The parallels between the recent election upset and common failures of law firm messaging and law firm business development programs cannot be overlooked. Love him or not, Trump won, which prompts the questions of what worked in such an unexpected victory, and what can we learn from him.
The Clinton camp’s post-mortem focused on the timing of the FBI’s renewed email investigation and the Russian hacking scandal, but the truth is, Clinton’s marketing strategy left her vulnerable to the whims of a highly volatile election cycle. In every campaign, events outside of a candidate’s control will always occur. But just as in an election campaign, you can control your messaging, and your law firm is responsible for its strategic choices and how it allocates its resources.
Trump’s tactics and the identified shortfalls of Clinton’s campaign echo the same areas that many law firm branding and business development programs need to address:
Listen to People’s Concerns and Tell Them You Will Address Them
The most basic marketing principal is “What’s In It For Me” or WIIFM. To be perfectly clear, lawyers: it’s not about you; it’s about the client. Granted, this is a little hazy with Donald Trump, but per Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, Trump spent a great deal of time addressing security issues and tailoring his message to the specific concerns of his audience. He addressed terrorism, health care, job loss and crime. Many voters were legitimately fearful and frustrated that they can’t pay their bills or get ahead.
A big part of listening and letting clients know they are heard is showing up. Clinton never stopped by a United Auto Workers union hall in Michigan; she didn’t make a single campaign stop in Wisconsin. Following the conventions, Clinton held 34 campaign rallies, Trump held 87. Many voters felt like they were being left behind, and that Washington didn’t hear or care about them. Disaffected voters felt like Trump heard their problems, because he was in front of them speaking about their problems.
The parallel to law firm business development? Lawyers frequently cite a lack of time for client visits, attending or speaking at client industry events, often because they assume that they already know the right people or because it’s a waste of time, because potential clients already have their go-to firm.
Take Away: Political pundits picked up early on the weak Republican field and Clinton’s flawed candidacy; sometimes you just need to be in the right place at the right time. But you have to be in the arena to take advantage of these opportunities. Similarly, if you want clients to know you understand their problems and can solve them, you need to make time for client visits and show up at industry events.
Communicate Like a CEO, Not a Policy Wonk
Trump restated voters’ concerns, acknowledging that he heard them and that he was going to fix their problems—succinctly, like a well-crafted PowerPoint presentation. Clinton identified problems, mostly Trump’s problems. When Clinton focused on campaign issues, she didn’t connect solutions with the specific audience she was addressing. “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Clinton said back in March. After much criticism, several months later she explained the (what’s in it for the voter) by presenting a plan to “help” coal miners—by giving them “clean” solar jobs, which given the delay seemed like a disingenuous pander for votes. Clinton expected voters to connect the dots—that getting rid of coal means not only combatting global warming, but more clean energy jobs. Climate change, while important, is not a day-to-day pocketbook issue, and Clinton didn’t clearly and succinctly address how closing mines helps the local voter. Remember, the president is the CEO of the country, and is expected to communicate like one.
Take Away: Listen to your clients and reiterate concisely that you understand and can solve their problems. Don’t drown folks with your extensive knowledge; it’s about the client, not you. Demonstrate your ability to solve their problem with: client testimonials, prior results, representative clients, speaking engagements—but don’t lead with that—have it handy once potential clients want to know more about you. They won’t want to know more about you if you don’t convince them that you understand their problems. Bill Clinton got this. Remember “I feel your pain,” during the 1992 election?
Communicate Forward-Looking Solutions
Presidential campaigns, just like good business development messages, are always about the future. Clients don’t want to dwell on what went wrong, they want a quick analysis of the problem, a strategy to fix it and a roadmap to prevent the problem in the future.
According to the Washington Post, Clinton struggled during the Democratic primary against Bernie Sanders, because the electorate was looking for political and economic change. Sanders heard that and his message addressed that; so did Trump. Security issues were identified and the problems vocalized were with existing government programs—change was being demanded.
Take Away: Hillary Clinton’s message was about her extensive experience, and that she was more stable than Trump. This is taking folks back, not forward, and it’s about her, not about the voter. Also, it’s not a strong selling point or very motivational to voters that you are less erratic than someone else.
Garner Support for You, Not Against Someone Else
Rather than picking up on the enthusiasm of Sanders’ economic message, Clinton scolded Trump for what he said, and he said a lot. Not enough voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, cared that Trump called a beauty contestant Miss Piggy or cared about the optics of the proposed Muslim entry ban, in fact a good number of voters actually liked it. Trump’s negatives didn’t have to do with the voter’s own economic security.
According to David Axelrod, former chief strategist for President Obama, the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton among Democratic voters could not be overcome with a campaign message focused so heavily on Trump’s divisiveness. The assumption that antipathy toward Trump would be enough to mobilize the Democratic base proved to be devastatingly false.
Take Away: To trigger a buying decision, you need to motivate people toward you, not away from someone else. For example, when you sell solely on price, you are drawing folks away from someone, but not giving clients a reason to advocate on your behalf. If reasonable pricing is part of your appeal, emphasize what your firm does uniquely that keeps prices down, like better technology, and tie that plus to a pain point of a potential client—like poor billing practices of their current law firm.
Brand Advocates: Keep and Listen to Them
You need a broad base of supporters within a corporate client. You need to stay in touch with their needs, and let them know you will address their needs to keep them advocating for you. Relying on one advocate within an organization is precarious, as client needs change, and the parties within an organization who influence buying decisions change.
There were many reports of Clinton’s Brooklyn-based campaign operation shunning old-school retail political tactics in Michigan, and instead relying heavily on polling data which showed Clinton significantly ahead. Meanwhile, on the ground in Michigan, Clinton volunteers were showing up to get yard signs and distribute other campaign materials door-to-door, and campaign offices didn’t have the supplies, and local requests for funds to Clinton’s headquarters were ignored. With more Clinton folks in the field, maybe the Brooklyn operation would have heard the message that presumed Clinton voters like white male union members were actually veering toward Trump.
Take Away: If clients or advocates give you feedback, use it. Don’t blindly follow assumptions based on past buying behaviors or on ingrained business development strategies. Brand advocates are worth their weight in gold; don’t turn your back on them. When a brand advocate requests more information about your firm to pass on to others – get it to them!
Build an Image Ingrained with Your Message = Branding
“We don’t have to leave [literature]at the doors, everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is,’” said a Clinton Michigan campaign worker.
“There’s never been anybody quite like him, this combination of arrogance, intelligence, obstinacy and manifest incapacity for shame,” said a survey of advertising and marketing professionals—including some who have worked for Trump.
Candidate awareness was the highest it has ever been in this campaign, and trust levels were among the lowest for both candidates. Trump is Branding, and his branding is memorable: Fantastic, Classy, Amazing, (or some would say, Outrageous), images in front of gold-clad Trump buildings, the Trump private plane, or at Trump golf courses.
What was Clinton’s brand? Pantsuits, the 90s, government programs that assist children. Clinton images include Benghazi hearings, photo ops with Bill Clinton, or pictures from her long career in public service.
The difference allowed Trump to control the image and control the message (his domination of media coverage, for good or ill, could be the topic of a whole series of articles). His campaign was about his personality and what he built as a businessman, not images of a government insider in a campaign where many people were focused on government change. Clinton’s campaign focused on her government service achievements, at a time when folks were chanting, “drain the swamp.” The voters in this election were looking for economic security and a change in the government system; Clinton’s branding did not give them what they were looking for.
Take Away: Your firm controls the messaging on your website and collateral materials, and you can build upon that via your social media, pro bono choices and the industry events you associate yourself with. You can build your brand by what you write about, by starting with your own industry-specific blogs and by hosting your own emerging topic webinars. Parlay your thought leadership, blogs and webinars into pieces published in other media, and use that to develop programs for speaking. With the advent of social media, you can develop and broadcast your message more than ever before, and use it to attract mainstream media.
We may not all like or trust Trump’s message, but he certainly controlled it, and we all knew what it was. He parroted the economic and other insecurities of many voters, assured them he could handle their problems, and showed up again and again in key electoral states. It worked and he won.
About the Author
Jennifer Schaller is managing director of The National Law Review, and is vice-chair of the Legal Marketing Assocation Chicago City Group. Contact Jennifer on Twitter @NatLawReview.