This article covers what a brand is in the context of a professional services firm, why you should care about the topic, and the 5 typical ways to classify your branding problem (if you think you have one).
Over my 15+ years in the agency business, I’ve come to the conclusion that branding is the only marketing concept that virtually everyone understands yet has practically no agreed upon definition. Walk into a room full of marketers and talk about a website, a lead, an opportunity, or a promotion, and just about everyone will arrive at an agreed upon definition either without any conversation at all or within a few minutes.
Walk into that same room and talk about branding, and the conversation drones on for hours with everyone talking across each other with opaque words like “essence,” “promise,” “attributes” and “identity” without ever coming to a consensus that means anything to anybody but those in the room.
Branding is incredibly simple and utterly complex.
So, What’s a Brand in a Professional Services Firm?
In the context of architecture, engineering and consulting services, I prefer to think about this rather simply — a brand is nothing more than how your thought of by your clients (both existing and prospective). Sure, you can throw employees in there (again, both existing and prospective). And, if you’re large enough, you might even throw communities into the mix. But, in most cases we can keep it really simple if we think about it solely as how clients respond to 2 very basic questions:
- What do they know you for?
- What do they think and feel about your firm?
Of course, the answers to those questions usually aren’t one or two words. Heck, they may not even be one or two sentences. And, to clients those answers look a lot like a fuzzy jumble of words, colors, ideas and feelings that are mashed together like a messy word cloud — I call them a brand cloud. As Jeff Bezos once said, consumers assemble a brand in their minds the same way a bird builds a nest — one twig (or interaction) at a time. A brand cloud simply represents that nest in the mind of a client.
This is a brand cloud that represents my perceptions of Accenture based on all the interactions I’ve had with the firm over ~20 years. Note that I did not include the actual Accenture logo on purpose — I was unable to recall what it actually looked like beyond a simple lowercase, serif a. Also, this is purposely not designed. It simply reflects everything that comes to mind for me about Accenture without actively interacting with any of their current marketing assets. I do not have a highly visual memory. I remember concepts, ideas and language better. Another person doing this same exercise may produce something highly visual:
It’s your job as a marketer to create answers to those questions that are clear, concise and unique (note: some of those answers may require very difficult upstream business decisions that reach well beyond the marketing function). Then, invest some portion of your marketing effort towards shaping those answers in the minds of your clients — creating the twigs that clients will collect to build their nest.
Brands Emanate From Every Nook (and Cranny) of the Firm
To extend the analogy further, each client builds their own unique nest in their mind based on their interactions with your firm — this includes your outward persona, your reputation, and any direct experiences they have with you (this could be actually working with you, or hearing someone speak at an event, or what they’ve been told by others they trust and respect). Therefore, that opinion of your firm could be drawn from your strategy and positioning, your messaging and thought leadership, your culture and people, or your knowledge and experience. Likely, it’s drawn from a little bit of all these things.
The more clear, concise and unique your answers to these two questions are, the more likely clients are to build a nest in their mind that’s similar to the one you hope for. This is one of the many reasons, I’ve always been a fairly vocal proponent of narrow vertical or horizontal positioning. It’s always clear and concise and usually fairly unique.
- Sargent & Lundy = energy
- IBB Consulting = telecommunications and media
- Array Architects = healthcare
It’s much easier and less expensive to build awareness and memorability for a firm when what it does and who it serves can be summed up in a few words. But, of course positioning is not your only lever for building a brand. You might draw from a unique process or methodology, proprietary intellectual property, the knowledge or perspective of key people, or a distinct culture and set of values (assuming those things bear some importance to your clients). Any one of these things could be a part of “your nest” and find their way into your marketing mix in one way or another.
Why Should You Care?
But, clearly, you shouldn’t build your business solely to make it easy to remember. That said, having a well conceived and effectively executed brand strategy simply makes all aspects of marketing and business development a bit easier:
- It’s hard to open the door to a client when they have no idea who you are.
- It’s hard to sell a strategic consulting service when a client thinks of you as a point-solution provider.
- It’s hard to translate website traffic into conversations when a client can’t understand what you do.
- It’s hard to turn meetings into projects when a firm looks disjointed and inconsistent.
Classifying Your Branding Problem
Before you jump into a branding initiative, take a step back and look critically at the nature of the problem. Based on my experience, when a firm tells me they have a branding problem, it usually means one of 3 things:
- Awareness. Clients we want to do business with have never heard of us.
- Perception. Clients we want to do business with don’t understand us.
- Opportunity. We’re not attracting enough leads or we’re attracting the wrong ones.
Then, do your best to do a root cause analysis of the problem. Just about any one of these stated problems could be the result of an upstream issue (ineffective positioning, poor service definition, ineffective thought leadership, lack of clear differentiators) or a downstream issue (poor messaging, out-of-date visual communications).
Isolating the issue will help you apply the appropriate remedy. The right solution could very well be redesigning the corporate logo and all your supporting marketing materials. Or, it could also be narrowing market focus, innovating service delivery, improving client personas, redirecting thought leadership strategy, or improving your corporate messaging. A good agency should help you correctly diagnose what’s wrong, and guide you on how to fix what needs fixing (even if that means referring you somewhere else).
So, What About the Fun Visual Stuff?
In the end, for most people, when they think of brands the first thing that comes to mind is cool visual stuff — the Nike swoosh logo, the iconic Target symbol, or Starbucks Siren.
While a professional service firm’s logo will never have such memorability, how a firm presents itself absolutely matters. If your firm looks dated and out-of-touch, clients logically infer that maybe you’re a bit risky. On the upside, a well developed outward persona gives clients something to visualize when they think of your firm.
Ultimately, if your problem is truly an aesthetic one, then the creative solution needs to visualize all aspects of what the firm represents in the marketplace — your positioning, your thought leadership, your people, your unique culture, your past project experience, and your reputation in terms of project delivery. Somewhere in there, a great designer utilizing an effective process, will capture it all and turn it into something unique, cohesive and memorable.
Suggested Action Items
If you think you have a branding problem, look at the short list of classifiers, and do your best to classify the nature of the problem. Then look at the short list of viable solutions to determine where to devote your resources.
If you feel pretty good about your brand, take a moment and build a “brand cloud” like some of the ones I’ve shared here. Then, ask yourself, do you like what you see? Do you think potential clients see your firm in a similar vein? If not, what are you going to do about it?