A brand is a complex organism. This is part three in a series of articles in which we examine a successful brand’s component parts.

Most professional service firms present two contradictory faces to the world. The first face is approachable and personable: while working for its clients, a firm might display warmth, talent, and a sense of humor. The personal connections and goodwill a firm forges during an engagement can lead to future work and referrals.

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The second face appears when a firm presents itself to the marketplace. Many firms set aside the virtues that built their business and substitute a cooler, more serious face. The effervescent personality that fuels existing relationships and referrals is exchanged for an accepted corporate facade—a stock mix of familiar messages and visuals that do little to differentiate, clarify or define.

If only prospects were able to peek behind the veneer of look-alike websites and sound-alike platitudes about “solutions,” “innovation,” and “our people”! They would uncover vibrant, highly-motivated businesses. But a cult of impersonality pervades the professional services and keeps their passion and individual character under wraps.

The Problem of the Professional Brand

If professional service brands rarely exhibit much personality, our concept of “professional” is at least partly to blame. In the marketing arena, “professional” has come to mean, “what is commonly done in the industry.” Most service firms are compulsively risk-averse, so it’s natural for them to adopt practices that have worked in the past for their peers. But when an entire industry follows a similar trajectory, the effectiveness of those practices is poised for a dive.

The prescription is to buck the traditional corporate approach and express your brand in a more genuine, personal way. Take a good look at your corporate culture and figure out what it is about your firm that engages customers. Better yet, ask your best repeat customers directly: “Now that you know us, what is it about our firm that you like. Why did you hire us again?” To get the most honest answers, hire an impartial third party to conduct the interviews for you. You’ll be amazed what clients will tell them that they would never tell you.

Once you have an answer, wear your difference on your sleeve. Don’t be afraid to talk about your personality traits, as they will help define you to your audience — and differentiate you from less personable firms.

SEE ALSO: Top 5 Brand Building Strategies for Professional Services Firms

Understanding Brand Personality

Brand personality can be defined as a brand’s human component. It’s that aspect of a company’s outward expression that says “there are real people behind this business—people I can connect with.” It’s the hook that draws you in and emits an emotional vibe. Brand personality pierces the dull gray corporate wall and lets prospective customers see what they are really getting.

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Fear—especially the fear of being perceived as different — has made building an emotional connection with prospective customers an almost foreign concept in the professional business. But if you are serious about achieving the goals professed in your mission statement, you will have to break free of the corporate herd and build a brand that speaks in individual, honest, human terms. To lead, you have to inspire. But to inspire you need to show your true colors.

3 Ways to Get Personal

  1. Ask for — and use — customer testimonials that speak to how you work, rather than what you accomplished.
  2. Avoid technical jargon (except where absolutely needed) in your website and collateral copy. Keep the tone of voice friendly and informal. It’s an easy way to differentiate yourself.
  3. Avoid stock photos of conference rooms, handshakes, and smiling executives. If possible, hire a pro to shoot real employees in real situations. Prospects will recognize the difference right away.

Brand Personality Testing

One useful way to test for brand personality is to describe it as if it were a human being. Begin by trying to answer this question: if your brand were a person, how would you summarize it in a word? Give yourself no more than 15 or 20 seconds to think of a word (or two) that fits the bill.

Stay away from business clichés and jargon — “quality” and “customer-centric” just aren’t credible personality traits. For instance, the adjectives irreverent (Virgin), dependable (UPS) and inventive (Sony) describe how we experience three well-known brands.

Ask a few of your firm’s employees the same question and record their answers. Next, ask a number of clients and prospects how they would describe you.

The question you are asking is intentionally open ended and subjective, so you should expect a range of answers. But be on the lookout for trends. For example, do a majority of the words reflect a consistent slant or attitude?

Finally and most important, look at the results and determine if there is significant alignment between the way people inside and outside your firm answered. If not, your brand is probably not well defined and understood in the marketplace.

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Additional Resources

How Hinge Can Help

Develop rebranding strategies that better connect with existing clients and prospects. Hinge’s Branding Program can help your firm stand out from the competition and build a brand that drives sustained growth.