A brand differentiation strategy is one of the most poorly understood pillars of professional services marketing.
Some professional services firms recognize that a differentiation strategy is the foundation of a solid brand. But others maintain the notion that it is not foundational, or even important in the professional services marketplace. Most firms in a given industry tend to all be the same anyway right? So what good is a differentiator? Furthermore, even once firms understand the necessity of a distinct brand, many struggle to identify what makes them unique. Often, they miss wide-open opportunities to make themselves stand out.
Our latest webinar helped shed some light on the whys, the hows, and the whats around formulating a differentiation strategy. You can check out the recording here. This post will review the key points we made around a differentiation strategy. Let’s start by exploring the basics.
The word is a self-descriptor. A differentiator is a characteristic, or small set of characteristics, that is true, provable, and means something to your target audience. It’s something your competition can’t claim. Otherwise, it doesn’t make you different. We’ve identified 21 types of differentiators that work best for professional services firms – so I’ll come back to those in a minute.
Simply put, a differentiator is the foundation upon which most, if not all, of your growth strategies are built. The essence of “who you are” is what helps define your market, your offerings, your recruiting strategy, and evolution of services you bring to market. But don’t differentiate just for differentiation’s sake. Make it count.
A strong differentiator, or a short-list of strong differentiators, sets your firm apart from others, particularly key competitors, in a way that is meaningful to your target audience, including clients, prospect, investors, or even future employees. We’ve seen from our own research that high growth firms are 3x more likely than average growth firms to have a strong differentiator. That’s a powerful case for a strong differentiation strategy.
Ok, so you’re sold on the fact that you owe your firm the time it takes to identify your true differentiator. But how do you first define and then really own your differentiator? There are three critical steps to accomplishing this: discover, validate, and then live your differentiators.
Let’s explore the discovery. You’ll save your firm both time and money by acknowledging first that you’re not going to find your strongest differentiator at the conference room table. By far, the most effective way to uncover your differentiator is through research. Ask your marketplace. They’ll help uncover emerging trends and what characteristics matter to them. Then you can sit back in the boardroom and decide what your research reveals about how you are different and existing differentiators you might not have realized were valued by your audience but that you can leverage. Research works. Firm who conduct regular research on their target audience grow faster and are more profitable than firms who don’t.
The Impact of Research on Growth and Profitability
Remember: the differentiators you choose need to be true, demonstrable, and relevant to your audience. Once you’ve identified your differentiators – either the existing qualities you mean to emphasize or those that you’re setting out to claim through a new direction for your firm – it’s important to validate them with the marketplace. Sometimes this will require additional and market research, small-scale experimentation with a new offering, or looking at the competition to see if they’re taking a similar tack on the differentiators you’re considering aligning to.
Live it out.
Finally, once you’ve validated your differentiators, it’s time to live them out, proving and re-proving them each and every day. Internal policies and processes sometimes need to change to support a particular differentiator. External tools like your website and marketing material also need to embrace your differentiator. And everyone on the team, from the CEO to BD to IT to the person who answers phones – every single person’s messages and communication style should embrace your differentiators.
Now back to the what. You may discover, as some firms do, that you might really only have one genuinely strong differentiator to hang your hat on. Or, you might uncover that you have multiple differentiators that when combined, add strength to your brand. We’ve identified 21 types of differentiators that serve professional services brands the best and they are broadly around:
1) A unique internal process or technology or business model
2) A specialization in the industry or with clients, or
3) Specialized credentials your team or firm has that truly matter to your audience.
The key is to identify the ones that you want to pursue as they pertain to the growth goals of your own firm, and then implement a differentiation strategy around not just discovering and identifying, but also validating and living it out.
For more tips on differentiating your firm, download our Differentiation Guide for Professional Services.