Selling What No One’s Buying: The Problem of Irrelevant Differentiation

I’ve had the opportunity recently to review several marketing campaigns undertaken by a range of midsize to large law firms. These campaigns ran the gamut from mass-market advertising to multimedia publications to targeted client awareness efforts to law student recruitment blitzes, and they all appear effective to a greater or lesser extent.

What struck me, however, was that many of the campaigns were based on the premise that the firm needed to differentiate itself from the competition. This is absolutely true, and it’s what many industry advisors have been saying for years. But firms still make a common and serious mistake: they tend to differentiate themselves on grounds that aren’t relevant to clients.

Most firms know their competitors well enough to perceive distinct differences in how their own firm thinks, behaves and operates from other firms. These differences are most often described with the word “culture.” Now, this is a term that, as I’ve written elsewhere, lawyers tend to use incorrectly. But I will certainly grant that no two law firms share exactly the same culture, just as no two people share exactly the same fingerprint. The problem is that, unless you’re a trained forensic expert looking through a microscope, fingerprints do in fact all look the same. And unless you’re immersed in the culture of a law firm, which clients assuredly are not, law firm cultures all look the same too.

But there’s a larger problem here: clients don’t buy culture. Or at least, they buy only the observable impact of culture, insofar as it affects the firm’s output, pricing and customer service. Your firm might well be a more humane, more collaborative and more innovative enterprise than its primary rivals; conversely, you might be more driven, more relentless, and more ruthless. But unless you can demonstrate how these differences translate into measurable market advantages from the client’s perspective, it just comes across as more talk. Worse, in fact, because it comes across as more self-absorbed, self-obsessed talk.

Marketing is not about the seller; it’s about the market. It’s right there in the word. If you want to market your firm by highlighting how you are differentiated from your competitors — and you should —  then you need to focus on differences that matter to the people who buy your services, not to the people who sell them.


  1. Jordan,
    Super post. I agree completely — “unless you can demonstrate how these differences translate into measurable market advantages from the client’s perspective, it just comes across as more talk.”

    In order to do as you prescribe firms need to shift their marketing efforts from being focused soley on the firm, and instead dedicate the more resources to “demonstrate their differences” at the practice area and attorney level.

    Marketing gets a lot easier, and becomes more effective when the message is focused. Practice areas or an attorney’s niche area of focus makes that possible.

    Here’s a blog post that we wrote about this: “Why Marketing Fails(and what law firms can do about it)”

    @ 5:56 am
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