Most CEOs believe that there is a direct link between “brand” and “brand identity.” To these CEOs, they are essentially the same. Actually, identity is merely a sub-element, albeit important, of a brand. A Professional Services (PS) brand, boiled down to its core, is “reputation.”
To illustrate this point, let’s take any given classroom in an elementary school, which acts as a microcosm of any given market. Each classroom takes on its own dynamics, just as markets and industries take on their own dynamics.
In a classroom, students begin to take on roles. There is the teacher’s pet, the class clown, the “brain,” the jock, and even the bully. Students become known and they gain a reputation by their words, actions and attitudes.
Eventually, it can become very difficult for a student to transition out of his or her reputation. Students become penned in by the expectations of others, by names they are called and by learned behaviors they find easy to repeat. Their reputation equals their identity.
This provides a great lesson for those building and shaping their own PS brands. Take a moment and think about your brand. How would you characterize it? How do your competitors characterize it? What about your clients? Can you state with certainty on what the market thinks of your brand? If not, this is the place to start building a strong brand.
What are the elements of a PS brand?
PS firms gain a reputation by their words, actions and attitudes. Changing this reputation can be very difficult and very expensive. Usually, this requires fresh ideas and new perspectives. “Reputation” alone, however, doesn’t quite capture all of the dynamics of a brand.
- Service offerings
- Value proposition
- Brand strength
- Brand awareness
- Brand identity
- Target Market
- Proof of Expertise
- Use Taglines
Service offerings: The stuff of a brand, service offerings are what a firm actually does. So it only makes sense to get these messages right. So often, this isn’t the case. Companies typically make the following three mistakes when branding their services:
- They don’t provide benefits-driven messages.
- They poorly articulate what they actually do.
- They don’t give enough information to make it comfortable for a buyer to take the next step.
Positioning: A PS firm’s position is the point of convergence where three dynamics intersect:
- The needs of the market, where companies are willing to pay for services.
- Your service offerings, delivered profitably.
- Your competitors’ offerings, and how you differentiate from them.
Value proposition: Your value proposition is, simply put, the reason the market does business with you. Why do your customers give you money? What value do they derive from associating with your firm? This is your current, although maybe not future, value proposition.
Brand strength: Your company’s brand strength is the sum total of opinions that the market holds of your business. If you were to poll your top 20 clients, what would they say about you? What about 100 companies that fit your target profile and know about you but don’t do business with you? How about your top five competitors? These polls can be eye opening.
Brand strength is the difference between a highly regarded, trusted and respected company and a company that does not hold these traits and therefore struggles. A key component of brand strength is perceived financial strength. Clients want to know they’ve chosen a stable, financially solvent firm that won’t go out of business during an engagement.
Projecting an air of financial strength actually benefits a PS firm because it says you are good at what you do and are highly paid by others, which makes you valuable and potentially scarcely available — which always drive up profits. PS firms demonstrate financial strength, in part, through their brand identity. A shoddy brand identity suggests your company cannot afford a professional look.
Awareness: This is the number of decision-makers who fit your target profile who know about your business. PS executives often over-estimate this. One suggestion is creating surveys that can poll a few thousand decision-makers within a given market to discover how many of them can, without prompting, identify a firm as a service provider in their market.
The results can be astounding. When only two out of 10 decision-makers can accurately identify a service provider, 80% of the market will never consider that service provider at the beginning of the buying cycle.
Brand identity: You’ll notice that this element of a brand is last in this list of six. This is because identity is so often what springs to mind first when people think of brands — logo, taglines, color palettes and the like. To my way of thinking, identity should actually come last.
Too often, we see PS firms hoping to change their reputation by changing identity. This is a mistake. PS firms that do not address the other key elements of their brand before they address identity will ultimately slip back into old habits, old ways of describing what they do and who they are, and end up with the same results.
Target Market: Defining the target market is more about “fit” than statistics and demographics. A good fit between service provider and client to be is usually based in the ability of the prospect to appreciate the “value” of the outcome more than the cash to obtain it. The client also values provider’s expertise. The prospect must also have the financial resources to engage with endeavors of the brand and the prospect must also demonstrate a rapport that builds relationships quickly. Defining the target market is about exclusion not inclusion. To position your brand deftly with precision requires the art of sacrifice. Not every prospect will fit perfectly.
Proof of Expertise: To claim the one thing that is important to a prospective client requires you prove the claim of expertise. Of course, the true measure of proof of expertise is found in current clients who have experienced the service. It must be highly specialized- offering deep and narrow expertise providing high value outcomes which generalist competitors cannot provide. Without substantial proof, the value proposition will gain little trust from prospective clients.
Add a Tagline: it is also a good idea to have a tagline that distinctly shows how you want to be seen by your target market. The tag line will carry the company’s image and how the company will be remembered by clients.
Your PS firm’s tagline should support your positioning, declare the PS brand’s promise, and help people recognize and remember you. It should be short and believable. A tagline should tell people what they can expect when the avail of the brand’s services.
Applying the theory
So this definition of a brand is all well and good, you might say, but how will this benefit your business? Your brand is all you have. If you are not building a strong brand, you are not building a strong PS firm.
PS people sell the intangible — a concept, an idea, a promise of results. There is no website that allows consumers to compare features and benefits of this firm’s PS offerings versus another firm, unlike virtually every product available today.
Your ability to acquire customers, increase profits and expand your business geographically or through additional services all comes down to the strength of your brand.
The PS brand power
A strong PS brand is worth far more than its weight in gold. Firms that patiently, deliberately create such a brand will reap tremendous rewards and potentially garner enough wealth to last several lifetimes from a liquidity event.