Professional services firms are always looking for new ways to gain a competitive advantage —but that doesn’t always lead them to offer something new . All too often in the professional services field, you see lots of competition with very little differentiation. Firms claiming distinction, but able to demonstrate very little difference.
In fact, most firms rely on “me too” differentiators, so they all sound pretty much the same. You’ve probably heard any number of firms discuss their “great people”, “exceptional service“ and how they are “trusted advisors.” Maybe you’ve used the same lines — and maybe those claims are true. But they’re so vague, and they’ve been repeated so often, that they’ve lost their power.
How can you avoid the trap of identical messaging and stand out from the competition? The answer lies in brand research. Let’s explore some of the most common questions about brand research and how it can help firms get ahead.
What is Brand Research?
Brand research is a process of formal data collection and empirical analysis that explores both your reputation and your visibility to help you better understand the marketplace and your firm’s role in it. Brand research can also help you understand the characteristics that truly set you apart from the competition in the eyes of your prospective clients.These characteristics are commonly referred to as differentiators or your competitive advantage.
To fully understand the implications of this definition, we first have to nail down the concept of your firm’s “brand.” Your brand is the product of your reputation and your visibility . If you have a great reputation for specific expertise and high visibility within your target audience you have a strong brand . Your brand is how people in your industry understand your firm — the projection of your expertise and experience into the marketplace.
What is the Impact of Brand Research?
Studies show that firms that conduct brand research grow faster and are more profitable than firms that do not.
Figure 1 shows that even occasional research has an impact. More frequent research produces a bigger impact.
Why? Research gives firms an evidence-based foundation on which to build a solid strategy — including data-driven brand positioning and messaging. Download The Professional Services Guide to Research
Often, major decisions about a firm’s messaging and business direction are based on guesswork or assumptions. That can be very risky. “This is probably a message our audience will respond to.” “I think this is a service our clients would appreciate.”
By conducting research, you know that you are on the right track — and that certainty can save you a lot of pain and effort down the line. Brand research can give you solid answers to questions you were guessing at before: for instance, the differentiators that matter most to your clients or the services they would most like to see you offer.
There is another major benefit that many firms overlook. In the absence of solid data everyone feels free to have an opinion. If all your leadership isn’t in complete agreement about the direction your firm should take, research can provide objective guidance and help get everyone in alignment. When facts replace opinion, it’s easier to gain consensus.
When Should You Use Brand Research?
There are a number of junctures at which a firm would be well advised to conduct brand research. Here are some of the most common examples.
Top 10 Examples of Brand Research Scenarios
Some of these are the big moments in the life of a firm. These are the pivotal periods during which a firm stakes out a new identity or a new path for the future. They typically involve major decisions with major consequences. As such, they are opportune times to guide the path forward with data.
But research isn’t just for moments of big, disruptive change. You may simply find that you have outgrown your old brand. What once differentiated you no longer embodies the value that you provide to clients. This will happen many times in the life of most firms, and research helps you rebrand to communicate who you really are today .
Similarly, when you decide you want to accelerate growth and gain a competitive advantage, research gives you the knowledge you need to get there efficiently.
What Can You Learn From Brand Research?
As it turns out, you can learn a lot. Common research topics range from how the marketplace views your firm to who your true competitors are and how you differ from them. In short, you can gain insight into the entire client journey .
Below are some examples of the most insightful brand research questions.
Top Brand Research Questions
Studying these topics usually uncovers some surprises. You may discover “hidden competitors” you hadn’t known about. You may also learn that your clients value traits in your company that you had never appreciated before — traits that might make good differentiators.
Likewise, you can study your firm’s strengths, weaknesses and the reasons clients choose you — all of which may guide your firm’s differentiation and positioning.
You may think you know the answers to these questions already — but after conducting research, most firms find significant gaps between internal perspectives and the facts on the ground. These blind spots can have major negative consequences. They result in wasted marketing budget and effort. Your hard work will not produce the results you seek. Assessing these perception gaps is another important function of research, helping you check your assumptions and evolve your internal views of the marketplace.
What Are the Major Brand Research Methods?
There are four research methods that professional services firms use most often. But it’s important to note that only two of the four are effective and practical.
Selecting the appropriate research method can make all the difference between a useful, productive study and one that falls short of your goals.
How Can You Turn Brand Research into Growth?
Research will help you better understand your firm’s strengths, weaknesses, current opportunities and emerging threats. With this detailed, multidimensional picture of your firm and its place in the market, you can then proceed to develop an informed strategy.
It’s generally most effective to document your brand strategy — your true differentiators, the positioning you will adopt moving forward — into three related documents.
These living documents will serve as an internal reference point as you begin to project your research-driven rebranding through various marketing channels.
And this is the stage at which you will begin to really drive growth, as you translate your new, differentiated messaging into the material that communicates your brand. This material takes many forms, including your logo, tagline, brand identity guidelines, website, marketing collateral and much more.
The brand research also serves another important function. It can help your entire team talk about your firm in a coherent way and make your business development efforts more consistent. Nothing persuades technically oriented folks like objective research data. Replacing opinions with facts ends many unproductive debates.
Brand research gives you the tools you need to put your firm on a path to fact-driven growth and profitability — and to forge ironclad competitive differentiators. In a field of “me too” messages, a little research can make all the difference.
As you spread your research-driven messages, which are highly targeted and relevant to your audience, you will find your marketing efforts connecting with more potential clients and driving higher growth. And this is how you can join the group of the fastest-growing, most profitable professional services firms.