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Brand Building for Professional Services Firms

Brand-building

Build your brand and you will build your business. That is the promise of brand building. In this post we’ll explore that promise and explain how to go about building your professional services firm’s brand, step by step. We’ll even cover some common pitfalls and mistakes to avoid.

But what do we mean by brand building, anyway, and why is it important?

Brand Building Defined

Brand building is the process of using marketing strategies to enhance the relevance, shape the reputation and boost the visibility of a firm’s brand. It is often considered a strategic marketing priority that impacts the growth and profitability of the entire firm.

So what exactly is this brand you will be building?

Your brand is partly your reputation. It’s what people say about you when you’re not around. It’s how they feel about your firm and what they expect from working with you.

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Your reputation has two parts. The first is your general reputation. “They are a good firm” is how a referral source may express this sentiment. The second part of your reputation is what expertise your firm is known for. This more specific reputation might be expressed as, “They are the top experts in historic tax credits” or “They are the go-to firm for cross-border acquisitions in the tech industry.”

Why does this matter? Our research shows that firms known for their expertise in specific areas get 60% more referrals. That is a major impact.

Our #research shows that firms known for their #expertise in specific areas get 60% more #referrals. Click To Tweet

But reputation alone doesn’t capture the full scope of a brand. You must also add in the dimension of visibility. How well known is your firm in your target market? The better and more specific your reputation and the greater your visibility, the stronger your brand will be.

The Importance of Brand Building

Some in your firm may question the importance of brand building. Why spend good money on something as intangible as your firm’s brand?

While your brand may be an abstract concept, its impact is very concrete. Here are some of the areas that a firm’s brand can affect:

  • Referrals – High visibility among your target audience and a positive reputation have been shown to increase referrals, even from people you have never worked with. More importantly, having a reputation for specific expertise boosts referrals by 60%.
  • Lead Generation – A strong brand makes lead generation easier. Particularly helpful is an increased frequency of self-referrals in which prospects seek out your firm.
  • Business Development – A strong brand also makes it easier to convert prospects into clients. A well-known, trusted firm has fewer obstacles to overcome in the closing process.
  • Billing Rates – Not only can you close prospects more easily, you are also more likely to command premium fees for the work that you do. This is especially true if your reputation is built around high-value expertise. We will be talking more later about the power of high-value, high-visibility expertise.
  • Recruiting – Finding and retaining top talent is a major challenge for many firms. In some professions it is the primary factor limiting growth. Your Employer Brand is your firm’s reputation as a place to work, and it is very important as a tool to attract and retain top talent.
  • Firm Valuation – Strong brands — including strong professional services brands — tend to command premium valuations in the marketplace. In combination, the factors listed above tend to produce faster growth and greater profitability. In fact, this is the recipe for a premium valuation.

With this range of impacts, it is easy to see why so many firms seek to build a stronger brand. But brand building in today’s competitive and rapidly evolving marketplace has undergone a major transformation.

Brand Building in the Digital Age

Some believe that professional services are inherently local. You must be face to face to build trust and provide service — ergo, professional services will always be local.

As it turns out, there is another path to trust. That path involves building credibility and trust by sharing valuable content and expertise online — and this is a major industry-shaping development. This trend is being driven by several powerful factors:

1. Technology is making it possible

With the speed and low cost of digital communications, everyone can communicate easily and inexpensively. The distance barrier is rapidly eroding.

And we’re not talking just about voice and written communications. Today, if you want to look someone in the eye, you can Skype them or set up a video conference call.

2. Digital natives are taking over

Anyone entering the workforce within the last 15 years (and that is a lot of folks) has grown up with digital technology. To think technology is not changing the way people search for professional services providers is to deny reality.

And they are not the only ones adopting digital thinking. All ages and demographics are “Googling” their way through their workday, searching for advice, educational resources, recommendations and potential vendors.

Think your buyers are different? Think they never search online?

Well, if they are delegating any part of the search, it is probably to someone who is less senior and more comfortable online. Someone is checking you out online, and you may not even know it. We see it literally every day in the professional services marketplace.

3. The time-pressured executive

Ever notice how everyone seems to be under increasing time pressure? Do more with less. Do it faster. It’s not surprising then to learn that white-collar workers are the most stressed folks in the entire workforce. They also experience the greatest time pressure. No wonder it’s so hard to get an appointment!

Forget the leisurely networking lunch. Give it to me now. Email it over. Google the issue and get an instant answer. Clearly, this trend toward instant gratification favors the digital mode.

4. Free education is expected

Got an issue of importance on the horizon? Go online and research it.

The expectation is that someone is going to explain it to you and educate you for free. Perhaps it’s a peer or an expert.

More and more, offering free education is the way professional services firms establish their expertise and attract new clients. And it is working.

In a recent study of online marketing for professional services firms, we found that 77% of firms are generating business online. Importantly, those firms generating 40% or more leads online grow 4X faster than those who do not get clients from the digital world. Now that is a true competitive advantage!

77% of firms are generating business online. Click To Tweet

5. Expectation of transparency

People have come to expect a high level of information and transparency from professional services firms. Specifically, they expect to understand and evaluate your firm online.

What is your reputation? What is the buzz about your new service? Who works there? How do you approach a client with the same issues I’m experiencing?

If buyers don’t find what they’re looking for, it’s easy to move on. The next firm is just a click away. Why deal with someone who has something to hide?

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When you step back and consider the magnitude of these changes, it is easy to see that the traditional model of professional services marketing has to change.

Competition is going global (or at least national or regional) for more and more professional services. People are getting increasingly comfortable dealing with professional services providers in other locations. Specialists and experts of every sort are making themselves accessible.

These powerful marketplace forces are driving the need for newer, more sophisticated brand building strategies. Let’s review some of the most effective ones.

Brand Building Strategies that Work

Here are our top five strategies to increase the strength of your professional services brand. Many of these strategies involve the use of multiple marketing techniques and tactics.

1. Content marketing

Content marketing involves providing a steady stream of useful information to potential clients or influencers. Think educational rather than promotional. It addresses relevance, reputation and visibility.

Over time, potential clients learn how you approach problems and develop trust in your firm. When they need assistance, your firm is at the top of their list.

Content marketing relies on winning clients by sharing something of value rather than trying to persuade or “sell” them. As such, it is a great strategy to build a brand as well as generate leads.

2. Develop Visible Experts™

Many firms have experts, but few of them go on to become well known and influential with their target client group. We call these fortunate few Visible Experts®. By deliberately developing one or more of these high-profile experts, a firm can dramatically increase the power of its brand.

The strength of a Visible Expert’s personal brand transfers to the entire firm by virtue of a psychological principle called the “halo effect.” Just as a university becomes more prestigious when it has a Nobel Prize winning faculty member, a professional services firm benefits by having a nationally known, high-profile expert on its team.

3. Cultivate prestigious partners

Partnering with prominent organizations to take on important projects is another proven strategy for building your professional services brand. Large, well-known businesses, trade associations or universities are all good partnering candidates.

By partnering, we are not talking about simply sponsoring events. While sponsorships are frequently thought of as brand building strategies, they can be more costly and less effective than a project partnership.

Instead, consider conducting a research project together or starting a special educational program. An innovative, high-profile project is more distinctive than your logo on a crowded sponsorship banner — and is a far more powerful brand building strategy.

4. Seek high-profile clients and case stories

Many successful professional services firms that have built their reputations upon a single name-brand client or a well-known case study. But this type of success often fades with time. If, however, you systematically seek out high-profile clients and invest in producing dramatic results that can be widely shared, that’s a great brand building strategy.

Of course, everyone wants prestigious clients and great results. But surprisingly few firms do the planning and investment to turn that desire into reality.

For example, a firm may land a high-profile client, but if their contract prevents them from promoting their work, a brand building opportunity is lost. Or similarly, a firm may focus on staying within scope rather than investing in an engagement to produce exceptional results. If you make high-profile results a deliberate brand building strategy, those mistakes are less likely.

5. Dominate the social media space

One of the most highly leveraged brand building strategies available to professional services firms today is based on the increasing use for business of social media tools such as LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.

To dominate the social media space, however, you have to do more than participate on an occasional basis. Many, many firms and individuals do that. We are talking about investing the resources to have a dominant presence.

There’s a real strategic opportunity here because adoption of social media by professional services firms is still in its early stages. It is possible even today to become a major online voice within many target client groups. In fact, many small firms and solo professionals have established strong online brands in this way.

While traditional face-to-face networking is still important, consider the time and cost savings associated with a social media brand building strategy. The strongest brands are everywhere your target client looks, and everyone they talk to respects these high-visibility firms. A strong social media presence is a great strategy to make that happen.

The best brand building strategy

In most cases, the best overall brand building strategy is one that combines several of these approaches. For example, a content marketing strategy is a natural fit with a strong social media presence. Social media becomes a perfect way to spread the content, and the content makes great fuel for online discussions.

And, of course, these winning online strategies complement traditional brand building strategies. Face-to-face networking or trade show marketing work well with any of these strategies.

But how do you go about building your brand effectively and efficiently? The answer lies in using a strategic marking process.

A 10 Step Brand Building Process

blogoffer-middle-brandbuilding-guide-2ndFor many firms, growth is a result of luck and individual partner efforts. Marketing is often reactive and short term oriented. “Hey, we were just asked to sponsor a golf event. Should we do it?” Or “We need some new clients. Let’s send out a mailing describing our service offerings.” You get the picture.

The predictable result is a series of tactical decisions that do little to build your brand or accomplish any other strategic objective. So how can you align your marketing plan with your strategic goals?

The strategic marketing process is how you align your firm’s overall strategy with your day-to-day brand building efforts. It allows growth to be driven by a deliberate strategy. We recommend using a simple strategic marketing process consisting of ten basic steps:

1. Consider your overall business strategy

Your overall business strategy is the context for your brand building strategy, so that’s the place to start. If you are clear about where you want to take your firm, your brand will help you get there.

2. Identify your target clients

Who are your target clients? If you say “everybody,” you are making a very big mistake. The narrower your focus, the faster your potential to grow. The more diverse your target audience, the more diluted your marketing efforts will be. So how do you know if you have chosen the right target client group? That’s where the next step comes in.

3. Research your target client group

Firms that do systematic research on their target client group grow faster and are more profitable (see figure below). Further, those that do research more frequently (at least once per quarter) grow faster still.

Research helps you understand your target client’s perspective and priorities, anticipate their needs and put your message in language that resonates with them. It also tells you how they view your firm’s strengths and your current brand. As such, it dramatically lowers the marketing risk associated with brand building.

Figure 1 Research

4. Develop your brand positioning

You are now ready to determine your firm’s brand positioning within the professional services marketplace (also called market positioning). How is your firm different from others, and why should potential clients within your target audience choose to work with you?

A positioning statement is typically three to five sentences in length and captures the essence of your brand positioning. It must be grounded in reality, as you will have to deliver on what you promise. It should also be a bit aspirational so you have something to strive for.

5. Develop your messaging strategy

Your next step is a messaging strategy that translates your brand positioning into messages to your various target audiences. Your target audiences typically include potential clients, potential employees, referral sources or other influencers and potential partnering opportunities, to name a few of the usual suspects.

While your core brand positioning must be the same for all audiences, each audience will be interested in different aspects of it. The messages to each audience will emphasize the most relevant points. Each audience will also have specific concerns that must be addressed, and each will need different types of evidence to support your messages. Your messaging strategy should address all of these needs. This is an important step in making your brand relevant to your target audiences.

6. Develop your name, logo and tagline

For many firms, a name change is not required. But if you are a new firm, are undergoing a merger or are burdened with a name that no longer suits your positioning, a name change may be in order. Even if you don’t change your firm name, a new logo and tagline may help communicate your new brand positioning.

Remember, your name, logo and tagline are not your brand. They are tools to communicate or represent your brand. You must live it to make it real.

7. Develop your marketing strategy

At many professional services firms, marketing strategy should be built around content marketing. Why?

Content marketing is particularly well suited to professional services firms in the digital age. It does everything that traditional marketing does but it does it more efficiently. It uses valuable educational content to attract, nurture and qualify prospects.

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Remember that your brand strength is driven by both reputation and visibility. Increasing visibility alone, without strengthening your reputation, is rarely successful. That’s why traditional “awareness” advertising or sponsorships so often yield disappointing results. On the other hand, content marketing increases both visibility and reputation at the same time. It is also the perfect way to make your brand relevant to your target audiences.

8. Develop your website

Your website is your single most important brand building tool. It is the place where all your audiences turn to learn what you do, how you do it and who your clients are. Prospective clients are not likely to choose your firm solely based on your website. But they may well rule you out if your site sends the wrong message.

Further, your website will be home to your valuable content. That content will become the focus of your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts so that your prospects, potential employees and referral sources will find you and learn about your firm. Online content is central to any modern brand building strategy.

9. Build your marketing toolkit

The next step in the process is to build out the remainder of your marketing toolkit. This might include one-page sales sheets that describe core services offerings or key markets served. In addition, there may be a brief pitch deck that overviews the firm or key offerings and an e-brochure about the firm. These are rarely printed pieces anymore.

Often, this marketing toolkit also includes videos. Popular video topics include firm overviews, case studies or “meet the partner” videos. Key services offerings are also very useful. If prepared appropriately, these tools not only serve a business development function but are important for brand building, too.

10. Implement, track and adjust

This final step in the brand building process may be one of the most important. Obviously a winning brand building strategy doesn’t do much good if it is never implemented.  You might be surprised at how often that happens. A solid strategy is developed and started with all the good intentions the firm can muster. Then reality intervenes. People get busy with client work and brand building tasks get put off… then forgotten.

That’s why tracking is so important. We strongly recommend tracking both the implementation of the plan as well as its results. Did the strategy get implemented as planned? What happened with the objective measures, such as search traffic and web visitors? How many new leads, employee applications and partnering opportunities were generated? Only by tracking the entire process can you make sure you are drawing the right conclusions and making the right adjustments.

The beauty of this brand building process is that it keeps your firm focused on strategic growth. That is important because strategic growth adds much more value to a firm than unfocused or undisciplined growth.

But remember, no plan is effective unless it’s implemented without major mishap. Unfortunately major mistakes in brand building are all too common. That’s where we turn our attention next.

Brand Building Blunders

The brand building process can be daunting. The payoff is huge and the costs are significant, so the stakes are high. That’s all the more reason to avoid costly blunders.

Here is our list of the most common mistakes made by firms trying to build a strong brand. You’ll notice that many of these mistakes occur early in the brand building process, well before you start brand promotion. A flawed foundation makes for a weak structure.

1. No differentiators

If there is no difference between what you say about your firm and what competitors say about their firms, you have a weak brand. Unfortunately, this can have a negative impact on your firm’s growth and profitability. High-growth firms are 3X more likely to have a strong, easy-to-understand differentiator.

#HighGrowth firms are 3X more likely to have a strong, easy-to-understand #differentiator. Click To Tweet

Here is a quick test to see if you have a true differentiator. Think of some way you believe your firm is different. Then ask if a potential competitor could ever say the opposite. If the answer is “no,” it is probably not a good differentiator. By the way, having great people and offering great client service don’t pass this test.

2. Trying to be everything to everyone

This typically results in being nothing special to anyone. Many firms head in this direction because they believe that offering more services creates more opportunities. In fact, they are making it much more difficult to attract new business. Having a clear focus or specialization is another attribute of high-growth firms.

3. Not realizing that your brand is your most important asset

With a strong brand (great reputation for expertise and high visibility in your target audience), a firm can replace people, modify service offerings or even change client segments with the full expectation that they can continue to enjoy success. The firm can be bought and sold on the strength of its brand in the marketplace. A professional services brand can be a tremendously valuable asset and should be treated as such. Failing to understand and invest in your brand is shortsighted and costly in the long run.

4. Branding in a blindfold

Let’s face it, we all think we understand our clients and competitors. But we’re usually wrong — dangerously wrong. When we research professional services firms, we almost always find that internal staff and partners have a distorted view of what their clients really think. Firms that conduct systematic research on their target clients grow faster and are more profitable.

5. Making branding decisions a battleground for other issues

Sadly, many firms turn brand building into a battleground over the future of the firm. For instance, a simple logo decision can become a protracted battle over unresolved control issues. Brand development is difficult enough in its own right. Don’t burden it with unresolved issues around firm direction or control.

6. Aiming too low

Good brands are both real and aspirational. They stand for something that people can get behind and support. Try to be a leader in something. Otherwise, you offer little reason for a prospect to choose your firm over another. Standing for something helps you build a strong brand.

7. Making a promise you can’t keep

The flip side of aiming too low is making a brand promise that you can’t keep. Overpromising will cost you credibility and trust. There is a fine line between being aspirational and being unrealistic. People will forgive you for aiming high and falling short of perfection — if you are still better than others. But if you aim high and deliver a mediocre product, don’t expect much understanding.

8. Forgetting digital branding

The world of professional services is changing. People are learning about your firm in ways they never did before. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on traditional approaches to branding while ignoring digital marketing’s growing role in brand building. The future of branding is digital, so plan for it in your strategy, brand building and rollout.

9. The “me-too” mistake

Fitting in with the rest of your competitors is not a sound strategy: “They use blue, I’ll use blue.” “Every government contractor uses pictures of a flag and a capitol dome, so I should too.”

While adopting attributes of your competitors may feel safer, it is actually playing with fire. It’s hard enough to tell most professional services firms apart. Don’t make it more difficult on your prospective clients. If you can’t be completely different, at least try to look and sound a different. It won’t hurt, and it will probably make your firm easier to recognize and remember.

A Final Thought

Building a strong brand centered on your firm’s expertise can have a profound impact on growth, profitability and overall firm value. The key to success is to base your firm’s brand on a solid understanding of your marketplace, potential clients’ needs and exactly where your firm has an advantage. When you make that advantage widely visible great things start to happen.

Additional Resources:

How Hinge Can Help:

Hinge specializes in all aspects of the branding and brand building for professional services firms. Hinge’s Branding Program can help your firm stand out from the competition and build a distinctive brand that drives sustained growth.

blogoffer-horiz-brandbuilding-2nd

Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D. Who wears the boots in our office? That would be Lee, our managing partner, who suits up in a pair of cowboy boots every day and drives strategy and research for our clients. With a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, Lee is a former researcher and tenured professor at Virginia Tech, where he became a national authority on organizational behavior management and marketing. He left academia to start up and run three high-growth companies, including an $80 million runaway success story.

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