If you ask your firm’s senior management, most would probably say that they want a strong brand. After all, who wants a weak anything?
But in far too many cases these same executives actually hold beliefs and engage in behaviors that weaken your brand. Now it is not that they are doing it on purpose. Quite the contrary. They believe that they are being rational and realistic.
In an earlier post focused on how marketing staff can accidently hurt growth, we identified some self-defeating beliefs and faulty logic. Now it’s time to turn the spotlight on your firm’s leadership.
Let’s start by getting clear on just exactly what we mean by a strong brand.
Strong Brand Defined
A professional services brand is made up of two elements, your firm’s reputationand its visibility. By reputation, we mean what your firm is known for, such as “they are the top strategy firm for health care organizations.” Visibility refers to how widely this reputation is known within your target audience. If you have an excellent reputation that is widely known within the target audience, you have a strong brand.
In short, Brand Strength= Reputation x Visibility. When understood in this way it is easy to see that aiming for too broad a target market or building a confusing brand message can easily weaken your brand. Yet, that is exactly what happens to far too many firms.
How Strong Brands Get Weak
Unfortunately, many professional services brands are far weaker than they need to be. The professionals in the firm work hard to do an excellent job with their clients. Yet this effort doesn’t translate into a strong brand. Why?
Often it is because of self-defeating beliefs or behaviors among the senior executive ranks. Here are some of the most common.
How to Kill a Strong Brand
1. “Our work speaks for itself.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if this were true? Unfortunately it is not. There are two fundamental problems with this belief. First, many clients simply are not in a position to objectively judge the quality of your work. They are not experts in your field. They cannot judge the difference between average quality and exceptional craftsmanship. In fact, about 75% of clients are very satisfied with what their service provider delivers. Second, even if they are overjoyed with the quality of your work, that doesn’t mean they will tell anyone else about it. That is not their job. Creating visibility for your quality work is your job. Quality work does not necessarily translate into a strong brand.
2. “Our clients are different.”
You tend to hear this belief used to justify why the normal principles of professional services marketing don’t apply to your firm. Yes it is true that every firm has a unique set of clients. We’re all little snowflakes with our unique histories and personalities. But let’s be serious here. Most clients tend to behave in certain ways that are common across a wide variety of industries. People don’t understand your firm. People do search online. Decisions are made with emotion and justified with logical sounding rationales. Being oblivious to the laws of human psychology is just as dangerous as thinking the Laws of Gravity don’t apply to you.
3. “Anyone can use our services.”
This is a huge one that many firms fall for. While it may be technically true that you could offer your services to any size organization in any industry, that does not mean that you should. If fact, targeting everyone is the marketing equivalent of targeting no one. We often see this tendency in accounting and technology services firms. They will list a dozen or more industries as specialties. Bad mistake. It will dilute your brand building efforts and may even obscure areas of excellence that your firm does possess. The other day I spoke with a mid-sized accounting firm that had a strong specialty in two industry segments. Yet you could not tell this from their website or marketing materials. They had over a dozen industries listed with no special emphasis placed on the two where they did excel. They are clearly working against their own best interests.
Related: What to Do When Your Growth Stalls
4. “Let’s be fair and divide the marketing budget equally among the partners.”
Most professional services firms have multiple owners (typically called partners) who run practices. With so many decision makers having varying interests, the temptation is to avoid conflict by simply spreading a marketing budget more or less equally across them. The typical result is a confusing mish mash of messaging and a dilution of your firm’s brand. We’ve encountered firms with multiple logos, multiple websites and no consistent market positioning. This is no way to build a strong brand. As a matter of fact, it may be a perfect recipe to weaken your brand.
5. “If it’s good enough for (insert your biggest competitor), it’s good enough for us.”
This is the sad reason that so many websites look the same and so many “differentiators” are not really differentiators. As humans we are herd animals, so it is no surprise that we find comfort in being just like our competitors. But it is a false comfort. While it may feel safe to “fit in” with your industry, it is actually a very risky business strategy. Our research on high growth professional services firms shows that clearly communicated, strong differentiators are associated with faster growth and higher profitability. In their absence you become a commodity. No differentiators, no margin.
Strong brands don’t happen by accident. They require focus, coordinated effort, and consistent resources over time. And they require that you look at the world the same way your clients do. But most of all they require that you first put aside some self-defeating beliefs that hold most firms back.
The world of professional services marketing is changing. What may have worked just a few years ago won’t work today. If you are to take advantage of these opportunities you first need to avoid being your own worst enemy. At that point you can begin to see the world through the eyes of your clients.
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