Why Professional Services Brands Matter

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Professional Marketing magazine.


Every year, powerful brands generate billions of dollars in revenue. That's because people like you and I are happy to pay a premium for name brand products that we know and trust. Most of us instinctively reach for name brands because they make our lives simpler — brands save us the headache of choosing among dozens of competing and confusing offerings.   

But aren't the rules different in the professional services marketplace? Surely you can't brand complex, customized solutions as if they were mouthwash or fast food. To lay it on the line, do people even pay attention to brands when purchasing professional services?   

One thing is clear. Many (maybe most) professional firms place little value on branding. The market is awash with firms that have little new to offer or say. Of course, a homogeneous market creates a tremendous opportunity for any firm willing to go out on a limb and differentiate itself. Before we address these opportunities, however, let's try to understand why professionals resist branding in the first place.  

Points of View

One argument goes something like this: Professional firms are built on human relationships, so a firm can be defined as the sum of its people. When a principal cultivates a new client, the client naturally bonds with the person who wooed them. So where's the brand value when individuals, not their firm, drive revenues? Instead of investing in branding, why not spend more to keep current principals happy and to attract new talent?  

Another common argument looks at professional services from the buyer's point of view: No customer willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars is going to choose a service provider on reflex. Before committing that kind of cash, a customer will take the time to compare and evaluate the offerings of several qualified firms. Buyers want to punch through surface perceptions and uncover real value. To clients, branding is little more than a thin facade—and a hinderance to the discovery process.  

Answering the Skeptics

Sure, there are real differences between product brands and professional service brands. But the psychology of branding works the same in every industry. Behind these two arguments is a fundamental misunderstanding of how brands are built and work.

Branding is a powerful way of communicating important truths about your firm. It helps customers discover and articulate why they should buy from you. A brand reflects who you are, not who you want to be. In fact, any brand that offers up a fabricated message is doomed to failure because it violates the trust that has to exist between a client and the firm.  

Firms that depend solely on the skills or charisma of individuals to develop client relationships are putting themselves at unnecessary risk. When customers are more loyal to individuals than to the firm itself, something is broken. Branding offers an effective remedy. It shifts the spotlight away from individual personalities and allows the entire organization to shine.  

Branding can play a critical role in the selection and purchase of expensive, complicated services, too. The selection process is rarely as rigorous as you think. The amount of technical detail that goes into, for example, an engineering plan or a SOX compliance review makes it extremely unlikely that a client in need will be able to compare competing firms' expertise point by point. What clients really want is a firm they can trust to handle the details and make good decisions. A reputable, differentiated brand can put a firm in contention right off the bat. “The vast majority of professional projects are awarded at the preproposal stage: the formal proposal and/or presentation merely confirms (or destroys) a decision already made,” writes consultant David Maister. A brand that makes a compelling case to your audience not only makes you a contender, it positions you to win.  

Here are a few other pleasant “side effects” that accompany strong brands:  

  • More customers will seek you out
  • You will spend less time developing business
  • You will be perceived as experts in your specialty
  • You can charge more for your services
  • You can be choosy about your clients
  • You will know how to talk about your firm  

Solving the Problem of Differentiation

Now for some bad news: developing professional service brands is rarely easy. Differentiating and positioning firms like yours can be an exercise in frustration. But it doesn't have to be, and we've got a few pointers that will make the process a lot easier. Before we get to those, though, we'd like to share a bit of good news: because so many firms in professional service industries pay little or no attention to branding, there is tremendous opportunity for your firm to stand apart in the marketplace. Those firms that are able to communicate a fresh message that resonates with their audience will have a leg up on the competition. According to brand strategist Brad Van Auken, “Relevant differentiation today is a leading-edge indicator of profitability and market share tomorrow.”  

Firms in every professional industry suffer from a peculiar tendency to look alike and sound alike. Their taglines, marketing copy, logos, colors and imagery often evoke an eerie sameness. This phenomenon makes it tough on the customer, who often is challenged with distinguishing one firm's services from another. Finding the right fit among dozens of competing service companies can be overwhelming. To thrive in a homogeneous marketplace, it's critical that a firm to establish relevant points of contrast.   

How do you differentiate your firm? The most effective way is to narrow your focus to a specific vertical market that you can serve with deep expertise. So long as there is sufficient need for your services, a very narrow specialty can be extremely profitable.  

Walsh, Colucci, Stackhouse, Emrich, Lubeley and Terpak was an Arlington, Virginia based general law firm with a lot of experience in land use and zoning law. When a multi-disciplinary firm with the region's largest land use law practice dissolved, Walsh Colucci recognized an opportunity. When the research supported their instincts, they positioned themselves as “The Land Lawyers.” Today the firm is recognized as Northern Virginia's pre-eminent land use and zoning law firm, laying the legal foundations for many of the region's major new real estate projects. As soon as it specialized, this firm gained an immediate psychological advantage in the marketplace. And because their new brand was founded on the things they did best, the new message and brand rang true.   

You can differentiate your firm in other ways, too. Begin with a careful examination of your competitors.

  • How are they talking about themselves?
  • What do they say are their areas of expertise, if any? Take note of their taglines, if they have one.
  • What industries do they serve?
  • What services do they offer?
  • How do they present themselves visually?
  • What colors do they employ?
  • What types of imagery do they use on their website?

Collect all of this information in a spreadsheet, and be sure to include your own firm. Then do a hard analysis. Where are the opportunities? What can your firm change or offer to clients that will set it apart from the herd? Are there any obvious gaps of coverage? What can you say about yourselves that nobody else says? This is an invaluable exercise, and it can reveal a lot about your firm and the competitive landscape that you never before noticed. Once you've done the due diligence and mapped out an appropriate course of action, it's time to get to work.  

Building Consensus

Most professional service firms have flat organizational structures, which means the firm's many partners make management and marketing decisions together. Unfortunately, democracy is not always a model of efficiency. And partner meetings can be the tar pits of branding initiatives: these mammoth projects take a bold step forward, get hopelessly stuck and sink. We've seen major initiatives derailed by a single dissenting partner.   

So how do you get past the tar pits and build consensus? The key lies in empowering a small task force—ideally, no more than four people—to lead the engagement and handle all of the day-to-day interaction with the branding firm. If possible, include people who've been through rebranding before or at least understand the advantages of strong positioning and brand awareness. Feel free to solicit input from other partners and staff, but keep the decision-making process inside the task force. Major decisions should be presented to the partners, but they should be put to a straight up or down vote.

Scheduling a lot of time for discussion at the partner meeting will just muddy the waters. And whenever possible, let your branding firm lead the board presentations. As outside experts their recommendations will carry far more weight than any internal representative.   

To break out and become a market leader takes great branding, especially in professional services. A firm that does the legwork, selects a relevant market position, builds stakeholder support, and puts a brand implementation plan into action will be rewarded financially and emotionally. The opportunities are out there. Now it's up to you. 

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