CHARLESTON -- Gerald Riskin, a legal consultant with Edge International, believes branding is a license to burn money.

This "hype" as he calls it, has caused many lawyers and managers to think the right tagline will deliver a firm to a new level of public awareness and client preference.

Riskin believes money should be spent perfecting the law firm from the inside-out, and time should be spent understanding that clients do not make decisions based on graphics and credos. He admits that collateral materials might interest a client, but the beauty of brochures and Web sites alone will not produce files of work.

Yet, law firms still are spending, advertising the heck out of their logos and slogans to sear their prominence into prospective clients' minds.

Branding believers such as Michael Switzer of Design Works claim campaigns are not always the black holes to which Riskin refers.

As individual attorneys know, to be taken seriously means that one must look sharp, act responsibly and sound capable. For large firms, grouping everyone together by one common denominator is accomplished by presenting a visual symbol that makes a statement.

"I believe more decisions are made based on relationships between individuals," Switzer said. "But, when there is a presentation or when information is being passed along, I believe a more professional image always give you an advantage."

Switzer and Riskin agree that fonts and color schemes aren't the leading persuasive factors in business development. Even though Switzer's agency is centered in the commercial art and advertising realm, he admits that identity campaigns and branding makes a firm noticeable, but it says nothing as to the quality of work lawyers perform.

When endorsing a graphic campaign of any kind, Switzer argues on the side of strength. He is of the opinion that a well-designed icon can associate a company's power in its area of expertise. If a firm is not interested in utilizing all mediums open to it in the branding process, a minimal touch-up may cost only a few thousand dollars.

However, if a firm requests a total overhaul –- from a new logo to a new Web site and all of the collateral materials in between -– firm management will be expected to shell out $25,000 or more in the transformation process.

Within the law firm, who is behind the push to look better? Industry experts say there is a "new school" of attorneys who are technically savvy and energized by finding that certain something which makes them famous. Once again, the key visual and leading marketing tool is the firm Web site.

"Your competition is only one click away," offered Rustin Kretz of Scorpion Design. "Your message had better be clear and concise, your image had better be professional, and the overall experience had better interest the user or they will look elsewhere."

Kretz feels the hardest step in the branding process is making a commitment to change. A simple decision is often the most challenging part of the experience because firms aren't always aware of what they are getting into. One tiny logo alteration means discarding boxes of stationery bearing the old name and style, purchasing new signage for buildings, updating every single page of a firm Web site, reprinting business cards for attorneys, changing all of the billing forms and accounting documents and redesigning marketing materials and other publications.

Helping the general public become familiar with the new look is an entirely different aspect of the marketing plan, as advertising campaigns are launched to re-introduce people to the "new and improved" law firm.

Like marketing materials, clients and counselors must complement each other. Expertise and interests have to match. There can be no confusion as to what a client needs and what the law firm can provide.

Gerald Riskin states that what's behind the brand is what counts, not the expensive sales brochures that could be ignored altogether. Borrowing the creative concept of a well-known commercial might be an idea for law firms and their marketing partners as they consider entering the branding phenomenon:

* The fee to attend a marketing seminar: $2,500

* The expense of a new identity campaign: $100,000

* Making the client look good: Priceless

Kathryn E. (Katy) Brown, a former law firm marketing executive, is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a professional writing and editing agency in Charleston. She can be reached at (304) 344-5355 or at thewriteword@charter.net.

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