Richard Curtis, is the Chief Executive Officer of FutureBrand Australia, New Zealand & South East Asia. FutureBrand, are brand experience experts, and part of the same IPG family of brands as Weber Shandwick.
Here, Richard talks us through the challenges for professional services organisations when it comes to branding and identity.
The most cursory of glances at the professional services industry is enough to tell you that branding in this part of the business world is still a work in progress.
In the face of the kind of success stories we see in our own FutureBrand Index, with its proven link that ‘future brands’ outperform the average market capitalisation of the Top 100 year on year, the most professional services organisations still chose to use their brand to match their competitors, rather than compete with them. Consequently, they leave a valuable competitive advantage untapped and waste the opportunity to differentiate to win.
In working with professional services organisations – law firms, accounting companies, business consultants and others – we have seen the branding challenges they face up close. The focus on hygiene factors and category conventions, often to the exclusion of more competitive dynamics, makes it harder to discern meaningful differences between organisations, for both clients and employees, existing and prospective. As a result, there is an experience gap between brand perception and performance that almost always turns up in research studies to signal that people who have worked with your organisation give higher scores, but leadership teams rarely take the natural next step to define and shape perceptions of their organisation in ways that help the, bridge this gap.
On the contrary, they typically double-down on the conventions of the category:
- Quality of work, eg. the organisation’s expertise and collective knowledge base
- Strength of relationships, eg. client insight and understanding
- Reputation, eg. history and heritage
- People, eg. the very best legal minds with in-depth industry expertise
- Trust, eg. reliability and peace of mind
- Seamless experience, eg. working together to achieve results
If you want to leverage your brand as a valuable asset, then the opportunity does exist to reframe these conventions in ways that drive home competitive advantage and build a unique brand perceptions for commercial success.
Firstly, we recognise that the nature of any services offering is intangible. As a client of a professional services firm, you cannot necessarily compare what you are getting with what might be on offer from the competition; there is no product per se that you can see, touch or feel, and demonstrating value under these circumstances can often prove challenging.
Making the brand real for clients, partners and employees is critical, and typically that means understanding the role of brand in driving demand and facilitating the service delivery experience at a strategic level. For example, in professional services organisations, that might mean shifting the focus beyond the logo as the shorthand for ‘reputation’ and highlighting the role that brand language can often play as a strategic tool for embedding a brand’s purpose and personality in a way that is accessible and easily understood by one and all.
Secondly, it is essential to look beyond services to creating experiences – not only are these more memorable but they are also more personal for clients, thereby enhancing the quality or duration of any relationship.
Understanding the professional services client journey from end-to-end, the ups and the downs, the opportunities and the pain-points, can enable an organisation to understand how and where to create measurable value. As well as identify those points at which the brand can be engineered to contribute to individual interactions or amplify the overall experience.
Thirdly, personal relationships and reputations are vital to the success of any professional services organisation. However, they are typically highly subjective and difficult to scale beyond any one individual. It is essential to identify the people, the relationships and company initiatives that will embed this reputation proposition, and to use the brand to reinforce it more broadly through whole-of-organisation activities, behaviours and communications.
To take a meaningful look beyond the category conventions, start by considering these three questions:
- How does our brand make our services real for our clients and employees?
- What is the brand experience that we build around our relationships and services?
- How does our brand stretch from individual impact to collective meaning?
The answers to these questions will not only help you challenge the conventions but also uncover more creative, innovative and commercially viable areas of competitive advantage for you and your organisation in the future.