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What is a Brand? A Professional Services Firm Perspective

For most professional services firms, your brand is arguably your most valuable asset — and perhaps the least well understood. It’s not too surprising, given that few professional services firms are run by executives with a marketing background.

As a matter of fact, many professionals have never had a single marketing class in their entire formal education. Further, their advancement and promotions have been centered around their ability to close new business based on personal relationships and referrals. Branding considerations seem far removed. Big mistake.

Why Formal Brand Definitions Fail

Consult a marketing textbook and you are likely to find a brand defined as the sum total of a customer’s emotion and experience with your firm. You’ll probably find the discussion abstract and not very practical. It seems far removed from the day-to-day realities of bringing in new clients and recruiting staff. In reality, the opposite is true. Your brand has a direct impact on building your firm.

What a Brand is Not

Let’s first peel away some very common misconceptions:

  • Your brand is not your firm’s name.
  • Your brand is not your logo or tagline.
  • Your brand is not your website or marketing collateral.
  • Your brand is not your mission statement.
  • Your brand is not your advertising.

 
These items may help communicate your brand to the world. They may even help clarify it. But they are not your brand.

So what is a professional services brand?

Your Brand Defined

After many years working with professional services firms, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best definition is the simplest. Your brand is partly your reputation. It’s what people say about you when you’re not around. It’s how they feel about you and what they expect.

But reputation alone doesn’t capture the full scope of a brand. You must also add in the dimension of visibility. How well known is your firm in your target market? The better the reputation and the greater the visibility, the stronger the brand.

A well known, well respected firm has an easier time attracting new clients. New recruits want to join that firm. Potential partners want to be associated with it. You can charge higher rates and are likely to be more profitable.

When viewed in this light, it is easy to see the value of a strong brand. This definition also helps you understand how to shape and build your brand.

Rebranding Your Firm

Rebranding is the process of understanding your current brand and deciding what it should be in the future. You then need to develop the tools to represent and communicate that new brand. A new name, a new logo and tag line, or a new website can help capture and communicate your new brand.

Brand Building

Some activities are consistent with your brand and will help build and reinforce it. Other activities might run counter to your brand (hurt your desired reputation) and should be avoided.

Similarly, increasing your visibility within your target audience will build your brand (assuming the visibility communicates your reputation correctly). However, if that visibility doesn’t help communicate your reputation then you are falling short. That’s why advertising is so often a questionable strategy for a professional services firm. Visibility, absent the ability to communicate reputation, is of limited value.

Living Your Brand

To build your brand, you have to deliver on your brand promise. You have to be who you say you are and deliver on your promises. If you don’t, your reputation will soon reflect it.

For example, saying that you have exceptional people will fall flat unless they truly are exceptional. Unfulfilled promises will catch up with you.

Two Brands

When you understand that your brand is the perception of your firm, it’s easy to see that different people can have different views of your firm’s reputation and visibility.

Of particular note is the difference between how the outside world sees your firm vs. how the folks that work there perceive it. You might think of these as your external brand and your internal brand.

If these two perceptions are out of sync, then you can easily make mistakes. You might assume that your target clients understand your firm's reputation, when in fact they do not. Similarly, you may assume that potential clients appreciate a difference in expertise when it is not even on their radar.

On the other hand, if you understand your brand and communicate it clearly, good things happen. You start attracting clients who are looking for a firm just like yours. Ditto for employees and partners.

Your Biggest Asset

A strong brand can bring you desirable new clients, great employees and premium rates. It’s an asset that has value, even if you move offices, change clients or replace staff. Your brand still endures. It’s hard to imagine another asset that is so helpful in achieving growth and profitability. It’s certainly worth the time to understand and nurture.

To learn more about branding in a professional services firm check out the Rebranding Kit below.

 

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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