Vol. 44, No. 1

What’s your brand as a bar organization? As a leader?

By Marilyn Cavicchia

If there were unifying themes for the 2019 annual meetings of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, National Association of Bar Executives, and National Conference of Bar Foundations, one was branding, and how to make sure that your bar organization makes an impression in a busy, cluttered world.

An NCBF workshop (see “Rebranding the bar foundation: A case study in change,” also in this issue) covered a major rebranding effort by one bar foundation. Meanwhile, the opening plenaries for the other two groups addressed branding in the sense of connecting better with members and potential members as an organization (in the case of NABE) or as a leader (NCBP).

Karen McSteen, principal at Tucson-based brandMatters, spoke to NABE, while Katy Goshtabi, CEO at San Diego-based Puris Consulting, addressed NCBP. Below are some highlights from both of those plenaries.

Karen McSteen: ‘What is your promise as a bar?’

There are three types of organizations, McSteen believes:

  1. those whose customers or members are completely disengaged, considering themselves to be users rather than customers (for example, utility companies);
  2. those whose customers or members are somewhat engaged, in that they enjoy their experience and feel warmly toward the organization (for example, Target or American Express); and
  3. those whose customers or members are fully engaged, meaning they love the brand and feel aligned with its values (for example, Southwest Airlines and USAA, a banking and insurance company that serves members of the military and their families).

It stands to reason that any organization would want to be in that third category, but for anyone needing extra incentive, McSteen shared a recent finding from Gallup:  People who feel full engagement and love toward a brand bring in 23 percent more profit for a company than those who are only moderately engaged with the brand. Also, she noted, in an age when people can get many traditional association benefits from other sources, bar associations would do well to look at other types of businesses and see how they inspire love.

One important way, McSteen said, is by understanding different segments of their membership and customer base—not so much in terms of demographics, but in terms of experience and needs. For example, before a new employee at USAA can ever meet with a customer, they receive a “deployment letter” and undergo training in which they arrive early in the morning, wear a 50-pound Kevlar vest, and eat military rations.

This commitment to putting themselves in their customers’ shoes has led to such innovations as being the first bank to allow remote deposits via text, and reducing insurance rates during a deployment, McSteen said.

“What is your promise as a bar?” McSteen invited attendees to ask themselves. “And what are the reasons that people should believe it?” Consistency is key, she said. For example, United’s tag line promises “friendly skies,” but it does not rank very high in customer satisfaction—not because it never delivers on its promise of a friendly experience, but because it sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t.

Elsewhere in the airline industry, she said, Southwest has remained profitable for longer than any other carrier, even though it often doesn’t charge a change fee, and it has resisted the trend toward fees for checked bags (which also helps it move passengers on and off planes more quickly, McSteen noted, because not as many people are trying to cram things into the overhead space). It consistently delivers on its promise of “LUV,” and the experience it offers is reliably less expensive, more flexible, and even more fun than with other airlines, McSteen said.

What could bar associations borrow from Southwest? Intentionally look for industry norms that cause distress for members and potential members, and then try to do the opposite. For example, she said, most bar associations have complicated dues structures, so finding a way to simplify it would reduce stress and help the bar stand out. Similarly, bars are known for hierarchical governance and for catering to certain members who are heavily involved—so, make a point of creating more ways for members to participate.

The stakes are potentially quite high, McSteen said, for any type of bar association. “Being mandatory is great,” she noted, “but maybe that won’t last. You need your members to love you.”

McSteen cited another example from the business world that illustrates the need to adapt to changing consumer preferences and market forces: Will your bar association be a Netflix—which saw the streaming revolution coming, and made sure it was out in front—or a Blockbuster, which clung to rentals of physical objects, and died?

Katy Goshtabi: ‘Safe is a dangerous place to be’

For bar associations to meet today’s challenges and come up with the innovative ideas that will help ensure that they’ll be here tomorrow, Goshtabi said, “risk aversion and fear are not allowed anymore.” It’s great for lawyers to play it safe, she added, but for associations, “safe is a dangerous place to be.”

Goshtabi devoted much of her presentation to the connection between a bar leader who is creative and self-aware and a bar organization that is bold and innovative. “A deliberate brand comes from a deliberate you,” she said. “Your bar year is a direct manifestation of who you are.”

It takes courage for many lawyers to engage a different part of their brain and to lose the idea that they have to control everything, she added. The most important thing for any leader to control, Goshtabi said, is themselves. “Truly being in self-control means you manage yourself before you manage others,” she explained, noting that it’s impossible to lead anyone else unless you “lead yourself first.”

Developing some sense of a personal brand can help with this self-management, Goshtabi said, advising that everyone make a list of five attributes (beyond superficial characteristics) that describe themselves well. When you feel stressed or uncertain, she said, returning to that list can help you regain your equilibrium—before you erode members’ positive feeling toward you and the association.

Self-awareness builds self-confidence, Goshtabi said, and when you’re not feeling sure of yourself, you might get mired in anger, become “ [a] perfectionist, and a bottleneck,” or even fall into a sort of paralysis—none of which is good for the bar.

What’s the tie to members’ understanding of the bar’s brand? “People buy self-confidence,” Goshtabi explained. The decision to buy anything, including bar membership or active participation, is very much based on emotion, she said—and emotion is contagious.

“Do you and your brand sell happiness, at some level?” Goshtabi asked. Even if a bar organization isn’t all fun, all the time, she said, it can still look for ways to consistently elevate members’ mood and to be as likeable as possible. Goshtabi is a lawyer who spent part of her career working with lobbyists on Capitol Hill; in that world, she said, it was well known that candidates with the highest “likeability factor” stood the best chance of winning their race.

Messaging related to the brand needs to be frequent, she noted: Whereas it used to take three “touches” (such as a letter, email, or phone call) to make an impression on someone, in these times when we’re all “overtexted, overtweeted, and overcaffeinated,” it now takes six to nine touches.

“If you’re not consistently telling people your message of why you and your bar are unique,” Goshtabi said, “you’re not going to get through.”