Simon Wedde is not liking the current approach most professional firms take to their branding. He offers some sound advice on how they can express their brand clearly and boldly.
Ever heard the joke about how to spot the extroverted accountant? He’s the one staring at someone else’s shoes.
This more or less sums up the approach most professional services firms take to their branding. It tends towards the grey. Or an exciting shade of beige.
And it’s not just accountants, either - although they might be a little easier to pick on - you can also add law, finance, engineering, even the creative types in architecture. If just one word were permitted to describe the branding, it would have to be a hyphenated one. Ho-hum.
That’s for the top end of town, too, where they have millions to spend on their image. For the smaller local firm, the level of ‘meh’ is even more pronounced.
Now, don’t for a minute think that I’m picking on you (or your industry). That’s not the point of this article at all. You’re a professional and you are exceptionally good at law, or finance or engineering. That’s why I go to lawyers, accountants and engineers when I need that specialist help. And when I do, I notice uninspired brands, with an inconsistent brand presence.
Aside from industry norms (which favour grey) there are probably good reasons for the lack of attention to brand identity. After all, particularly for those firms that can still clearly remember the founding days, marketing was among the last of the many things that commanded thoughts of busy directors.
Most clients came on board the old-fashioned way, through word-of-mouth, old school ties and university alumni. And, as partnerships, decisions around tangential activities like marketing were done by collective. The real focus was, and is, billable hours and closing the deal.
All that is in the process of changing, and fast.
A recent article from global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, ‘Do you really understand how your business customers buy?’, described it as the ‘consumerisation’ of business-to-business purchasing decisions.
Professional services, as you will all be acutely aware, are not immune to the shifting sands of technology – real time information, ‘expert’ reviews or opinion pieces and peer-to-peer engagement are all available within one or two clicks. Golf and rugby, although still important, no longer cut it.
Like consumer decision-making, professional purchase decisions are increasingly influenced not only by information readily available online, but also by becoming more modular (eg. breaking assignments and relationships into contestable bite-sized phases or components). Remember the days when you’d just get your groceries from Foodtown, but now you get them from My Food Bag, Farrow, Huckleberry as well as Countdown or New World.
All of this adds up to a complicated sales funnel and the need for a masterly control of your brand and a distinctive point-of-view carefully expressed across multiple channels.
Distinctive and distinguishing
Competition is rife and the channels clients are using to find you are multiplying, so if you want to be noticed, you need a distinctive and distinguishing brand that is great, not just good. And that will certainly mean not using inappropriately Stentorian tones, boldly rising above the din and being consistently executed in an increasingly busy marketplace.
Take law as a case in point. More and more freshly minted lawyers are graduating each year and with a few years’ experience under the belt, they’ll all be looking to hang their shingles out – and probably, following other industry norms, they won’t run their firms on golf, rugby and the Northern Club. They will be digitally connected, self-promoting and have a very clear understanding of their brand and what they do and don’t stand for.
And, whether it’s worth anything or not, they will certainly be willing to share their opinion at every opportunity they are given, or create for themselves.
That’s where the opportunity lies for existing and even startup professional services businesses. In an online environment where the competition is increasingly visible to those who need your help, it is time to make a bold brand statement. Bring the inside out, and show to existing and prospective clients what makes you great, and what you are doing each and every day that is in their interest.
It must begin with making someone (senior) within the firm responsible for sales and marketing. Start with the brand identity. Engage professionals to create something unique, bold and distinctive. It shouldn’t shout 'this is still professional services', but it should also convey confidence, capability and reliability.
Hot on the heels of a brand that stands out is getting it right in front of the people who are looking for you. That means the website and other digital channels.
For most small to midsize professional services firms, the websites are, well, not great. It’s not just the passé design. They are also generally isolated islands of data in the busy sea of online information. Get the brand in front of the people looking for you with some structural investments – for example, in search engine optimisation, mobile optimisation and look and feel, as well as relevant and useful content.
Now it’s time to reach your clients in the places they go. For that, consider Google Adwords, Linkedin and other professional peer-to-peer channels.
Did I say you need to get in front of your clients? There’s another group you want to be in front of, too. Employees, both existing and potential.
What most professional services do consistently get right and focus on is talent. After all, it is your people who generate those billable hours and the better the people? - well, that one is obvious.
But the people focus tends to be an internal one. It is supply-side rather than demand-side. What’s that got to do with this bold brand you’re being encouraged to get out there?
Millennials like the look of success just as much as the next fellow (or more, some might say). Done right, your brand redesign will not only ring the right sort of bells with clients, but also with people you’d love to work with.
Express your brand clearly and boldly. Make the best first impression and be sure it is a lasting one.
Simon Wedde is Group Account Director at Dow Design.