Positioning…differentiation…branding…when marketers start throwing around these terms it’s easy for a principal or partner to just roll their eyes and walk away. What are they talking about anyway? Do we really need to differentiate? How do we do it? Does it really matter? My goal with this article is to address the most critical aspects of differentiation in the context of an architecture or engineering firm.
What Do We Mean by Differentiation?
So, let’s start at the beginning — what does it mean to be a differentiated firm? Maybe more pointedly, what is the actual objective of “differentiating a firm.” A lot of marketing consultants will tell you it’s about “winning more work.” Fundamentally, I disagree. Others will tell you it’s about “getting the firm short listed.” Once again, I disagree. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those objectives, as firm owners I think you should demand more of your firms and yourselves.
Ultimately, a differentiated firm should win more of the right work. On its preferred terms. While making more doing it. As David Maister infamously said, “the most important metric in the firm is profit per partner.” Isn’t that really what it’s all about? So, if our efforts to differentiate don’t make us more money something’s painfully wrong. (An important caveat: that doesn’t necesarily always mean charging more. There are firms that make more but actually charge less).
The Four Elements of a Differentiated Firm
Let’s be clear. Differentiation isn’t solely a marketing task. To be differentiated we have to consider what business the firm is in, what services it provides, and how it delivers and communicates those services in such a way to demonstrate that it’s compellingly unique. The key point there is demonstrate. When we get it right, it’s not difficult for the ideal client to see, feel and hear that we’re compellingly different and perfectly right for them. This is not done with some fancy tagline or “elevator pitch.” It’s not done through some bulleted list on a “Why Us?” page.
It’s done by systemically aligning all elements of the firm towards a very clear, desired outcome — that of attracting, engaging and servicing a well defined group of ideal clients.
Working from the inside out, those elements are:
- Positioning – What markets are you in and why? More specifically, who are your ideal clients and what are their unmet needs?
- Products – The core disciplines of the firm presented as a collection of services (and possibly, tangible products) that are aligned against those unmet needs.
- Proof – Proof that your firm is truly different is demonstrated primarily through your firm’s expertise (thought leadership) and experience (case studies).
- Personality – A combination of culture and branding — What is the firm like? A well differentiated firm has a unique culture that is communicated in a unique way (both visually and verbally).
How Clients Respond to a Firm Like This
When a firm intelligently presents itself to the market in this way it does something truly unique. It changes the way the potential client reacts. The right client, upon finding this firm ideally suited for her specific needs responds in an interesting way, “Aha! Exactly the firm I’ve been seeking for years. I wish I’d known about you guys when __[insert some meaningful, difficult challenge the client recently faced that you could have solved for them]__.”
All that said, the right clients don’t just jump up out of the woodwork to a place of complete understanding of your firm’s positioning and expertise. Actually, they essentially absorb this whole thing from the opposite direction. To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to share some examples.
#1 – Positioning
The first mistake that firms make when it comes to positioning tends to be focusing too heavily (or exclusively) on the firm’s brand. Essentially, they expend gobs of effort trying to differentiate this nebulous thing called a brand, when they should be focusing on what markets they’re in and why they’re in them. Ultimately, effective positioning in an A/E firm is entirely about determining where the firm has deep expertise, proven experience and a unique perspective.
It’s about narrowing your vision and being thoughtful about where you choose to compete and only expending resources against those markets and those services where your firm can combine all three. Ultimately, for your positioning to work you should be narrow enough for the ideal client to quickly understand it and for you to build the deep expertise necessary to be meaningfully more knowledgeable on the client’s business challenges than the more general, broader firm to your left.
- Sargent + Lundy = Power
- Brown + Caldwell = Water
- Array Architects = Healthcare
- FreemanWhite = Healthcare
- PGAV Destinations = Unique Destinations
Some additional thoughts on this topic:
One of the major effects of a midsized firm being too broad is that consultants, marketing and business development people alike are often unable to build deep, meaningful expertise around topics that matter to their clients. Marketers are asked to understand client needs across 5-6 different industry segments making it difficult for them to drive down beyond surface issues. Business development people are asked to present the firm to 2-3 different vertical markets making it difficult for them to speak to the most pressing challenges of clients.
When a midsized firm gets more narrow, the opposite happens. Marketing and business development people who were previously stretched too thin can now devote more time to a specific industry and a specific topic. Their knowledge increases and their expertise deepens. They form unique perspectives about the challenges faced by clients in those sectors. Over time, the firm’s leaders and marketers begin to see opportunities to provide services they had not thought of prior — often, services emerge beyond traditional design and engineering services. Sometimes, tangible products even emerge. At the very least, the language of the firm changes — how the firm describes what it does becomes more closely tied to fundamental client needs.
When you compare the service offerings of FreemanWhite (a healthcare focused architecture firm) with those of a larger, more broadly diversified architecture firm that practices in the healthcare arena you’ll notice some interesting differences — new, more specialized service offerings emerge that are more aligned with the business of healthcare:
When you dig more deeply into the firm, you’ll find something much more interesting. The firm has developed its own Healthcare Consulting practice, which it’s branded Catalyst. The consulting practice provides a variety of services not normally associated with an architecture firm, such as ambulatory strategy, service line optimization, patient flow analysis and staffing optimization. The firm has even identified a variety of diagnostic and operational tools (tangible products) that it uses within its practice:
When you look at the firm holistically, it’s starkly different from a larger, more diversified architecture firm in terms of the services it’s providing its healthcare clients.
For a firm to be highly differentiated, it needs to offer proof that it is. It’s one thing to declare yourself an expert in certain aspects of the built environment. It’s another thing for a potential client to truly see that difference in a meaningful way.
Ultimately, proof comes in two forms — expertise and experience. Your expertise is what you know. Your experience is what you’ve done.
- Expertise is demonstrated through thought leadership. Highly differentiated firms publish research and opinion on issues that matter to their ideal clients. This content demonstrates that the firm has knowledge on issues that matter and a unique perspective on how to resolve them.
- Experience is demonstrated primarily through case studies. It’s important to note that an effective case study is much more than a glamour shot of the firm’s awesome architectural work. An effective visual portfolio is inspirational. An effective case study reassures to a buyer that you’ve already applied the intelligent thinking you’ve outlined in your thought leadership with other clients in projects already built or in development. It tells the story of the project in addition to showcasing the visual impact of the work. The best firms have a delicate balance of inspiring portfolios and reassuring case studies.
A/E firms that are producing effective thought leadership:
- Thought Leadership = Gensler: 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey
- Thought Leadership = PGAV Destinations: The Art of the Family Vacation
Often, the personality of the firm is the first experience a potential client has with it. When a client first becomes aware of a firm, their initial interactions are at the very surface of communications — how the firm first presents and communicates itself will be critical as to whether an ideal client will perceive it to be different.
Ultimately, the personality of a firm is encapsulated both through its brand and its culture.
- Branding is really about the language we use to describe the firm and the visual presence of the firm itself. If your firm is truly an apple in a sea of oranges, then it should look like, sound like and feel like an apple. The best firms recognize that marketing should be both educational and entertaining — at the same time.
- Culture is about the people in the firm itself. At the end of the day, an architectural or engineering service is always delivered by a person. When seeking a firm, clients are trying to discern what it would be like to work with you. They want to undertstand not only the expertise of leaders, staffers and project managers, but also what they’re like as people. Who are they? What interests them? A highly differentiated firm tends to have a very strong culture that’s very easy for a prospect to see and feel. This culture is demonstrated largely through how the firm tells the story of its people.
For an example of a well branded firm, take a look at the communications of Brown & Caldwell. The internal creative team at this engineering firm does a very nice job of producing marketing that is creative, educational and entertaining — all at the same time. It uses a lot of video to tell both the story of the firm, the story of its client engagements, and the story of its people.
Wrapping It Up
Michael Porter, a leading management consultant, said it best when he said that strategy is about determining “how we are going to become and remain unique.”
Differentiation drives to the very essence of a firm’s viability today, tomorrow, one year from now, and ten years from now. A firm that fails to exert the effort at all levels to systematically become highly differentiated cannot and will not remain viable.
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