Way back in 1969, a very perceptive marketer named Jack Trout introduced the concept of brand positioning to the world. He was the first to put a word to a very powerful marketing effect. A few years later, he and Al Ries wrote the seminal book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, and the rest is history.
Now, almost half a century later, the concept of positioning is just as relevant to businesses — and probably more so. If anything, today’s professional services marketplace is much larger and more crowded. Buyers have a bewildering array of firms to choose from, and with the rise of the Internet, local firms are contending with companies across the nation, if not the world.
What’s a firm to do? How do you compete when there’s barely room to breathe?
That’s where brand positioning comes in. It elegantly explains how people see the marketplace and prescribes a way firms can carve out a place in the minds of their buyers.
Brand Positioning Defined
At its simplest, brand positioning is the process of setting your business apart from your competitors in a way that builds preference for you among your target audience. Its goal is to associate your firm with an idea or category in the minds of people who might buy your services.
Let’s consider a couple of examples.
What do you think of when you read the words, “soft drink” or “pop”? Did Coke or Pepsi come to mind? These two products are positioned to dominate the soft drink category.
Now let’s try a service. What company does “overnight shipping” make you think of? Even though other companies offer overnight delivery, FedEx owns that category — it has built its entire identity and operations around doing it better than anyone else.
In theory, any professional services firm can build a strong association between their brand and an idea. But to be successful, your positioning must be 1) different (it’s tough to take over a leadership position already held by another business — remember, Avis has been #2 since 1953.); and 2) visible (if nobody has heard of your firm, your positioning can’t take root).
Typically, your brand positioning is articulated in your brand positioning statement. But I’ll have a lot more to say about that a bit later.
Why Brand Positioning Is Important
When you have a well-defined brand position, your firm has many advantages. Positioning can provide a conceptual template for your brand, your marketing messages, the services you offer and even the way you structure your pricing.
Here are a few of the key benefits of brand positioning:
- It focuses you on a specific target market. When you provide a limited set of services to a limited audience, your marketing becomes more powerful and effective. You are perceived as a high-value expert.
- It clarifies how you are different from competitors. You’ll finally know exactly what sets you apart and be able to talk about your firm in a way that gets prospects excited.
- It shows how to win new clients. Positioning arms your business development team with critical arguments they can use in the nurturing and closing processes.
- It drives creative decisions. When you understand the core message you need to communicate to prospects, you can make informed decisions throughout the creative process. Your positioning becomes the DNA of your visual brand.
- It drives service development and pricing decisions. Knowing how you compare to your competitors helps you decide what new services to offer, and when. Are you positioned as a source of innovative services? A low-cost provider? A specialist or a generalist? The answers to these questions can affect what services you offer and how to price them.
5 Types of Brand Positioning Strategy
Positioning strategies can take many forms, but not all are appropriate to professional services firms. Below are five strategies that are most relevant to positioning a firm like yours:
- Cost-driven positioning. “We offer everything those other firm do, but we cost less.” This is a very challenging strategy unless you have an inherent cost advantage. Technology can be your best friend if you are using it more effectively than your competitors or worst enemy if you are behind others in a cost-driven strategy.
- Niche service specialization. In this strategy, you focus on offering a service that is not widely available through competitors. You offer specialized expertise that, presumably, a generalist would not have. This approach can work well unless the service begins to generate strong demand and new competitors emerge to dilute your “specialness.”
- Industry specialization. This is a popular and often effective way to position a professional services firm. It is another form of specialized expertise, and it allows you to tightly focus your marketing and evolve your services as your market changes. The implication of industry specialization is that your firm has deep experience working with similar businesses. This approach comes with risks, however. If your industry experiences economic decline, your fortunes may follow. It is also easy for new competitors to enter the fray and disrupt your positioning.
- Role-focused specialization. “We help CEOs succeed” is an example of role-focused positioning — targeting a particular function in the organization. Instead of specializing in a particular industry or service, you target a cohort of people. These buyers will perceive you as more tuned in to their needs and expect that you offer specific knowledge or expertise that will make their job easier.
- Quality of service positioning. This is one of the most common strategies used by professional services firms, and (with rare exceptions) it is one of the least effective. “Nobody’s more committed to quality,” “we deliver the best service” and similar messages are so ubiquitous in the marketplace that they utterly fail to impress buyers. Of course, buyers do want quality and customer service — but these traits are table stakes and they are rarely criteria used to select a firm.
The Brand Positioning Process
Ready to develop a brand positioning strategy for your own firm? The steps below will give you a solid roadmap to get there. I’ve also included links to other resources that will help fill in some of the details. Let’s get started!
Step 1. Start with your overall business imperatives. What are you trying to accomplish as a firm? Your positioning is a fundamental pillar of business strategy, and it affects how you drive growth and attract the talent you need to sustain your expansion. If you don’t have your business goals written down already, sit down with your management team and make sure everyone has a clear set of priorities. That way, when you begin formulating your positioning statement you will a clear destination in mind.
Step 2. Research your target clients and competitors. According to a study of professional services marketing, firms that have a strong understanding of their audiences and competition are more than twice as likely to be high-growth businesses (those that grow at least 20% year over year). This type of investigation is often called brand research, and it is typically conducted by an independent entity to ensure its confidentiality and encourage more honest feedback from participants. It usually involves interviews with current clients, prospects and referral sources. It also includes an analysis of your competitors — what they are saying about themselves and how your audience perceives them.
Brand research can also identify strengths and weaknesses you weren’t able to see before. In addition, you’ll learn what factors potential clients value most during the selection process.
And brand research is critical to the success of the next step.
Step 3. Identify your differentiators. This is where your business goals and brand research turn into marketing gold. Drawing on the insights of your team, external perceptions of your firm and a new understanding of your competitors’ positioning, you will pick out characteristics that both set you apart from your competition and are valuable to prospective clients at the time they select a firm.
Strong differentiators must also meet three other criteria: they must be 1) true, 2) provable and 3) relevant to your target audience. If a differentiator isn’t true, clients will often sense it and approach your firm with skepticism. That’s why you should be able to support each differentiator with evidence. Often you will uncover proof in your brand research (for example, a finding that “9 out 10 clients refer us to others” is a nice statistic to reinforce a variety of differentiators).
Some differentiators may be characteristics that you discover in your research (“clients find us to be highly flexible”), while others may be a specialization that you have already cultivated (“we provide network security services exclusively to accounting firms”). If you find your existing differentiators lacking, you may decide to pursue a new area of focus or concentrate in a particular area of strength. While this approach will be aspirational at first, it can work so long as you truly commit your firm to it and can prove you are doing it going forward. If you are struggling to think of possible differentiators, consult this list of 21 professional service differentiators for ideas.
To learn more about uncovering your differentiators, check out our free Differentiation Guide for Professional Services Firms. Also, I suggest you read this blog post on competitive differentiation.
Step 4. Craft your brand positioning statement. Now it’s time to translate your differentiators into a story that clearly communicates your competitive advantage. A positioning statement distills your key buying propositions into a short paragraph. It’s an internal document — because it is compact it’s not intended to be used verbatim on your website or in your marketing materials. Instead, think of it as a source you can return to again and again when you need inspiration to describe your firm or persuade people to buy from you.
A brand positioning statement can take two different forms: a crafted paragraph or a prompted statement. Developing a crafted paragraph takes more skill and time, but some firms find that it translates more easily into marketing messages. A prompted statement is quicker and simpler to assemble — your team fills in the blanks with the appropriate information.
Here’s an example of a positioning statement in paragraph form:
Newco is the nation’s leading IT consultancy that specializes in law firms and legal departments. Our team of attorneys, engineers, CIOs, executive directors and project managers is uniquely positioned to make your practice more productive and profitable. We’re familiar with the hundreds of software applications used by the legal community, and we’ve developed a suite of tools that makes migrating and configuring systems faster and more efficient. We also have a reputation for doing a job once and doing it right — that’s why 4 out of 5 clients put us on long-term contract. When you need the best legal IT advice and support, Newco is the easy choice.
And here’s what a prompted statement template, ready to be filled out, looks like:
If Newco had used the prompted statement, this is how it might read:
Whichever format you choose, your brand positioning statement should include the following elements:
- Your firm name
- What you do
- Who you serve
- Why clients choose you
- Proof that supports your claims
Okay, let’s break down the Newco example and make sure we’re covered.
What’s their name? Newco. (Check!)
What services do they provide? IT consulting services.
Who is their target audience? Law firms and legal departments.
Why do clients choose them over other firms? They work exclusively with legal practices, so they are industry specialists. This gives them an advantage when pursuing business with law firms and legal departments over generalist IT firms that serve multiple industries. They also claim to be the leaders in their niche.
What else supports their positioning? They have developed a proprietary suite of tools that allows them to do their job better than their competition. And because their team includes professionals who been in their clients’ shoes (attorneys, CIOs, executive directors) they are well attuned to their needs. They also have a great reputation, which they can demonstrate by citing the high percentage of client that put them on long-term contracts.
So how do you use your brand positioning statement? The first thing many firms do is develop their elevator pitch — that short description of your firm that answers the question, “What does your firm do?” Keep your elevator pitch short — a sentence or two will usually do the trick — and write it in natural, conversational language. If people were to memorize it, it should sound like something a person would actually say.
You can also use your positioning statement as the foundation of your messaging architecture. Your messaging architecture is a document that spells out key messages for each of your audiences and addresses specific objections they may have. For example, “Why would I choose your firm over a better-known competitor?”
Finally, you will use your positioning statement as inspiration for headlines and persuasive language on your website and in marketing collateral.
Step 5. Implement your new positioning. No strategy, no matter how well conceived, will survive poor implementation. You have to have the right communications tools in place — pieces that will support the new message you are delivering. And that may require revisiting everything you use to market your services. At the very least, you will want to reflect your new positioning in your marketing materials and website.
For some firms, however, implementation involves rethinking their overall identity or initiating a rebranding process. This process can involve a soup-to-nuts overhaul — a new name, tagline, logo, website, marketing materials and more. Typically, this happens when a firm either undergoes a change in strategy or realizes that their brand is out of date and no longer reflects the caliber of firm they have become.
As you develop your new positioning, think about how you will convey that message to the world. What needs to change, what can stay the same and what new components need to be introduced?
Overcoming Positioning Challenges
Repositioning your firm isn’t necessarily easy. It depends on the raw materials you have to work with and the mindset you bring to the process. Some firms discover that they just don’t have strong differentiators. In this all-too-common situation, a firm has four options:
- Embrace a new focus in an underserved area. This is the most effective — and difficult — option. It almost always means letting go of one or more client segments to build momentum and mind-share in another. If you think you can pull it off, pursue this approach with all the energy you have. It can pay huge dividends.
- Own a trait. Identify an aspect of your business that you would like to associate with your firm. It’s okay if competitors do it, too — so long as nobody else is using it in the same way. For example, an architecture firm client of ours uses industry research to inform its design process. This “evidence-based design” approach isn’t new, but it’s not universally practiced, and none of their competitors were talking about it. So the firm decided to own it. As part of their brand positioning strategy, they began using the word “scientific” to describe their design philosophy. By tying their approach to science, they could begin building a reputation as the most methodical and credible option in their market.
- Combine two traits. This is a mashup of options 1 and 2 above. Select two primary traits or functions of your business and combine them. You may be able to claim that you are the leader at the intersection of those two things. For example, we positioned an accounting firm as “the nation’s leading specialist in fair market valuations and financial transaction consulting to the healthcare industry.” Since no other firm was preeminent in providing both of those services to the healthcare industry, our client could credibly call itself a leader.
- Do nothing. Or promote weak differentiators, which amounts to the same thing. You can say that you hire only the best people, or that you deliver the best customer service, but nobody will care.
Brand Positioning Strategy Examples
Professional services firms often struggle to differentiate and position themselves. So I’d like to end this piece by examining a handful of real-world examples of brand positioning strategy — specifically, how firms in different industries have used positioning strategy to become more competitive, grow faster and be more profitable.
Lester + Company is a Dallas-based accounting firm. At first, they were a typical general accounting firm with a diverse range of business clients. Their fortunes turned for the better when they decided to pivot and specialize in serving one of their strongest client segments: restaurants. Over time, they decided to narrow their focus even more to concentrate on chain restaurants. Today, they are thriving and growing in their highly specialized area of expertise. “It’s taken us to a whole new level of success,” says CEO, Andrew Lester. Brand positioning: The accounting firm for multi-location restaurants.
Melissa Henderson was a Managing Director at a large, international search firm when she had a crazy idea. What if C-level executives could hire their own personal representative, much like an elite sports agent? It would turn the executive search industry on its head. (Conventional executive search firms are paid by companies who are looking for talent, not by the job seekers.) So Melissa left her job and founded Summit Executive Resources, a firm that helps top executives find the leadership and board positions they have always wanted — with the high-touch personal service they deserve. Brand positioning: The personal search firm for C-level executives.
Ascendient is a top-50 consulting firm that serves hospital systems around the nation. Led by a team of practitioners and academics, they have a unique perspective on the future of healthcare. In fact, they believe most healthcare systems are not prepared for the massive changes that are about to transform the marketplace. To make their perspective more visible and differentiate their firm from consultants that focus primarily on today’s problems, Ascendient decided to reposition their firm around their future vision. Brand positioning: We’re rethinking the future of healthcare.
Walsh Colucci Lubeley and Walsh is a law firm outside Washington, DC. For decades, they were a general law firm with a strong practice in zoning and land use. But when the top firm in that space dissolved, their leadership recognized an opportunity and quickly rebranded their firm as The Land Lawyers. While they continue to offer a few general legal services, Walsh Colucci focuses their brand message squarely on their area of strength. Today, they have become the region’s dominant player in commercial real estate law. Brand positioning: Northern Virginia’s premier commercial real estate law firm.
Most professional services firms are poorly positioned in the marketplace. They believe that they can get more clients by opening their arms wide to everyone — the broader their reach, the more business will float into their embrace. But that’s not what really happens. When buyers look around and see awkwardly splayed arms everywhere, they have nowhere to gravitate.
That’s why having a brand positioning strategy is so important. It gives your prospects something to get interested in — and will ultimately convince them to buy from you. Your target audience will find you many times more fascinating than a generalist firm because you have the specialized expertise they need. And as a specialist, you can often charge more, to boot.
If your firm isn’t positioned to consistently attract premium clients, take heart. You’re not alone. Any firm can sharpen their positioning and build an enviable competitive advantage. All it takes is a little courage to take the first step.
How Hinge Can Help
Identify competitive differentiators that will help your firm stand out from the competition and build a brand that drives sustained growth with Hinge’s Branding Program.
- Get strategies, tips, and tools for developing your firm’s brand with Hinge’s Brand Building Guide for Professional Services Firms.
- Download a free copy of the Inside the Buyer’s Brain, Third Edition research report to learn how to build a powerful brand to help your firm close more sales.
- Uncover your firm’s true differentiators and give buyers a reason to pick you out of the crowd in Differentiation, Positioning & Messaging through Hinge University.