice of law will change. But it will still be ethical and the public will be better served.
  • Ultimately, a product is an abstraction — a symbol. It can be changed or replaced at the manufacturer’s whim, in response to a changing customer’s whim. Last year’s Kewpie doll is replaceable by next year’s Barbie Doll – all in response to the market’s whim. The law is the law and accounting principles are immutable. There may be flexibility in application, or sometimes in imaginative approaches, but not at the whim or the client.
  • If you sell a product, you’re selling against competition. If you sell a process (such as a legal or accounting solution), you’re selling against (or to) the costumer’s needs.

What Does This Tell Us?

Experience in functioning in this realm of differences tells us that law firm marketing can work when it’s designed to:

  • Enhance name recognition and reputation, as a context for other marketing activities. In all areas of marketing, these two factors are particularly meaningful;
  • Project skills and expertise as the best way to distinguish one firm from another;
  • Enhance access to prospective clients, and ultimately, to sell;
  • Shape a practice to conform to your firm’s business plan; and
  • Address constantly changing marketing needs, dictated by new laws, new business structures, or new technology.

To accomplish these objectives, then, the tools of marketing — seminars, speeches, public relations, advertising, articles, the social media, etc. — must be tailored within the framework of projecting expertise. This also means that the adjectives and comparisons and superlatives so common in product marketing have no place in professional services marketing. The boast, even when there seems to be a foundation for it, rarely works.

At the same time, the institutional program (that says, for example, that IBM is a great company, therefore you should buy IBM products), even when repeated often, sells no services, although it may help in name recognition. But the limitation of name recognition, as valuable as it may be on its own, is meaningful only in the context of specific skills or products.

The concept of positioning is invaluable. This is a crucial process that begins with understanding what needs prospective clients may have — and that you can serve those needs. Your position must spring specifically from prospective client needs, and not from your own self-serving assessment of what you have to sell. Use research, if necessary. The better the position, the better the marketing program.

In a sense, marketing professional services is akin to tightrope walking. The limits of professional services marketing are defined by factors that have little to do with marketing itself. The law is the law. The laws of product marketing are few, beyond confining misrepresentation and outright frauds. The laws governing professional services marketing are derived from the nature of the practice, and are governed by both canons of epics and the realistic nature of professional practice. No wonder there is confusion of the two kinds of marketing.

The freedom for lawyers and accountants to market — to promote their services — is now about three decades old (Bates v State Bar of Arizona, U.S. Supreme Court, 1977). Still, too many marking programs — and marketers — have yet to learn these proven factors. Not to understand is the curse of professional services marketing.


Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com) and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. © 2010 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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