If you do a google search on the phrase “brand positioning” you’ll find over 13M hits on the topic. From Wikipedia pages describing what it is to thousands of agencies and consultants outlining how to derive one through their trademarked methodologies, which are usually accompanied by beautiful visual charts (almost 4M of them, in fact). But, here’s the thing: in a professional services firm forcing “brand” together with “positioning” can cause far more damage than it does create differentiation.
It’s the “What” that Differentiates Not the “How”
About 6 months ago I had a conversation with noted positioning consultant, Blair Enns in which he said something that really stuck, “agencies don’t have brands.” At the time, this comment seemed almost absurd. For the better part of ten years, I’ve consulted our clients to look through the world with a brand lens. My premise had always been that a brand is nothing more than the collective perceptions a prospect has about a firm. Therefore, everything has a brand; our job as marketers is to define a vision for how we’d like a brand to be perceived, identify existing market perceptions of our brand, and close any gap that exists with the purpose of creating top of mind awareness. But, that’s not really what positioning is about.
You see, Blair’s simple comment highlighted the fundamental problem with this line of thinking: a significant part of developing a brand is largely about defining HOW a firm communicates. Any agency worth it’s salt will spend some reasonable amount of effort in this process developing a personality and tone of voice for your communications. While this is an important and meaningful exercise, in the absence of clear and meaningful expertise, it’s highly unlikely to differentiate the firm. When faced with the decision of which consultant to hire, clients choose the firm they perceive to be most expert at solving their fundamental business problem at least 95 times out of 100.
“Brand” and “Positioning” are at Odds With Each Other
The problem is really one of context. When we append the word “brand” to the word “positioning” we are implying that the way a firm communicates can create meaningful differentiation. We imply that positioning is a communications task. We imply that senior leadership need not get involved. Yet, positioning in a professional services firm is very clearly an exercise in focus: who we serve, what they need, and why our expertise is valuable to them. Positioning is a question of WHAT we’re in business to do not HOW we go about communicating it.
That Said, Brands Aren’t Irrelevant
Please don’t misunderstand this post. Brands matter. How a firm presents itself, how it communicates, and the consistency of its communications are all important things that establish credibility and define how a prospect perceives your firm. But, this is all “packaging.” Even the most elegant brand communications cannot make up for a fundamentally flawed business strategy. In the end, for most professional services firms, Blair is 95% correct – differentiation in professional services has always, and will always, be predominantly about expertise. The role of the brand is to close the remaining 5% gap between the firm’s actual expertise and the prospect’s ability to believe that expertise to be real.