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The Branding Process for Professional Services Firms

Branding-Process

The branding process is a systematic approach to creating and promoting a firm’s brand. It is essential to the success of any marketing and business development program. Brand building consists of five interrelated phases, each building upon the last:

  1. Brand Strategy
  2. Brand Identity
  3. Brand Tools
  4. Brand Launch
  5. Brand Building

The brand building process can be applied to either the development of a new brand or the rebranding of an existing firm. In this article we’ll review the context in which the process is used, what happens during each phase, and what success looks like. This process is adapted from the one we use at Hinge ­— a program based on a decade of research into thousands of high-growth firms.

Let’s start by clarifying what some of the key concepts mean.

What is a brand?

There are many ways to define a brand. Some emphasize creating an emotional attachment with consumers while others focus on the totality of the customer experience. While academically interesting, these abstract concepts are often impractical, especially in the professional services.

In the context of a professional services firm, we have found that reputation best captures the essence of a brand. This reputation can be either very general (e.g., “they’re a good firm”) or associated with specific areas of high visibility expertise (e.g., “they’re the leading experts in cross-border mergers”).

The latter, more specific reputation around visible expertise has been correlated with receiving more referrals. Why? The strength of a firm’s reputation is directly related to the visibility of that brand within its target market. The greater the visibility of a reputable firm, the stronger its brand. This relationship is captured in this simple equation:

 Brand Strength = Reputation X Visibility

It just makes sense: well-known firms with strong reputations — the best brands in an industry — are easy to refer.

Okay, you now understand what we mean by “brand.” But what about the “branding “process”?

What is the branding process?

The branding process is the systematic approach used to create, communicate and strengthen a firm’s brand. It consists of a number of sequential steps. These steps may vary depending on who is implementing the process and the specific outcomes the firm is trying to achieve.

For example, a design-oriented firm may focus on the design of a logo and other materials used to communicate the brand (brand identity). A promotion-oriented firm, on the other hand, may emphasize increasing the visibility of the brand (brand building).

Usually, the best results are achieved by taking a balanced approach that devotes sufficient attention to each phase of the process.

When the branding process is applied to an existing firm it is often referred to as rebranding. Brand development is another term sometimes used to describe the branding process.

When do you need the branding process?

Not all brand-related marketing efforts require a full branding process. For example, when a firm updates the look of its marketing materials — without changing its market positioning — that is unlikely to require a full branding treatment. Since only the visual aspect of the brand will be revised, the firm doesn’t necessarily need to revisit the foundational strategy behind its brand.

Common situations that do require the full branding process include:

  • Repositioning a firm to compete with a new set of competitors
  • The merger of two firms with different brands
  • The launch of a new firm
  • A major change in strategy or direction
  • The emergence of a new competitive advantage
  • The addition or loss of a high visibility expert
  • The launch of a significant new service line
  • The “commoditization” of existing services

The 5 phases of the branding process

The branding process can be broken into five phases. In this section we’ll explore each phase and explore some common variations and important success factors.

Phase 1. Brand Strategy

Behind every successful brand is a thoughtful strategy. Getting this phase right is critical to the overall success of your brand,

Conduct an Internal Review

Begin by considering your firm’s overall business strategy. Start by gathering your management team to conduct a discovery session. Capture your team’s goals, market strategies and individual perspectives. Don’t be surprised if you discover a variety of points of view, and even fundamental disagreement. It’s common and part of the process.

This is good time to pull out your business plan, if you have one, and any other guiding documents. Think about how your company changed since those documents were drafted and what adjustments you might need to make to your marketing.

Now, a lot of firms stop here. That’s a mistake. There are other perspectives you need to consider before you can formulate an effective strategy.

Identify Your Target Audiences

Next you should identify all of your key audiences. You can approach audiences in different ways, so you will have to decide which angle makes the most sense for your firm:

  • By industry served (what industries are your clients in?)
  • By service provided (who is buying each of your services?)
  • By role (what people at your clients’ companies are involved in buying your services)

Don’t forget non-client audiences, too, if they are important to your business success. These might include partners, influencers, referral sources and prospective employees.

Research Your Audiences

Identifying your target audiences is important. Why? Because your next step is to conduct research into them to attain an objective view into their needs, challenges and motivations. Here are some specific issues you’ll want to cover:

  • Their priorities
  • How they perceive your firm
  • Who they consider your competitors
  • How strong they consider your reputation
  • How visible they believe you are in the marketplace
  • What they see as your firm’s strengths
  • What weaknesses or vulnerabilities they see in your firm
  • If they are a client, why they selected you

Many of these questions could be sensitive, so we highly recommend you engage an impartial third party to carry out the interviews. You will get far more honest and useful information than if you carry out the research yourself.

Comparing the input you receive from clients and prospects against internal perceptions often exposes wide gaps — gaps you will need to close to build stronger bridges to your audiences.

Identify Your Differentiators

With this body of data you can begin identifying differentiators — characteristics that distinguish your firm from similar competitors. Most firms can uncover 2 to 5 true differentiators. Your differentiators must meet three criteria:

  1. It must be true
  2. It must be relevant to your target audience
  3. It must be provable

Be careful that you select actual differentiators, however. It’s easy to fall into a trap and choose characteristics that simply describe what you do rather than set you apart. And it’s just as easy to choose characteristics that are so common in the marketplace that they have little power. Examples include: “we have the best people,” “we have a proprietary process,” and “we offer the best client service.” While these could be real differentiators, you will need to present a great deal of evidence to convince a jaded marketplace.

If you need help working through your differentiators, we’ve put together a helpful guide.

Write Your Positioning Statement

Now you are ready to draft a positioning statement. A positioning statement is a compact, carefully worded expression of your brand. The best ones are both honest — accurately describing who you are today — and a little bit aspirational —speaking to the firm you want to become.

Download-Rebranding-GuideMany people confuse a positioning statement with a mission statement or a vision statement. It is neither of those things. Instead, it is a paragraph, usually 4 to 6 sentences long, that lays the foundation for your firm’s messaging. It is a well you can return to again and again as you write headlines, develop your elevator pitch or need to understand how you fit into the marketplace. It is a practical resource that distills the essence of your brand into an easy-to-digest package.

Here’s an example of a positioning statement for an accounting firm:

At Newco, we help retail franchise owners grow their businesses faster and more effectively. How? We combine the expertise and reliability of a CPA firm with automated, real-time reporting — all tailored to the franchise business model. Our experience and technology give clients strategic insight beyond their finances, giving franchisors the tools they need to achieve higher profits and greater growth. When you’re looking to expand your operations or increase the profitability of your retail chain, Newco gives franchisors the power to feed their bottom line.

Notice how it describes the firm’s unique characteristics (specializing in franchise owners and offering automated, real-time reporting) and expresses these as tangible benefit to their clients (higher profits, greater growth).

Tailor Your Message to Different Audiences

At this point, you may want to take the next logical step and apply your differentiators and positioning to each of your audiences. For instance, you may need to say different things to different industries. Or a CEO may need to hear one set of messages, while an HR Director needs to hear another. This type of document is sometimes referred to as messaging architecture.

A good way to approach your messaging architecture is to break out each audience and develop a list of messages each may need to hear during the sales process. These lists may include some or all of your differentiators, as well as more commonplace messages — the basic things an audience needs to hear to be reassured that your firm delivers the services and experience they want.

You may find during this exercise that several of your audiences don’t require different messages. In this situation, to keep things simple, you can simply group those audiences together.

You can take these messages to another level of sophistication by developing a set of objections for each audience, then drafting responses to each, drawing on your audience messages for inspiration. Whenever possible, support your points with specific examples or evidence. By supplying proof, your arguments become more persuasive.

At the end of the process, you will have a document your business development team can use to overcome common objections in the marketplace. And your marketing team can mine it for talking points on your website or in marketing collateral.

Address Any Confusing or Complex Brand Situations

As professional services brands evolve they sometimes produce new business divisions, spin offs, stand-alone products or sister brands that may or may not have an obvious connection to the parent brand. If this applies to you, you should take time during the branding process to clearly establish the hierarchy and relationship between these brands. It helps buyers and clients make sense of your business and varied offerings — any time you can eliminate confusion, it makes the buying process easier. This discipline is called brand architecture. We’ve written another post that explores the issues around brand architecture in detail. 

Phase 2. Brand Identity

In this phase, you turn your brand into something tangible. Your brand identity includes many of the most visible elements of a brand, including:

  • Your name
  • Your logo
  • Tagline
  • Color palette
  • Imagery
  • Writing style (voice)
  • Business cards
  • Stationery suite
  • Business collateral

As part of a branding process, you are likely to develop (or in the case of a rebranding program, refresh) some or all of these elements. Your brand identity is an opportunity to take the spirit of your positioning and turn it into something that people can see and experience — including a distinctive personality and voice. It is a chance to add a point of differentiation to your brand and set your firm apart visually from your competitors.

Unfortunately, most firms are content to play it safe and embrace what’s familiar. That’s why the color blue (especially dark blue) is so prevalent in every industry. That’s why you see cookie-cutter imagery on so many websites. And that’s one reason most professional services brands are so forgettable. Your brand identity is a rare opportunity to make a bold statement and pop out from a bland, homogenous crowd. For those firms with the courage to stand out, their brand identity can make a real difference.

Brand Style and Voice Guidelines

Keeping a brand identity intact and consistent over time can be challenging. To combat these problems, many firms create brand style guidelines that define how the brand is put together and explain what’s allowed and what isn’t. These guidelines can be comprehensive — dictating how the brand is applied in every situation — or they can be kept simple, with room for variety and exploration.

In the same vein, some firms develop a separate set of guidelines that describe their “voice” — the way the words they use express a personality or attitude. Firms use brand voice guidelines to ensure that their written materials read as if they came from the same person. They might, for instance, recommend against using overly technical language. These guidelines might also discuss sentence structure, as well as what type of vocabulary a writer should use. Is humor allowed? If so, voice guidelines should describe when and how.

Some firms go even further and produce detailed usage guidelines for writers that address subjective points of grammar, spelling, punctuation and more.

The Creative Brief

Before you dive into your brand identity you would do well to write up a creative brief that spells out some of your assumptions and preferences. If your brand was intended to express personality, for example, try to describe what that means. How do convey your brand in color, imagery, typography?

You should develop the creative brief only after discussing your brand identity internally. It should represent a consensus view. If you are working with an agency, they may lead the discussion and develop the brief for you.

The creative brief should address each piece of your brand identity (alternatively, you can develop a separate brief for each). If you are developing a new name, for example, the brief should capture your firm’s expectations and any parameters that the naming team needs to know to avoid taking wrong turns and wandering into blind alleys.

Phase 3. Brand Tools

These are the tools you will need to promote your new brand. Building on your brand strategy, these tools equip you to increase the visibility of your brand and expertise. Exactly which tools you need will depend on how you plan to promote the visibility of your brand (for more on this, see Phase 5). At the very least, you’ll want to pay attention to these two categories of tools:

Your Website

Whether you build a new website from scratch or retrofit your existing site to be more engaging, you’ll want to make sure it reflects your new brand positioning and communicates the right messages to each of your target audiences. Of course, it should reflect your new brand identity, too. In fact, you should put a great deal of thought and care into your website. It is the most visible and important component of your brand and marketing program.

Your Business Development Toolkit

One of the most important ways to leverage your new brand is to apply all that shiny new positioning and messaging to your business development toolkit. What’s a business development toolkit? It’s a collection of tools you use to describe your firm and put your strategy into play. Here are just a few examples:

  • Descriptions of your firm
  • Service descriptions
  • Video overview of your firm
  • Signage
  • Tradeshow booth

For more ideas on ways to put your brand strategy into practice, check out this blog post on the top 10 branding tools.

Phase 4. Brand Launch

How you introduce your new brand can affect the overall success of your branding initiative — and that’s especially true in the professional services. Actually, you should think of it as two introductions: one for your internal team and another for the outside world. They are two very different audiences that require different treatments.

The Internal Brand Launch

If you don’t take the time to explain your new brand to your team, you’ll be lost from the start. When professionals are left out of the process and have not visibility into how or why decisions were made about the brand they get confused and can turn cynical. It is easy to criticize something you don’t understand.

We recommend that you introduce a program to educate your staff in advance of the external launch. Explain the rationale for the change, and support it with a few research highlights to demonstrate that the branding process was grounded in objective reasoning. Here are a few topics you might want to cover:

  • Why we needed a new brand and what opportunities it creates
  • How the process worked (to show how much thought went into it)
  • What the research revealed
  • How the new brand speaks to our target audience(s)
  • Why the new brand works (and why the process wasn’t an internal popularity contest)

There are many, many ways to roll out an internal brand. You can have a simple all-hands meeting or an elaborate celebration. It can be a single event, or a series of training sessions. It can be in one location or distributed over multiple offices. You will need to decide what makes sense for your organization and culture. But don’t skip it. Your team needs to understand what your new brand means, how it repositions your firm and where it opens up new possibilities. A successful internal brand launch also generates critical support for and excitement around your new brand. 

The External Brand Launch

It may surprise you, but the external rollout is less important than building internal consensus around your brand. The biggest value of the external launch is its potential to generate concentrated attention—even if it’s short lived.

A new brand’s introduction to the world is a chance to make a favorable first impression. It also provides a forum to explain what you stand for, how your firm has changed and why your firm matters to your audience.

You can approach an external launch in one of two ways: 1) announce your new brand with a big bang, with press releases, a big reveal and maybe even a brand launch video. Launch balloons, if you like. Or 2) you can roll out your brand slowly with little or no fanfare. In this scenario, pieces of your brand may be developed over a period of weeks or months, and over time your brand identity takes shape.

Which approach you choose is up to you. The former has more PR potential, but it requires building out much of your brand up front. The latter may feel anticlimactic, but it gives you the freedom to develop your brand in a lower-pressure, more organic way.

However you launch your brand, it gives your business development team a reason to talk with clients and referral sources about your firm — how you are changing and how your firm is addressing the needs of the marketplace.

Phase 5.Brand Building

Your new brand is only the beginning. You still have to convert that brand into market value. Many firms make the mistake of putting all their effort into an elaborate brand launch when that money would be better spent on a long-term brand building program. But this takes a strategy all its own.

The core objective of this strategy should be to make your firm’s expertise more visible. For the most part, this can be accomplished through a combination of public speaking, writing and networking. (According to our research, firms that have the best results apply a mix of digital and traditional techniques.)

So what do you write and speak about? You will want to focus on issues that matter to your audience. Demonstrate your expertise by explaining how to overcome key challenges. Educate them. Show them that your firm is not only knowledgeable, but can make complicated subjects easy to understand. That’s a mark of true expertise.

This strategy will require sustained effort over time. As a result, you’ll want to turn it into a formal plan, with a detailed calendar, assignments and specific goals. It’s even possible to measure many aspects of your strategy. That way you can measure the impact of your approach and make adjustments along the way.

That said, your brand must remain constant. Make sure that the way in which you promote it doesn’t interfere with its message.

If you’d like to learn more about building and promoting your brand, download our free Brand Building Guide.

Conclusion

The success of any branding or rebranding effort depends heavily on how it’s carried out. In this article, we’ve laid out a phased brand building process that has been proven to work. While you may be tempted to cut corners to reduce costs or speed up the process, doing so comes with risks of its own. It’s easy for a branding initiative to stall and sink into the quicksands of eternal internal debate. Or worse, you could roll out a brand that’s based on faulty assumptions or damaging misperceptions.

Building a new brand should an exciting process — one that exposes new opportunities for your firm to flourish and grow. Master the process first, and very good things will follow.

Additional Resources:

 How Hinge Can Help:

Hinge’s Branding Program equips your firm to stand out in a crowded marketplace and build a distinguished brand that drives sustained growth. From strategy to implementation, we take your firm through the rebranding process — painlessly and with exceptional results.

Download-Rebranding-Guide

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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