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The Marcus Perspective

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM MAY BE CONVENTIONAL, BUT IT AIN’T WISDOM

By Bruce W. Marcus

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The most corrosive concept in marketing is conventional wisdom. Why?

Because the concept of conventional wisdom trumps the art of innovation and ingenuity in marketing. It distracts from what really works in professional services marketing.

Ultimately, marketing is an art form, the mechanics of which can be learned in a couple of weekends. The artfulness uses imagination to conceptualize, intuition to understand and interpret the market and the best ways to reach and persuade the consumer of your services, skill to use the mechanics effectively, and the competitive urge to drive the process, It transcends the mundane.

In our field of professional services marketing, we have the added challenges of the unique characteristics of professional services, and the ethical constraints that enjoin many of the marketing devices and practices readily available to product marketers ó but not to professionals. You can, for example, say, ďOur brand of toothpaste is better than their brand,Ē at least because itís probably a defensible statement. How do you defend a statement that might say, ďWe do better audits?Ē or ďWe write better briefs?Ē You canít, and not just because of ethical rules, but because you canít prove it. And because each lawyer and accountant, and each matter they work on, is different. Thereís more, but thatís the crux of it.

In product marketing you can persuade a consumer who hasnít heard of a product to try it, and even to love it. But even the best marketing campaign for, say, a matrimonial attorney, isnít likely to persuade a happily married individual to get a divorce, or an individual whose business doesnít demand an audit to get one, because theyíre nice to have.

Conventional wisdom, among all its faults, manifests itself in the corruption and misuse of otherwise sound marketing devices and words. They tend to become clichťs, which Iíve often described as statements that come trippingly off the tongue ó without bothering to visit the brain on the way out. Words like branding, niche marketing and positioning ó all good basic concepts and words, the benefits of which, when misused, help no one except the vendors of support material for these concepts. Great marketing tools for the vendors, and great shortcuts for the marketers. By spouting the jargon, marketers and vendors give the impression of knowing something which is not exactly true. During the niche marketing fad they made out like bandits selling support material. Niche marketing is nothing more than market segmentation, which (some seem to think) doesnít have the cache of niche marketing. The use of words like branding and positioning gives a jazzy twist to firm identity programs. You canít use both branding and name recognition interchangeably.

Then there are the lists, particularly those that attempt to organize marketing tools in order of value to the marketing program. That, if anything, is conventional foolishness, not wisdom.

An important consideration in professional services marketing is that the foundation of all marketing has a history that goes back for generations. Companies like IBM understand that, on some level, they are really in the marketing business. The products they make are essentially those that fill the channels opened by marketing. Professionals, on the other hand, have no such traditions. The ability to market began in 1977, with the Bates decision (Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 1977). Itís just now that lawyers and accountants are beginning to understand that marketing is an integral part of professional firm management. What Bates did, by the way, is not just open the professions to the right to advertise. It really said, ďNow I can solicit your clients and you can solicit mine.Ē It introduced, for the first time in professional services history, the concept of frank and open competition, which most professionals at first couldnít even spell, much less understand.

Frankly, Iím not as concerned about what they call it so much as I am about the distorted meaning of the original language itself. For example:

  • Branding is particularly bothersome, because people who use the word in the context of professional services marketing donít seem to understand two things:
    • Branding is really a promise of consistency. You know that the next tube of your favorite brand of toothpaste is going to be the same as the last tube. The next matter you take up with your law firm , nor the people in each firm serving you, are not likely to be the same as the last, and may not be as consistent as the last, or have different but equally valid points of view.
    • While name recognition is helpful for a professional firm, branding, in its real meaning, is generally impossible in professional services marketing. If you mean name recognition, say so, and stop wasting time and money distorting the campaign objective by trying to make it something it isnít. If you mean reputation, it really canít be invented or achieved by giving it a fancy name. It has to be earned. And at best, it can be fragile. The last accounting firm with a brand-like recognition that implied superior service was Arthur Andersen. And then thereís Dewey LeBouef. And where are they today?
    • And obviously, branding is different in advertising products than it is in professional services marketing. Branding implies a promise of consistency, which is obviously impossible in the legal and accounting professions. The term, when itís used in professional services marketing, has a different meaning, although it still distorts the original meaning of the word.
  • Positioning is an important concept, when used in its real meaning, which is:
  • Understanding the needs of the market for your services;
  • Demonstrating that you understand those needs; and
  • Demonstrating that you or your firm is able to serve those needs.
  • Your position, then, can be a distinguishing factor that separates your firm from your competitors. Positioning is not a self serving definition of your ability to serve a market ó it defines reality. It says, in effect, ďI understand your problem and I know how to fix it.Ē And as Iíve often said, in opposing the word image, if you donít like the way youíre perceived, you canít change that perception by merely manipulating symbols. You have to change what you are. And thatís not, it seems, conventional wisdom.
  • Lists. Articles are worth more than advertising in practice development, say such lists. Networking is better than direct mail. Nonsense. Each marketing tool is different, in both its use and its value to the marketing mix. While itís true that for the smaller firm that can only afford a minimal program, each firm must use the one or two activities that each can afford. Is networking more valuable to the shy or socially inept professional than writing articles that showcase his or her skills? Of course not. But for the most effective program, what works best is an amalgam of several well planned activities in concert. Focus, then, on markets, then marketing objectives, and on a plan deigned to be competitive and to meet those objectives.
It sometimes seems that when non-artists try to deal with artistic concepts that they donít fully understand, such as competitive marketing, they resort to jargon. Thus, the language gets distorted, and communication becomes hollow. This applies to product marketing as well as to professional services marketing

And marketing is an art form. Conventional wisdom isnít.


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), the author of PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0 (Bay Street Group, 2011 http://bit.ly/MarcusBook), from which this article is adapted and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. © 2011 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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