This article shows you how to connect business goals with your brand strategy and with the subsequent tools and tactics you might use to grow your firm.
Before you read this article, go to the literal end of your file server and dig up those brand guidelines you created 10 years ago. Seriously. Do it.
Now, open the file and read the first page. What does it say? I’m willing to bet it says something like this, “Our brand is more than a logo. It’s a promise. It’s an experience. It’s the feeling we hope to…yada, yada, yada.” Okay, good.
Now, turn to pages 2-78. What are those pages about? I’ll make another bet. I’ll bet that each and everyone of them is about how (and how not) to use that logo your brand is supposedly not about. Hmmm….seems odd, huh.
We all have a vision of what a strong brand would do for our firm (“nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM”, right)? But, a vision without a plan is really just a dream. And, in practice most of us tend to operate without a plan. This usually means overly focusing on those things we easily control (logos and how they’re used). While spending less time on things we should (strategy).
Why does this happen? Well, the stuff in the middle that connects vision to tactics is fuzzy. It’s hard to wrap your head around. You know you need to do it, but you don’t know what IT is. This article is designed to put just enough structure around your firm’s brand so you’ll know how to connect that vision you have of what your brand could be with the strategies and tactics you’ll apply every day to get there.
A 4-Part Model
If you’re thinking of investing in your firm’s brand, you need to be clear on what you’re hoping to accomplish and how you’ll actually get there. There are 4 parts to this framework:
- Goals: The advantage we hope to create.
- Strategy: The thinking we’ll use to create that advantage.
- Platform: The assets we’ll build to present that thinking.
- Delivery: The tactics we’ll use to drive to our goals.
Now, we’ll look at the components underlying each part of the framework.
#1 – Goals
Branding in a professional services firm is about making a firm both clear and memorable. The challenge of doing this becomes more complex as the firm becomes larger, more diversified, and more complex itself. But, regardless of the size or complexity of a firm, I would argue the goals of investing in the brand are the same:
- Awareness: Clients think of us. A reasonable percentage of clients in our market (an industry or high value business segment) should name us when asked to name a short list of “firms like ours.”
- Perception: They feel or know something about us. Some portion of those clients should be able to associate some simple high-level emotions, opinions and ideas about our firm when prompted (“that’s an innovative firm” or “that firm knows a lot about digital transformation.”). And, a subset of that should be able to loosely articulate what we do and the value we create for companies like theirs (“they do a lot of M&A work” or “they’re the best at process improvement.”)
- Opportunity: They engage with us. The end objective of any marketing initiative is to generate leads and opportunities for the firm. Ultimately, we will generate opportunities directly through both our thought leadership and our business development activities. Over time, if we become really clear and memorable, we will generate referrals — both from clients who’ve worked with us and from people who simply know us and trust us from being exposed to our thought leadership and our work.
In short, an effective brand creates advantage by making the firm better known, better understood, and more sought out by high value clients.
#2 – Strategy
Every day, the marketplace for any professional services firm is becoming more competitive. Whether yours is an architecture practice, a management consulting firm, or an accounting firm, your clients simply have more options than they’ve ever had before. They can and do reach across geographies to hire firms. The fundamental goal of any business strategy is to determine how we’re going to become and remain unique (source: Michael Porter). A brand strategy is no different.
It is our experience that every single firm in existence can carve out a unique place in the market if it’s willing to make some difficult business decisions to do so. There are 3 components to an effective brand strategy for a professional services firm. It’s highly likely that any one of these components in a vacuum will not differentiate your firm or accomplish your goals. But, when you combine all 3, in a thoughtful way, you can create white space:
- Positioning (WHAT): Our positioning does not seek to differentiate us. All it should do is clearly state what we do and who we serve. It defines where we will compete — the high value segments we hope to influence. And, it describes our value proposition — the tangible benefits clients in those segments receive from hiring us. To be clear, clients may be able to receive those same tangible benefits from another firm. While in theory positioning should be fairly simple, in practice a lot of firms really struggle to answer these questions.
See also: Positioning — More Depth. Less Breadth.
- Perspective (WHY): In a nutshell, this is what drives your organization to do what you do. Your perspective is what evokes feeling and emotion in your clients. It connects you with them through a similar set of beliefs or a common cause. It’s not simply your values or your organizational vision. Usually, it’s something a bit more specific and concrete than that. We can think about it in a variety of ways. It could be your unique point-of-view on how you do what you do. It could be the impact beyond profit you hope to impart on the world. It could be a guiding vision on where the marketplace is headed and how it will impact your clients’ businesses. Regardless, to be effective it has to be relevant to your clients, not just your firm. Ultimately, the goal is to connect the emotional context of your firm with the emotional drivers of your clients. This is not easy. It will likely take a fair amount of time in discussion and exploration to figure it out.
See also: Start With Why
- Personality (HOW): A firm’s personality is used to shape how it will communicate. It includes things intrinsic to the firm like its corporate values (how we behave as a collection of individuals) and its culture (the fabric of the firm). And, it includes things extrinsic to the firm (attributes we may specifically define as a marketing or leadership team that explain how we’d like to present the firm to the world).
If you’re thinking about brand strategy the goal is not to get hung up on the specific language that exists within the strategy itself. The strategy is just the structure that we use to describe the ideas that will give us a meaningful advantage in the market. You’ll bring the ideas to life as you build the actual brand platform and deliver the brand to the market.
Your goal in strategy setting is simply to get the ideas on paper. For now, just focus on crafting some simple answers to the questions that fall out of the structure described above — Who do we work with? What do we provide? What value do we create? Why does it matter? How do we behave? How would we like people to describe us?
#3 – Platform
A brand platform is simply the tools you will use to present your strategy to the marketplace. You will use all 3 elements of the strategy in one way or another to develop each of these elements:
- Corporate Messaging: The language you use to describe your firm will differ based on where it falls within your communications. Corporate messaging should connect with potential clients on an emotional level by leading with the firm’s perspective. Service level messaging should drive more deeply into the firm’s positioning by communicating the problems each service was designed to solve and the benefits of hiring the firm to provide that service. All messaging should be developed using a tone-of-voice that draws from the firm’s personality.
- Corporate Identity: If a building is designed to solve a specific business purpose, then the look of it from the outside is designed to give you a glimmer of what you might find within. The same holds true for a firm’s corporate identity. A good designer will pull from your firm’s perspective, personality and positioning to create a visual look that brings the ideas in your strategy to life. Your corporate identity consists of your corporate logo, color palettes and typefaces as well as any unique visual elements (photography or illustration) you might use to present your firm to the market. For the latter, consider Populous’s decision to incorporate people into its architectural photography, CH2M’s illustrative style or Accenture’s use of Tiger Woods as a brand spokesman before his personal meltdown. All these decisions gave those firms a distinct visual presence that could evoke a feeling in a client (Accenture was looking to evoke the emotion of “uncommon performance” and Tiger Woods was the perfect expression of that, at least at that time). We consider corporate identity to also include all the tangible tools you use to conduct business (like case study templates, resume templates, qualifications templates, PowerPoint templates, and even corporate signage).
Given a well thought through strategy, any firm can develop a highly distinct brand platform that carves out a unique voice and visual presence. When firms fall down, it’s usually because they jump right past 2 (Strategy) and go right to 3 (Platform).
#4 – Delivery
This is really where the rubber hits the road. Ultimately, the platform for the brand simply shapes how we present ourselves to the market. But, that presentation of the firm is largely irrelevant if no one ever sees it. Ultimately, the tools of delivery are those things you have at your disposal to really drive awareness and create opportunities for your firm. You will leverage all 3 elements of your brand strategy to execute in all these areas:
- Thought Leadership: In my opinion, thought leadership is the single most effective tool for brand building in a professional services firm. When a firm presents a research-based, original point-of-view on issues that matter to clients, people take notice. Clients remember firms that have something compelling and relevant to say (it drives awareness). It raises their opinion of the firm that authored it (it shapes perception). And, often, they lean forward and open the door for you to come in (it creates opportunity). Thought leadership, framed by your firm’s unique perspective, can be delivered in a variety of forms be it articles, white papers, presentations, webinars, speaking engagements, etc.
- Website: Increasingly, the website is becoming the critical tool for connecting the firm’s thought leadership with potential clients. While referrals, speaking, and offsite publishing are still generally the most effective lead sources for most firms, the web (primarily via search) is rising to the top tier of lead generation. As such, your website is often your best opportunity to articulate your firm’s positioning and unique perspective using your firm’s distinct personality. It’s the place you bring all 3 elements of strategy together most clearly.
- Internal Communications: In terms of building your brand, you’ll want to focus on communicating the ideas that you’ve developed within your strategy rather than dogmatically trying to enforce some endless set of logo rules. How will you get everyone in your firm to understand your perspective and get bought in? Think about opportunities both online (intranets) and off (corporate workspaces and internal brand books) to get your message understood across the practice.
- External Communications: In a lot of firms, relational business development is still the name of the game in terms of driving leads and identifying opportunities. Make sure that your partners, principals and business developers are all well versed in the aspects of your brand model. Provide them with useful tools they can use to tell the story in all its forms (think: umbrella messaging for quick conversations, corporate fact sheets to communicate your positioning and perspective, and better selling tools to describe the typical problems solved by your various service lines).
Ultimately, most of your marketing resources should be squarely devoted to the Delivery aspects of the Framework. That’s where you will have the greatest impact on your Goals. That said, don’t rush to the tactics. Thought leadership, unbounded due to lack of clarity in positioning or perspective is largely a waste of resources. Simultaneously, you can deliver all the leads in the world to your website, but if your corporate identity feels dated or your corporate messaging is confusing or fuzzy, you’ll simply see a lot less opportunity from the effort.
If your feeling like it’s time to rebrand, do your best to classify your branding problem, then talk to an agency like ours about how they’d help you explore it further. Don’t feel like you have to rush to the table with a detailed scope and a comprehensive outline of what you need. Rather, consider engaging with an agency through a limited scope engagement to simply understand the problem better and help you think through your best course of action.
While this article represents our own original thought, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge some of the folks who helped shape our thinking along the way:
- Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching, Adding Perspective. September 2013.
- Simon Sinek, Start With Why