At a recent conference, the panel chairman declared that “purpose has been hijacked by marketing departments”. You could hear half the audience bristle. My neighbour’s knuckles turned white, and a few people crossed their legs. A raw nerve indeed.
There’s no doubt that a new agenda and basis for evaluating all businesses, and every stakeholder relationship, is taking shape. Law firms need to be aligned with that trend if they want to attract and retain the best clients and talent. But they need to do better.
The problem might well reside in marketing departments, but that’s often because it’s been dropped there by poor leadership understanding. Especially in law firms.
Too many are now claiming to be purpose-led when the truth is that they’re not. Which is one reason for ‘purpose’ not being the marketing department’s friend: if a brand can be defined as ‘a promise kept’ (still the best definition I’ve seen) then it can’t be based on an untruth.
But I think the problem goes deeper – or higher – than that.
Purpose is not the next big thing in branding. It’s not a way of differentiating one firm from its competitors. It can’t be a slogan. But firms who think it is, or should be, any of those things are not only completely missing the point, they’re also creating the perception of marketing “hijacking” purpose. So, the teams charged with driving whatever idea or slogan through marketing activity are on to a loser.
Some of the most painful manifestations of this misunderstanding are obvious and legion:
The purpose statement (a problem in itself) is too vague and/or too big. To paraphrase, if it can’t be measured, it won’t get done.
- The purpose statement is too far removed from the everyday activity of the business. If people can’t make the link for themselves, they can’t own it.
- The purpose statement is exactly the same as the old ‘value proposition’. A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig.
- Firms publicise their earnings and PEP while claiming to be “purpose-driven”. If the old measures are still celebrated, new habits cannot be established.
- A journalist asks whether firms will take their purpose seriously enough to determine the kind of work and client they will take on. And gives his own answer, “That’s a tricky issue”. It shouldn’t be.
In those conditions, no marketing department can hope to make a success of the firm’s purpose.
How should purpose and marketing work together? Law firms should follow four steps.
Step one. The idea that any organisation’s purpose must address at least one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is growing in strength. As the first step, law firms should carry out that check: which of the 17 SDGs can we contribute to, with evidence, credibility, and motivation? Make and communicate that selection clearly.
Step two. Evaluate all the areas, activities and decisions in which that SDG purpose can drive and make an impact. Re-assess all those factors, and explore ways of accentuating and improving through the purpose lens of “What do we need to be great at?”
Step three. Redefine the brand to align fully with the purpose, and to maximise competitive differentiation. Ensure that values, behaviours and communication are consistent with the firm’s overall objectives and strategy.
Step four. Establish measures and reporting systems to ensure that the purpose, brand, internal culture and client experience are all in alignment. Develop marketing and communication programmes from that basis, and report on progress.
Purpose is an opportunity for firms to share in a bigger picture, and to change perceptions. But it means authenticity, not ambiguity; commitment, not campaign; leadership, not lethargy. Just like the very best marketing strategies.
Keith Wells has 30 years’ experience in brand strategy. A former strategy partner and group managing director of two international businesses, for the last 10 years he has been an independent consultant specialising in the B2B sector in general and the professional services market in particular. Please visit www.brandwell.uk.com for further information.