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.
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.