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Brand Design for the Professional Services Firm: The Ultimate Guide for Marketers and Executives

Brand-Design

If you are considering, or about to embark on, a rebranding program for your firm, you have an exciting opportunity ahead of you to change the way prospective clients think about your organization. Brand design is the process that will take you from here to there.

But many people don’t fully understand what brand design is, how it works and what it can achieve. In this guide, we provide all the fundamentals you need to go into a rebranding program with your eyes wide open to its marvelous possibilities.

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Who Is this Guide For?

If you are a professional services marketing director, firm principal or stakeholder, this guide will help you understand the value of brand design and how you can use it to attract better prospects and improve engagement and start building loyalty at the earliest stages of the buyer journey.

What Is Brand Design?

Let’s begin with a simple definition. Brand design is the deliberate process of changing the way a firm is perceived in the marketplace. This process has both strategic outcomes, such as positioning and messaging, and visual outcomes, such as a firm’s logo, color palette and marketing collateral.

While the term “brand design” is commonly associated only with creating a brand’s visual components (its “brand identity”), that definition is incomplete. Without a carefully conceived strategic foundation, a firm’s brand identity will lack purpose and emotional power. To pull off a fully realized, coherent brand design takes a broad range of skills, from research and strategy to writing and graphic design.

Brand Design vs. Branding vs. Brand

How is brand design different from branding or, for that matter, a brand? In fact, these three concepts are closely related.

This may sound odd at first, but a brand is nothing more than a perception. It’s the way clients and the outside world perceive a firm. It is how people think about and experience it. When people talk to others about your firm, how they feel and what they say about you is your brand.

Branding is a program to produce a desirable brand. When a firm undergoes rebranding, it assembles a team — usually a combination of internal and external resources — to change the way their business is perceived in the marketplace.

And brand design is the process of building that brand, using a brand strategy and positioning as guiding principles. When people talk about the branding process, they are talking about brand design.

Why Brand Design Matters for Professional Services

Providing outstanding professional services is all about the people, right? So why is investing in an expensive brand even worth it?

Many firm executives believe that the value of their practice is a direct function of their expertise. They are mistaken. In fact, expertise has no inherent value at all.

Until, that is, people are persuaded it has value.

Brand design is a critical tool that firms use to persuade their audience that they deliver exceptional value. The strategy helps buyers recognize that a firm is highly relevant to them, often through the process of specialization. The visual expression of the brand suggests to buyers that the firm is credible, established and different from otherwise similar firms.

Effective brand design addresses both a buyer’s conscious (rational) and unconscious (irrational) mind. It’s a powerful, dynamic duo.

Strategy + Visual Expression = Brand Design Click To Tweet

The Strategic Foundations of Brand Design

Research – Studies have shown that the gap between how firms think they are perceived and how they actually are perceived is shockingly wide. The only way you can find out what clients really think about you — what they value and what drives them bonkers — is to engage an independent researcher or firm to interview your clients and prospects. It’s hard to get honest answers from clients when you ask the tough questions yourself. Most of them don’t want to hurt your feelings or risk damaging the relationship. People feel much freer, however, to open up to an impartial third party and volunteer a lot of great information. These findings are almost always eye-opening, and they provide the crucial ingredients for a powerful differentiation strategy.

Differentiators – Buyers of professional services struggle to tell one service provider apart from another. Differentiation is the first step in solving that problem. Once you have conducted brand research, you’ll have many of the raw materials to begin drawing up a list of differentiators — those characteristics of your firm that clients and potential buyers value about your firm and associate with you. You may be able to supplement these findings with other differentiating characteristics that you know to be true about your firm, such as an industry or service specialty.

Download-Brand-Building-GuideStrategy & Positioning – Using your differentiators as a starting place, you can develop a strategy to position your firm against key competitors and encourage a segment of the market to favor you over the others. Your strategy needs to achieve two things: 1) separate you from similar firms, and 2) establish a reason buyers will choose you. Using your differentiators, strategy and other key features of your firm, you can craft a compact, compelling positioning statement that lays out your unique place in the marketplace. Think of your positioning statement as the storyline that hooks your audience and draws them in — a resource you can return to again and again as you develop marketing messages.

Messaging – Your positioning isn’t worth much if you can’t articulate it to your prospects. That’s why messaging is an essential step in building a persuasive brand. Many teams that go through a firm rebranding discover that, for the first time ever, they are able to articulate how their firm is different. It’s truly a moment of revelation! Messaging, of course, comes in many guises, from your elevator pitch to the headlines on your website. Some firms develop a tagline specifically to reference or support their positioning.

The Visual Elements of Brand Design

“Design is the silent ambassador of your brand”
—Paul Rand

When most people hear the word “branding,” they think of a company’s logo, signage, collateral, advertising, maybe even its great-looking website. That’s no accident. We are visual beings, and every day we use our eyes to assess everything around us — including the businesses we interact with and buy from.

Psychologists have found that we process visual information much more efficiently than any other type, and colors, shapes and pictures can irrationally affect the way we feel about the things we see. That means the appearance of a firm’s marketing materials can influence the way we feel about a firm, even before we interact with it. When a person encounters a design that is clean and scrupulously organized, they tend to project some of their impressions on the firm itself — for instance, attention to detail and sophistication.

“The appearance of a firm’s marketing materials can influence the way we feel about a firm” Click To Tweet

That’s why some firms invest substantial time and money in their brand identity. The result — an appealing system of well-designed components — can evoke positive feelings and emotions, such as trustworthiness and confidence. First impressions matter, and a high-credibility brand identity can make it easier to turn prospects into clients. Similarly, a low-credibility brand can do a lot of damage.

Brand identity covers a wide spectrum of materials, and which ones a given firm chooses to develop depends on how they attract and nurture prospective clients. Below, I describe a few of the most common visual brand design elements and materials:

Logo – It’s often said that businesses often confuse their logo for their brand. Whether or not that’s true, the logo is one of the most visible components of a brand, so its outsized reputation has some merit. Your logo is a visual proxy for your firm. As a result, it both makes a statement about your firm and absorbs many of the feelings and emotions that people generate when they encounter your brand identity or interact with your people.

Website – Apart from your logo, your website is probably the most visible expression of your brand identity. It is a rich visual medium that can include motion graphics, slick user interactivity and video — so it offers a terrific opportunity to impress your audiences. It is also a complex platform that must look great on devices large and small. If it is not designed and built with skill, a lot can go wrong.

Let’s be honest. Websites are expensive, and great websites can be very expensive. But because virtually every prospect will check out your website, it is one of the most important brand design investments you can make. According to our research, about a third of professional services buyers reject a firm on basis of its website alone. So put your marketing budget where your buyers are.

Marketing Collateral – Marketing collateral — a general term for any outward-facing printed or digital materials that you might supply to a prospective client or job candidate — provides an opportunity to explore the full range of your visual brand. From colors and photography to typography and layout, collateral is where designers can strut their stuff and take your brand identity to new heights of sophistication.

Stationery – In today’s business environment where PDFs have largely replaced couriers, postal mail and overnight delivery services, there is less and less need for traditional printed letterhead and envelopes. In fact, some firms have gone all digital. And while business cards are still common, they are no longer essential at some businesses. Whether or not you have embraced the all-digital workplace, it is still important to make a good impression at every touch point with your prospects. Any time you send a letter in Word or on paper, and whenever you hand a prospect your business card, you are sending visual signals about the credibility of your firm. High-credibility firms are associated with elegant, clean design, and making the right impression is especially important on these early-stage, front-line materials.

Other Elements – Of course, a firm’s visual design can be applied to anything people outside or inside the firm might encounter. Here are a few examples:

  • Tradeshow display
  • Advertising
  • Social media pages
  • Proposals
  • Pitch decks
  • Deliverables
  • Environmental graphics (signage)
  • Vehicles
  • Uniforms

It’s important that all of your marketing components communicate the qualities and personality of your brand with consistency.

Brand Identity Guidelines – How do you corral your designers and maintain a visually organized and strategically sound visual identity? Brand identity guidelines are an important part of the answer. (The other, often more challenging part is enforcing the guidelines.) Ask your branding firm to document your identity’s key elements and their usage. Basic guidelines might cover a few key items: your logo, color palette and typography, for instance. A more comprehensive set might add guidance on layout, photography, signage, video, animations and even written tone and voice.

What Separates Great Visual Brand Design from the Ordinary?

Great design. It’s tough to define, but you know it when you see.

Or do you?

Why is it, then, that so many firms take similar approaches to their brand identities? Let me illustrate my point. Here are the homepages of nine professional services firms from the same industry (in this case, accounting — but this situation applies across the board):

brand-design-websites

(Click image for larger version.)

Notice any problems here?

For one thing, all of these homepages are blue, which happens to be the most common color in visual brands. Firms seem to gravitate toward “navy” and “royal” blues, in particular. (I don’t show it here, but green is the next most common color in the accounting industry. I could have just as easily have found nine green websites.) When so many competitors share the same narrow preference for colors, buyers are conditioned from the beginning of the process to believe that their choices are all alike.

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Another problem is clichéd imagery. I show just a few examples of images here, but these firms are following a familiar, well-worn road. Calculators, sailboats, generic buildings, zen gardens — these images not only represent a failure of imagination, they compound the buyer’s dilemma. In your industry, it might be chess pieces, boardrooms, handshakes, eagles, gavels, scales, stethoscopes. The list of stale imagery is shockingly long. Do any of these firms bring anything special to the table? The answer, regrettably, is probably not.

Brand design is an opportunity to avoid the “me too” problem. If most of your competitors are taking a particular visual direction, then you know what to do — head somewhere else. Almost anywhere else is better than where the crowd is going.

Of course, not all of your competitors are going to have blue-colored identities. Nor are they going to use the same types of imagery and layouts. Before you begin redesigning your identity, you need to find out what your competitors are doing visually. Can you spot any trends? Then work with your branding partner to explore fresh territory so that you can differentiate you firm at the earliest points of contact with your audience.

Before you begin redesigning your identity, find out what your competitors are doing visually Click To Tweet

Great visual brand design is as much about finding your own way as it is about typefaces and grids and colors. When you work with a branding firm or graphic designer, it’s important that you understand this concept and encourage your design partner to explore the blue ocean and take some risks.

To explain in a blog post what makes one logo or website design good and another ho-hum is an almost impossible task. Good taste is acquired over time through repeated exposure to exceptional design. An experienced visual brand design partner can help you create an identity that evokes credibility, sophistication and personality. But it is up to you to provide the permission to take your firm into uncharted territory.

Conclusion

Brand design at its best should challenge you at every turn. A strategy that truly differentiates your firm demands sacrifice — often pruning away client segments or service offerings with which you’ve grown comfortable over the years. And a well-conceived brand identity should go out of its way to thumb its nose at the status quo. That’s not to say every great brand design has to be brash or bold. But it should have a personality all its own and a purpose that is clear, easy to grasp and distinctive.

In the end, brand design is not about you, at all. It’s about the buyer. To be more precise, brand design is about making it easy for the buyer to make the right choice in the marketplace. It’s about positioning your firm to be the easy choice and making sure that appropriate prospective clients not only can find your firm but are predisposed to trust it.

That’s what brand design is all about.

Additional Resources:

How Hinge Can Help:

The best brand building strategies help your firm connect with its buyers, build your reputation, and increase your marketplace visibility. Hinge’s Branding Program can help your firm stand out from the competition and build a brand that drives sustained growth.

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Aaron Taylor, Partner

Aaron Taylor A partner and co-founder of Hinge, Aaron brings over 19 years of marketing strategy experience to every client engagement. In his career, he’s conceived and implemented engaging brand strategies for scores of professional services firms. In his role as Creative Director, Aaron oversees Hinge's award-winning creative team.

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