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Brand Differentiation for Professional Services Firms

Brand differentiation is perhaps one of the most poorly understood pillars of professional services marketing.

I can say this with some confidence based on several recent, very lively discussions in our LinkedIn group, the Professional Services Executive Forum. Some folks believe it is the foundation of a solid brand, while others maintain that it’s not even important for professional services firms.

Let’s get to the bottom of this confusion.

Brand Differentiation Defined

A differentiator is, quite simply, something that makes your firm different from other firms in some meaningful way. It doesn’t mean that your firm needs to be the only firm with that characteristic. You are simply trying to set your firm apart from the pack of competitors.

For example, you may specialize in working with manufacturing companies. Other firms in your industry may also specialize in working with manufactures. But as long as most do not, you have a differentiator.

You can also combine differentiators. For example, you may not only specialize in servicing manufacturers but also offer a money back guarantee on your services. The combination of these two differentiators may make your firm very special indeed.

Now what about this whole brand thing? Well, your professional services brand is the combination of your reputation and your visibility. So brand differentiation is simply making your firm’s brand different.

But there are rules that must be followed.

The Rules of Brand Differentiation

While “breaking all the rules” sounds like something that would set you apart, this is a case where following the rules really distance you from your competitors.

1. Your differentiator must be true. In other words, you can’t just make one up. You have to live it. If you promise a differentiator but fail to deliver you will damage your brand.

Many firms say they have superior client service but do nothing special to make it a reality. No special policies. No special training. Nothing to ensure it actually happens. The bottom line is that you won’t actually be different.

2. It must be important to your client. Even if you are different doesn’t mean your client cares. We had a client who felt that their lack of conflict of interest (which many of their competitors suffered from) was their strongest differentiator. The problem was, when we interviewed their clients they simply didn’t value that characteristic. So much for a strong brand differentiator.

3. It must be supportable. Prove it. That is the challenge that every differentiator must overcome. It may be true and it may even matter to your clients, but if no one believes you it will never fly. This is the fate suffered by many, many professional services brands.

This is especially a problem when it comes to “soft” brand differentiators such as client commitment, client service and talented staff. If “everyone says it” and you have nothing to point to, you’re out of luck. Kiss that differentiator goodbye.

Is Brand Differentiation Important?

There are some folks who say that brand differentiation doesn’t really matter. After all, most firms within the same industry offer pretty much the same services anyway. Not so fast.

In our research on high growth, high value professional services firms, we found that high growth firms were almost three times more likely to have a strong differentiator.

Examples of Brand Differentiation for Professional Services

So what about the argument that brand differentiation is not really possible? Easy? No. Possible? Absolutely. Here are some examples to prove the point.

Let’s start with process. Many firms claim to have a unique process, but they can point to nothing truly different. Not so with Webmarketing123. This San Francisco based search and social media agency serves a technology and manufacturing client group. They have developed a unique approach based on Kazan and 6Sigma principles — disciplines that their target clients know and value.

How about accounting firms? They can’t be differentiated, right? Think again. Take the UK based firm, Mazuma. They have a specialized target (young independent professionals and small firms), a unique strategy (centralized processing) and a very friendly brand image.

Speaking of brand image, MGO, a Sacramento-based accounting firm, has embraced “boring.” They have built a differentiation strategy around an engaging brand personality.

And don’t forget specialization as a way to differentiate your firm. Perhaps the most common and reliable path to brand differentiation, it is what we do at Hinge. Everything about our brand is focused on professional services. We also use our independent research into high growth professional services firms as a way to set us apart. These are wrapped in a very pronounced brand personality to give us a clearly differentiated brand.

Resources

If you are ready to take a closer look at your brand differentiation here are a couple of free resources to get you started. The first is a Branding Kit to walk you through the process of branding or re-branding your firm. The second is our Brand Building Guide that covers how to build up your firm's visibility and brand.
 

Author: 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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