Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Law Firm Messaging Creep: How Brand Gets Distorted

"The whispered sentence" is a popular old parlor game for entertaining at least five guests. The game starts with one person writing a (made-up) sentence onto a piece of paper that is kept secret from all other players. The writer then whispers what he/she wrote into the ear of the person next to him/her. Each player in turn whispers what they heard to the person next to them until the last person has heard it. The last person then speaks the sentence out loud to be compared with what was originally written.

The sentence may have started out, "My dog really likes wearing blue shoes." But by the time it has been whispered across the room the last person will swear they heard, "Fly grogs like really swearing at a new moon. The more people in the whisper-chain, the more hilarious the difference.

Sometimes what happens in this parlor game is exactly what happens to law firm messaging – it's called "message creep". One of the ways that happens is the result of seeking too much consensus. Here is how you can test the theory at your firm (and discover how effective your "whisper-chain" is at maintaining the firm message).
  • Create a headline and paragraph of copy for an advertisement that is smack on top of your firm message.
  • Interoffice the headline and copy to one of the people in your "approval" circuit.
  • When you get it back send the marked-up original to the next person in the circuit. Each time you receive it back forward it along until all in the circuit has reviewed the copy (and commented/edited if so inclined).
  • Now create a new headline and copy document based on all of their changes.
  • Print out both the new and the original and compare them.
Here is what you will find:
  1. The changes modified a few words, expressions, and corrected punctuation but in-all left the message and essence absolutely intact and on-target.
  2. The headline and copy changes created a message a football field away from the firm message, but matches up well to some individuals within the firm.
  3. The headline and copy matches some other firm.
  4. The headline doesn't match the copy and the copy never gets to any clear point.
If you find that you are in situation #1 – Excellent! If you find you are in #2 - #4 then your next step is to work on the circuit. Is it the wrong circuit? Is it too big? Do the participants really understand the firm brand? Are there forces at work intra-circuit that prevent unbiased review? And, last but not least, does your brand/message truly resonate with the attorneys that make up your firm?

Do not be mistaken into believing that you're working with attorneys that will just never "get it". Brand creep most often happens because some attorneys do not not clearly understand what the "brand" is or how to communicate it clearly in concert with their own goals... Which is a topic for an entirely different post.