If I could give only two pieces of brand strategy advice to professional services firms, they would be the following:
- Identify the customer segment(s) that you can serve better than your competition;
- Focus your brand strategy on a benefit you provide to those customers, not your own capabilities.
1: Identify the customer segment(s) that you can serve better than your competition
Professional services firms cannot be all things to all customers. And that’s why it is critical to consider the varying customer segments in the marketplace – and then target those you can serve best. Without “target customers,” firms are at risk of developing an ineffective brand strategy that aims to appeal to all but ultimately rings hollow.
So how does a professional services firm identify the right customer segments to target? Here are some guiding questions to help:
- What are the different types of customers in the market and what are their needs?
- Which types of customers (and needs) can your firm serve better than competition?
- What support points substantiate your claim of serving those customers better than competition?
- Is your claim currently believable to those customers or will it take some time to build that perception?
- Does that claim align with how your company aims to grow overall (e.g. over-arching business strategy, sources of competitive advantage)?
2: Focus your brand strategy on a benefit you provide to those customers, not your own capabilities
After identifying the right target customer segment(s), professional services firms should position their brand around a key benefit that they deliver best to those customers. Let’s pause on this point. So why frame the brand around a customer benefit instead of the firm’s unique capabilities, especially given that professional services firms are selling their knowledge and expertise? Because generally speaking it is too inwardly focused – and less effective – to frame a brand strategy around the firm’s capabilities. Most of the time, the “so what?” or “what’s in it for me?” for customers is better answered by instead expressing the ultimate benefits or outcomes delivered to customers by the firm’s unique capabilities and assets.
This leads to an important takeaway regarding brand strategy for professional services firms: focusing on outputs (customer benefits and outcomes) is generally more effective than focusing on inputs (capabilities, assets, approach), because outputs explicitly speak to what customers actually get from you. Here are two examples to demonstrate this distinction between brand strategies that highlight inputs versus outputs.
Example #1: Law Firms
In this example of law firm brand strategies, we can see the differences between expressions of an inwardly focused “capabilities” brand position compared with an outwardly focused “results” brand position. All four firms are prestigious large firms staffed by expert attorneys. So now imagine that you are deciding which firm to hire. Might you favor a firm touting its intelligence or a firm squarely focused on getting you the best results? All things being equal, I would generally choose the firm that’s publicly committed to delivering me the best outcomes.
Example #2: Construction Firms
This example of construction firm brand strategies reveals the same important dichotomy of firms with an inward focus on their own competencies versus firms with an outward focus on the product or outcomes delivered. All four construction firms in this example are industry-leading, multi-billion-dollar general contractors capable of managing highly complex construction projects. So which firm might you favor if deciding between them? Might you prefer a firm highlighting its building approach or a firm centered on delivering exceptional products that are “more than buildings.” All things being equal, I would generally favor the firm that is explicitly dedicated to delivering truly superb products.
Getting brand strategy right matters because it is a key ingredient of how a company will win in the marketplace, and because it provides direction to marketing strategy and execution. For professional services firms, it is imperative to think hard about the customer types that the firm can serve best, and to then frame a compelling brand strategy that is “ownable” by the firm. And generally speaking, it is recommended to frame a brand strategy around what matters most to those customers – the ultimate benefits and outcomes delivered.