Maybe it’s the ‘Mad Men’ mania or the resurgence of farmers markets across North America, but I get the feeling that nostalgia is making a comeback. We feel good when we revisit the familiar past – it’s comforting, reliable and trustworthy. It also reminds us of how our current identity can be influenced by shared values and experiences.
If anyone has asked “Who are you?” “Where are you from?” when they first meet you as a professional, you’ll recognize heritage as an essential element of your brand.
Which implies that just communicating ‘what you do’ isn’t enough. Almost any lawyer can draw up an employment contract. But a lawyer who has helped the same client or her colleagues in the past, who knows her preferences, and is part of a firm with a credible history will earn loyalty.
Five tips to link heritage to your firm brand
1. Know your provenance
No, this isn’t about the art that hangs on your walls (although your office art might certainly symbolize your heritage). It’s the story of where and when the firm originated. It matters because it conveys how the firm has evolved over time, and explains something about your culture.
Have you always been a regional or national organization? Were you among the first firms in a city or other location? These features matter because they demonstrate staying power and adaptability. A firm can’t survive for 100 years based on blind luck. But longevity alone isn’t enough.
2. Consider the vision of the founding partners
When Frank Sinatra sang “My Way”, this is what he was crooning about. Most people who start a new venture have a vision or a central idea for the way they’ll provide services or meet a market need.
This is often exemplified by lawyers who break away from large, traditional firms to start their own smaller firms. Barack Ferrazzano LLP in Chicago is a great example of founding vision woven into a truly differentiated, quality brand.
3. Understand why people are loyal to you
The automobile industry epitomizes this approach. Did your parents drive Volvos? Chances are that when you’re in the market for a new car, you’ll consider Volvo too, if only for the nostalgia.
But there are family businesses and multinational corporations that remain loyal to the same professional firms through thick and thin. Why? Because those firms have a history of doing things – hiring, training, developing services – that is reliable and can’t be easily replicated by a competitor.
4. Identify the distinguishing symbols of your firm
A symbol is more than a logo or the art mentioned above. People also interpret the way you act as a symbol of ‘who you are’. This can be as simple as the charities you’ve always supported, the schools you hire from or the publications that you send to clients.
The power of symbolism is also why protest groups alter the corporate logos of investment banks and oil companies who behave in a way that violates the social trust placed in them. The logos, which once symbolized brand ideals, come to mean something very different in the face of questionable ethics.
5. Weave the past into the present and future.
Some elements of your firm history, such as values that are no longer culturally relevant, are best left in the past. This is normal. Instead, determine how your heritage is relevant to the future.
For example, do your origins as a Canadian firm give you the credibility to do business in other regions? Forbes and the Reputation Institute have recognized Canada as the most reputable country in the world since 2010. This is a serious competitive advantage, as foreign investors seek the security of affiliation with the characteristics that typify Canada – security, transparency and adherence to the rule of law.
Your firm’s history is just one brand element used to the convey the quality and style of your work. It tells the story of who you are through symbols such as logos, behaviours, services, activities. People interpret those symbols based on their experience, and rely on them to determine their future support of you.
So the next time you tune in to watch Don Draper pour himself a tumbler of Canadian Club, or you pick up locally grown tomatoes at the farmer’s market, don’t just feel nostalgic. Think a little bit about why you feel so comfortable with the familiarity and meaning of your choice. And think about how you can replicate those feelings in the brand messaging for your firm.