How ’bout this for a couple of loaded questions . . . “What is the value of developing a law firm’s brand/identity?” How has the creation of a brand/identity resulted in benefits for your law firm?”

When those questions were posed to the Legal Marketing Association’s listserv last week I expected a hearty debate. I was disappointed. Maybe it’s because most of us who’ve been in the biz for a few years know that a firm has a brand whether you value it or not. It’s embedded in culture, service and practice. Sometimes by design, most times not. And, whether you recognize benefits from it, (shouldn’t a brand benefit your clients, too?) well, that is directly related to how cognizant you are of its existence and how well you design and manage the moving parts. As marketers, one of those moving parts is communicating the brand. And that, my friends, is easier said than done.

So, let’s look at this a little deeper. For the most part, brands are determined by a few small hurdles; e.g. whether or not you can get 1,000 partners to agree on orange and whether or not you can get 1,000 partners to agree that the firm is, for example, “Results Driven” (Snicker). Then, if you are lucky enough to produce some well-designed collateral material or clever ad campaign that uses an orange gorilla to demonstrate that the firm is “Results Driven,” you can report to the partners that the firm is now BRANDED. You have designed your collaterals and by default you design your brand. Well, not really.

Today, BusinessWeek online reported that Coke has a new design direction. In the article I found a few good design lessons that law firms might take to heart. At the very least it is food for thought and comment. Not to mention that the new designs are fantastic and you can design your own bottle on the Coca Cola Web site.

Here’s a summary of my learnings. When David Butler, now V.P of Design, joined Coca-Cola (KO) he was told, “We need to do more with design. Go figure it out.” He drew up a 30-page manifesto. Then he did something different, he avoided the word “design” as much as possible. Instead he met with the manufacturing people to talk about the benefits of smart design. ‘How can we make the can feel colder, longer?’ or ‘How can we make the cup easier to hold?'” And he talked to the bottling partners. And surprise, he talked to customers about their experience buying a Coke from a vending machine.

….he found a lot that needed fixing. Coca-Cola was a global company with 450 brands, more than 300 different models of vending machines, innumerable bottling and retail partners, and no consistent global design standards. It wasn’t that the company had forgotten about design altogether. In fact, “our mission was to be innovative in any aspect that we could. We had this gigantic canvas.”

The article goes on to say that although their agency came up with “lots of interesting projects: the Coke Cruiser (a scooter with a cooler at its front conceived as a mobile vendor at festivals or concerts) as well as a tasting salon, a retail environment where people could sample a new drink like Coke Zero,” many of them never made it beyond the concept stage. Bummer, eh?

In the end ……

. . .for Butler, the lesson was to avoid cool concepts that would never see the light of day. Instead of generating ideas and then trying to find a place for them, Butler addressed his efforts on identifying basic problems that design can solve. His strategy has focused on three areas critical to Coca-Cola—brand identity, user experience, and sustainability. [emphasis added]

So what are the lessons a law firm can learn from the most widely recognized brand in the world? Instead of generating ideas, trying to find a place for them, and then convincing a tough partnership it all makes sense, focus on three critical areas: Brand Identity – know thyself; User Experience – let your clients be your guide; Sustainability –what really matters to your clients can determine your legacy.

Can design solve problems? I think it can. Can law firms design their brand? If so, what problems can a good brand solve? Can a well-designed brand help clients find you, know you, make a purchasing decision, ease the process? What do you think?

Easier said than done, but valuable for sure.