This article explores 5 areas of divergence between branding in professional services firms and branding in consumer companies.
A lot of the conventional thinking on branding came out of consumer marketing. After all, a lot of what we know about how people think and how they buy derives from foundational research on consumer decision-making and consumer behavior over the last 30-40 years. While I’ve heard a lot of marketers say “B2B marketing isn’t really all that different from B2C marketing.” Over the years I haven’t really found that to be true. And, I’ve found this to be particularly not true when it comes to brand development. In fact, I’ve come to believe that trying to apply conventional consumer branding models to a professional services firm can actually be quite problematic because it can lead you down wrong paths costing you lots of lost time and money.
The professional services branding model we use reflects this by putting more energy towards those areas that will have the most impact for this unique type of business. The balance of this article explores 5 areas of divergence between branding in professional services firms and branding in consumer companies:
- It’s Not a Promise
- It’s Not Positioned
- Logos are Less Important
- Personality is Tied to Culture
- Thought Leadership is More Important
#1 – It’s Not a Promise
One the central hallmarks of almost all conventional thinking on branding is that a brand is a promise. It’s a promise to your customers about what you will always do and what you will never do. There’s a lot of elegance to this and you can see how powerful it’s been for a lot of consumer companies in helping to grow their companies via advertising. Some examples from past and present:
- FedEx = When it absolutely has to get there over night. Guaranteed.
- Geico = 15 minutes or less can save you 15% or more on your car insurance.
- Southwest Airlines = No bag fees or additional fees. Ever.
Now, these promises are central themes for some really great advertising campaigns. And, those campaigns have built a lot of business for these companies. But, most professional services firms don’t build their practice through advertising. So, if the firm can actually discern a meaningful promise statement, it’s not likely going to have the medium on which to deliver it effectively to clients. Unfortunately, most of the time when firms go through an exercise to develop a brand promise, the exercise breaks down into something along these lines — “XYZ firm promises to deliver your project on-time and on-budget.” While these are pretty much baseline expectations of any client, they’re not the foundation of a compelling brand platform. This is largely because the framework of a brand as a promise is just not well suited to the nature of a professional services firm.
#2 – It’s Not Positioned
Brand positioning is one of the second hallmarks of conventional brand thinking. Marketers talk about how brands are positioned all the time. In this context, the positioning derives largely from the features of the product or service. And, the desire is to be at the polar end of a continuum along 1-2 dimensions relative to a firm’s peers. Much of the thinking in this area is really grounded on a comparison to competitors. Nike is positioned as a performance brand. Apple is positioned around being user-friendly. Ritz Carlton is positioned as exclusive.
Somehow, applying this straightforward thinking to a professional services firm just seems out of context. Trying to positioning McKinsey as exclusive or KPMG as easy to work with just seems overly simplistic because it is. The first issue with brand positioning is that it puts the emphasis on a comparison of the firm to its peers when the brand really needs to speak first and foremost to the needs of the client. The second issue is that the features of a service that make it different from its peers tends to be the expertise of their people, the process that governs their work, and the resulting intellectual capital that derives from the combination of the two. But, actually getting to the nuance of those aspects of the firm under the umbrella of a traditional brand positioning statement is virtually impossible. So, the classic brand positioning model actually blocks you from getting to the critical insight you need to develop your firm’s brand strategy.
At Rattleback, we like to say you can’t position a firm’s brand, but you must position a firm. In this context, the positioning of the firm is its very business strategy — what it does and who it serves. And, that’s just one foundational element of an effective brand strategy.
#3 – Logos are Less Important
I’m not going to spend a bunch of time breaking down the “your brand is not your logo” story. That’s been written about 30,000x by about 10,000 agencies. That said, what I do want to impress upon the professional services marketer is the relative importance of their logo relative to that of a consumer product. For a consumer product, the logo has the ability to convey emotion, status and attitude. It can connect with consumers on a highly visceral level. It can represent how they view the world, and how they choose to identify themselves. As such, the brands we choose to purchase, use and wear become attitudinal representations of who we are. Sometimes we wear them as a badge to identify how we think and what we care about:
It is very difficult, if not highly unlikely that a professional services firm’s logo will every connect with a client on such a visceral level. A firm’s logo is rarely, if ever, really tied to a physical manifestation of a service delivered. It’s not as if, you can complete a consulting assignment and tag your mark on the manufacturing floor. Few architecture firms reach the rarified air of being able to mark a building upon completion as one of their designs.
Ultimately, your logo will primarily be used as an indicator of ownership on your firm’s intellectual property. It will be used to signify that this thinking was produced by your company. Now, I’m not saying that logos are irrelevant. Far from. Rather, simply that the design of your logo plays a less important role in the delivery of your brand than in that of a consumer firm. Chances are good you’re never going to need to condense your logo down into a 120 x 120 px space to compete for consumer’s attentions on an iPhone screen. However, what tends to play a more important role is the visual toolbox that’s used around the logo to support it. The visual toolbox is represented by the unique visual assets you develop that make your firm’s intellectual property uniquely yours. It’s those aspects of the brand design that enable clients to recognize your thought leadership as coming from your firm and not from someone else:
#4 – Personality is Tied to Culture
Defining the unique personality of your brand is equally as important as it is to any consumer brand. But, it’s actually a bit more difficult. For a lot of consumer brands, the brand itself can be divorced from the company that owns it and delivers it. Consumer brands get bought and sold all the time. Consumers really have no idea who owns Frosted Flakes or KFC for that matter. The personality of the brands as they’re built and marketed are completely separate from the companies that own and manage them.
Not true for your firm. Your personality and corporate culture are virtually one in the same. The personality you use to shape the look-and-feel and the tone-of-voice of your outward communications derives from the culture of your firm. Ultimately, as you’re looking to define the personality of the brand you’re largely looking to codify the culture of the firm in one way shape or form. As such, the culture of your firm can be the very basis for the language you use to describe your practice, as it is in this exceprt from McKinsey.com:
#5 – Thought Leadership is More Important
While most consumer brands rely heavily on advertising to shape perception and awareness in the market, most professional service firms do not. While there are a few notable exceptions — Accenture being one — most firms find broad, brand advertising to be an ineffective (or too expensive) way to drive awareness and shape perception in the marketplace. By contrast, for most professional services firms thought leadership is your most effective tool for brand delivery. In fact, I like to say that Google is the closest thing a firm has to Super Bowl advertising.
In utter simplicity, brand strategy at a professional services firm is really about defining what the firm would like to be known for. And, this is really the root of thought leadership. For what big ideas would your firm like to be known? How will you build a compelling and original point-of-view on those topics? Over the course of a decade or so, a firm can build a reputation in the market for doing certain types work for certain types of clients if it focuses exclusively on doing the work and doing it exceptionally well. That same firm, within the span of just a few years, can position itself as a leading expert for that type of work through the consistent development and delivery of high quality thought leadership.
If you’re thinking about your firm’s reputation in the market, I hope this article helps you avoid some of the typical pitfalls that can saddle any branding engagement and enables you to follow a different path:
- Steer clear of exercises in brand promise and brand positioning.
- Drill down into the driving issues you’d like to be known for solving.
- Dive head first into your firm’s unique perspective on those issues.
- Codify it as thought leadership.
- And, build a brand platform that represents your firm’s intellectual property in a unique way such that it can be remembered as uniquely yours.
Learn more in free recorded webinar, Branding: A Primer for Professional Services Firms.