If you were asked to identify the biggest challenge facing professional services firms today what would you say? Building expertise? Closing new business? Getting more referrals? It may surprise you to know that the answer is none of these.

According to Hinge’s brand research, the biggest challenge facing professional services firms is getting in front of enough new prospects to grow their practice — in other words, visibility and brand recognition.

So what’s a professional services firm to do if it wants to graduate from being a small local firm to one with regional or national exposure? Or vice versa, if a large firm wants to expand its brand recognition beyond its reputation for a particular niche or region? Either way, you’ll have to make some substantive changes to your marketing. It’s not enough to be well liked by your clients. Even if every client were to refer you once, it wouldn’t generate enough business to fuel strong growth. Some think networking is the answer. However, face-to-face networking is limited by the number of interactions you and your team can have with prospects. And only a tiny fraction of those will ever become clients.

Instead, you’ll need to think differently. To build the type of brand recognition that produces strong growth requires a more efficient and scalable approach to marketing.

But before I get into how that works, let’s pause a moment and define brand recognition.

What is brand recognition?

Brand recognition can mean two things:

  • The rate at which people in the marketplace can identify a brand when they encounter some aspect of its identity — its logo (think Nike), a color (think UPS’s brown or FedEx’s purple) or a tagline (“Don’t leave home without it”).
  • The general awareness of a company in the marketplace. If someone were to ask you for a referral to an accounting firm, for instance, what name would come to mind?

While these two definitions are related, the first applies more readily to consumer-facing brands that spend heavily on advertising to build widespread visibility. The second definition is more applicable to professional services firms, where name recognition is king. Many law firms, for example, set their names in simple type. Their brands are more verbal than visual. For this post, we’ll be focusing primarily on this second definition.

What Doesn’t Work

Let’s first discuss what doesn’t work well. Our decades of research has shown that some common marketing techniques just don’t deliver much value. Here are three of the lowest performing techniques you may want to minimize or avoid

  • AdvertisingIf you have millions of dollars to spend to expose people to your brand hundreds of times, advertising can be a powerful persuader. If you are a typical professional services firm with a limited budget, however, online and print ads usually do little to generate brand recognition or new business. (There is one possible exception: pay-per-click advertising can be effective for certain kinds of businesses.)
  • Conferences and events — Often time consuming and inefficient, conferences can cost more to attend than they produce in revenue. Even virtual conferences, which we are seeing organizations pivot to during this pandemic, require significant investment in both money and time and the jury is still out on their effectiveness. Use your judgment here – some industries (such as government contracting) rely on conferences to build critical relationships and close deals. Conferences can also provide value if you do more than just attend them, for example securing a keynote presentation or participating on a panel discussion.
  • Sponsorships — Speaking of conference attendance, other than generating a small amount of visibility for a short amount of time, event sponsorships don’t really move the needle. Simply having your logo on conference materials, in most cases, not translate to higher levels of visibility without significant investment.

Build Brand Recognition Through a Content Based Strategy

So what works? How does a small or mid-sized firm become better known without spending a budget the size of Proctor & Gamble’s on advertising? Here’s the good news. The most effective way to spread your reputation far and wide is to leverage the expertise you have under your roof. As a firm of experts, you’ve got the raw materials already.

The bad news is that you’ve got to mine that ore, smelt it and hammer it into something people want. That means turning your expertise into valuable educational materials for the kinds of people who buy your services. Examples of these materials include blog posts (which are SEO optimized and written to attract new prospects), executive guides (which can be placed behind registration forms to capture new leads, research studies (which can build your reputation as industry leaders), books (which can generate valuable PR and credibility), and speaking opportunities for your experts to deliver at conferences.

If you’ve never thought about marketing in this way, it can be a challenge at first to motivate your team and change their thinking about marketing. But once you get the hang of it, content-based marketing can work incredibly well.

Can it work at your firm? Absolutely, just start small. Try blogging a couple of times a month or writing an executive guide or a white paper. Then little by little, get more of your team involved. Look for speaking opportunities, blog more frequently, maybe write a book!

The more you put into a content-based approach to brand building, the more widely you’ll become known and the more loyal followers you will attract. Eventually those followers will begin referring to you. And when they are ready to buy services like yours, your name will be at the top of their list.

Bottom Line

If you want to grow your business, it’s not enough to focus on your craft alone. You need to begin translating some of that expertise into broadly available educational materials that will enhance your reputation and your visibility. By addressing both of these dimensions, you’ll build brand recognition — and your firm’s revenues and profits will rise with it.

Alexis headshot

How Hinge Can Help

The right branding strategies and tools can connect your firm connect with buyers around the nation and the world. Hinge’s Branding Program can help your firm stand out from the competition and build a brand that drives sustained growth.