“There is a battle for market share among advisory service providers in an environment of patchy global growth. Crucial to winning market share is a clearly differentiated and well-articulated market positioning. But many services brands lack clarity and differentiation. They focus on the visual without the substance necessary to support a firm’s strategy.”
Henry Weston-Davies, Partner, Gulland Padfield
Brand. The single most overused and poorly-defined term in the business strategy lexicon. And yet, in 2015, brand and reputation management will be the issue that many firms in the global professional services sector are seeking to address.
Until the business environment deteriorated in the GFC, managing the brand was a relatively low priority for many leading global and European professional services, financial services and business services firms. In part, this was because their market position and reputation appeared to be secure and well established. It helped that the flow of work for many advisory businesses was strong, on the back of a long-term growth market.
But the world has changed. In the current era of patchy global growth, firms’ brands have to work harder to win work and maintain market share.
And as professional firms adjust to the slow return of growth, a clearly-articulated brand is essential to help a management team differentiate and drive new opportunities. It also demonstrates the values of the firm to clients, staff and potential hires.
All these challenges require management teams who haven’t yet done so, to look harder at how brand could act as a rallying point for staff, grow client relationships and support fee earners as they look for growth
Start with a clear definition
In 14 years of working with and talking about brand strategy, we find it is helpful to start by defining terms – something that many professionals usually welcome. Any discussion about brand is likely to be fruitless without agreeing some common ground.
Gulland Padfield’s proprietary definition of the components of a successful professional services firm are that it describes three things: (i) a service offering that is truly client-centric, based on an understanding of the current and emerging needs of clients (ii) the culture, values and incentives of the firm’s partners and staff and (iii) the look of the firm’s communications, its visual identity and logo.
Delivering each of these three components raises different challenges for management and marketing teams. But it is the development of the first that particularly requires a systematic and objective approach.
What are the advantages of a client-centric positioning for your firm?
In a recent research project, Gulland Padfield’s consultants analysed the impact of different marketing initiatives among FTSE 350 executives and general counsel.
It revealed that many professional service firms would benefit greatly from developing a series of messages that are much more tightly-focused on client-need rather than, as now, the features or ambitions of the firm – neither of which are usually relevant to a prospective client’s decision to retain the firm for work.
The research also revealed the extent to which the Europe’s leading business executives are increasingly cynical about the generalised promises that most firms’ make in communicating their reputation and brand. If brand strategy is to achieve one thing – it should be to close the gap between the cliché-ridden statements in most market collateral and the valued intelligent relationship that the best professional firms give their clients in person.
How do you achieve this? It requires a 180-degree shift in the viewpoint of most firms’ messages and descriptions of themselves. These tend to be self regarding and fail to answer the question in clients’ minds when they read any piece of marketing, which is, “What’s in this for me? How will I benefit as the client if I work with this firm?”
The internal impact of a clear position
As well as these external-facing brand challenges, there are also internal advantages to clarifying what it is you stand for as a brand.
If your own people aren’t able to articulate a reasonably consistent message about what the firm stands for, it is highly unlikely that the market’s perception will be any clearer. Getting staff to describe clearly what the firm does (i.e. its capabilities) but also how it works with clients (i.e. the brand) is vital in the professions where services are sold and delivered by individuals.
A clear brand gives the entire organisation an internal rallying point. And if chosen well, it can inspire existing staff and attract talent – even in difficult times.
There are also practical benefits. Every firm needs to be able to articulate its focus clearly and consistently in their marcoms and publications.
What are the tools you could use to build a differentiated position?
Successful brand strategy projects require three essential ingredients.
First and to start with, an objective and detailed view of the external needs of clients, and prospects. Second an unvarnished view of how the firm is currently perceived internally and externally - with the most important constituency being clients and targets. Third, a firm needs a clear understanding of its business objectives - ideally a well-researched business plan which clarifies the profitable segments that the firm wants to target.
The successful brand definition project process brings these three together to identify what it is the firm should say that is most likely to bring profitable demand to the business – or at least help partners to articulate the firm’s appeal consistently.
However, the issue is that many professional services firms don’t have adequate data to navigate through the brand planning process. Few firms have a clear, independent, up-to-date view of themselves. Many don’t have an adequate client relationship programme that can input client views into the brand planning exercise.
If this information cannot be gathered through internal avenues then the best option is to get an independent 3rd party to assess the reputation of the firm and the needs of current clients and prospects.
Added to this should be thorough objective data on your firm’s competitors. Consider reinforcing any information with independent viewpoints – particularly in those markets where you want to build a reputation. Sector reports from one of the market research companies may help but rarely have data detailed to use as specific positioning exercise for an individual firm.
Finally, a comprehensive view of PR and press coverage will give you the media view of your brand – although this is sometime different from the firm’s buyer perceptions.
With the information gathered, the firm will need to consider what the essence of their message should be. This can take a series of workshops and some firms choose to validate the brand options with a selection of clients. It is only when a fully-validated, well researched position has been defined that the firm should instruct a creative agency to help articulate it and bring it to life.
What are the essentials of positioning?
Before you instruct your creative branding agency, and using your research and analysis, you should have come up with a truly client-centric positioning for your firm and your market. Then there are 6 questions worth asking to ask to see whether it’s the right one:
- Does it fit with the segments in the market set out in the firm’s business plan.
- Does it fit with an objective assessment of client needs or wants?
- Does it focus on properties which are unique to the firm or if that’s too difficult select those things which you can deliver better than the average firm?
- Is it credible? Will your clients and prospects believe it?
- Is it deliverable? Do we have the management buy-in, resources and people to provide what is promised?
- Is it aspirational for all those working for the organisation? Does it energise your staff and attract talent?
Playing safe but for how much longer?
We believe that many firms can improve the way they formulate strategy and clarify their brand and reputation by using the techniques widely-accepted in other service industries. But this means taking (i) an analytical approach – based on research of the market and its segments and (ii) a demand-led approach rather than an assumption-led approach which validates the direction of the firm’s management before major decisions are taken.
In the meantime, maintaining a broad positioning is the safest strategy – and most firms understandably continue to take it. But playing safe by having a poorly articulated brand has its costs, and in this market, they are rising.