Elements of Modern Professional Services Marketing 2: Positioning

By Aaron Taylor

The professional services marketplace is undergoing fundamental change. Today's buyers are relying on the power and convenience of the Internet to find and vet professional services firms. As marketing moves away from traditional referrals and toward a practice of sharing knowledge, a firm's reputation depends increasingly on its command of ideas. In this second of a multi-part series, we describe how to develop your firm's positioning.

In 1969, Jack Trout coined the term “positioning” to explain why some products were more successful than others in the marketplace. He explained that consumers, who are barraged every day by hundreds of ads for competing products, reflexively sort products into categories in their minds and discard those that don't stand out.

A company can position itself by creating a new category (one that hadn't existed before) that people will fill with the new offering. In this way, people associate a type of product or service with a brand. Trout explains that most buyers only have room for two or three brands per category, so market leaders have a tremendous advantage. Positioning remains a powerful idea, and one that lies at the heart of marketing today.

But does positioning make sense in the professional services? After all, how different is one accounting or law firm from another? Can you really reposition a service firm in people's minds?

Now, there are undeniable differences between positioning products and professional services. It's often hard to associate a firm with an idea — in the way, for instance, you can associate a Volvo with “safety” or an Apple device with “simplicity.” So in the realm of professional services, positioning is a bit more nuanced. But it's no less powerful and beneficial.

Positioning Begins with Research

Ask yourself if there is there anything distinctive about your firm, or is it indistinguishable other businesses in your market? To answer with any certainty, you need to do some due diligence first.

If you have already conducted research on your target audience, you may already have invaluable insights into the way clients and prospects perceive you. (If you haven't done any research, that's okay. Read the previous installment in this series to understand how to do it right.) Carefully go through participants' responses and make a list of important words and phrases they use to describe you. Pay particular attention to reasons your clients chose you over a competitor, as well as reasons lost clients went elsewhere.

Next, you need to do a little digging to discover how your competitors position themselves (if they do at all). It's time to fire up your web browser and check out each competitor. Read their Home page and About page. Look in particular for headlines or statements high on the page that talk about specialized expertise or an industry focus — these are the most common ways to position a firm. Write down any messages that convey their positioning.

A Little Analysis Goes a Long Way

By this point in the process, you've uncovered two things:

  1. How your target audience talks about you
  2. How your competitors talk about themselves

Take a hard look at your audience research. Is there anything your clients are saying that sets you apart? Is there some aspect of your service that you've overlooked internally? Is there a hidden feature that you could hang your hat on?

Let me give you a quick example. Recently, we helped an architecture firm conduct research on their clients and prospects. They were surprised to learn that their clients really valued the firm's collaborative style. The architects had never considered collaboration an important aspect of their brand before, but they decided to feature it prominently in their new positioning. It turns out that architecture clients want to be heavily involved in the design process — a fact apparently lost on many of their competitors.

Now pull out that list of competitors' positioning. If your goal is to differentiate your firm from others in the marketplace, anything on this list should be off limits. In general, it's best to steer clear of territory that's already been claimed by others. (You might make an exception if your firm is clearly more credible in a particular area than any of your competitors — then you can try to assert your dominance.) You would also be wise to avoid the clichés used by everyone else: “our people are our greatest asset,” “we're committed to excellence,” and the like. You can do better.

Once you understand your parameters, it's time to sit down and tackle your positioning.

Your Differentiators

Before you articulate your positioning, it's useful to make a list of four to eight true differentiators. Think about what your research revealed, what your competitors are already saying and what you know to be true about your firm:

Do you specialize in a narrow service line or a vertical market? These are often the most powerful positions, especially if you have few contenders in that specialty.

  • Is there something about your approach to service that is notable?
  • Is there something about your process that's unique?
  • Is there something you do differently or demonstrably better than your competitors?
  • Do you offer expertise or research that others don't?

I encourage you to think aspirationally, too. It's always a good idea to push your limits in your positioning — without, however, making claims that are patently false. Where do you want to take you firm in the next two to three years? If you are committed to accomplishing a goal and that achievement would help differentiate you in the marketplace, then by all means include it.

The Positioning Statement

With your list of differentiators in front of you, you are now ready to draft your positioning statement. Let's start with a definition:

  1. A positioning statement should be concise, no more than six simple sentences.
  2. It is built upon your differentiators.
  3. It promotes a single issue above all others — this is what you will become known for.
  4. It should be both true and aspirational.
  5. It contains the essence of your entire brand.
  6. It is the platform upon which all subsequent brand messaging is built.
  7. It is intended for internal use; it is not a document you will share verbatim with the outside world.

With these objectives in mind, you can begin writing your positioning statement. As you write, you'll want to include the basics: your firm's name and what you do. If you serve a specific audience or vertical, be sure to work that in, too. Do your best to keep the paragraph short and pithy — four to six sentences is ideal. Don't worry if you can't incorporate all of your differentiators, but make sure the most important ones make the cut. Above all, clearly state the chief benefit of working with your firm.

Once you have a draft ready, read it aloud. Keep tweaking your words until they flow nicely and the paragraph sounds persuasive and confident. In the end, it should not only feel true, it should inspire you. In fact, most executives and marketers discover that the positioning process forces them, often for the first time, to think strategically about their brand.

Once your draft is ready, share it broadly within your firm. It will inform the way executives, marketers and sales staff talk about the firm moving forward. It will also pave the way for the specific marketing messages you put forward on your website, in collateral, and even in your elevator speech.

But more on messaging next time…

Further Reading


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