As the business world begins to consider life beyond the pandemic, the leadership conversation will inevitably shift from surviving to growing again. In mature sectors, the only way to grow ahead of the market is to take market share from someone else. So, brand differentiation — being different and better for your target customers — becomes a critical success factor in any business strategy.

In knowledge-led businesses — those led by consultants, lawyers, scientists, architects, engineers and designers — rainmaking partners and marketers know that brand differentiation is crucial in winning new clients.

However, brand differentiation is a tricky topic…

Professional service firms have for decades gone to great lengths to build brand differentiators into their physical client experience to project what they stand for — cool/expensive offices in great locations, plush meeting rooms with everything from cappuccino on tap to Fritz Hansen furniture, art collections that ooze sophistication and taste, professionally-printed documents produced in-house, reception videos and publications to showcase their expertise.

Currently, the way most firms are projecting themselves virtually is the physical equivalent of the US & UK versions of The Office

What an experience that was

The most influential brands — from West Coast game designers…

How should professional service firms go about building brands within brands without causing internal chaos or external confusion?

Professional service firms have a particular branding challenge when it comes to messaging: how to project a coherent brand for group A (which could be an industry sector — e.g. Healthcare, a skill practice — e.g. litigation or market — e.g. China) that on the one hand maximises the messaging and branding for group A while, on the other hand, avoids competing or conflicting with the messaging and branding for group B — all under a single firm brand name. …

Brand architecture is market signposting. It helps clients navigate and make sense of a professional service firm’s offer. Surprisingly, this externally focused part of the brand strategy often gives CMOs a big headache because of the internal dynamics.

There’s a ton of strategic innovation and acquisitions going on in the business of professional services: law firms adapting to new technology (AI, etc.) tech companies attempting to become more design literate, management consultants of all stripes becoming more digital.

One of the tricky tasks that often lands in the CMO’s lap is brand architecture, aka what to call things.

There are…

Every successful brand that has ever been, or ever will be, is made up of the same three ingredients: truths, wants and differences.

Power of three

From the most iconic global brands to the very latest startups — across all sectors, including professional services, if you look closely at any well-positioned brand, its narrative is woven out of these three fundamental particles.

Truths — what it does really, really well

Wants — what its customers really, really want

Differences — what spark of uniqueness it possesses

The power of branding is that done well, it weaves a single-minded brand narrative…

The Oort Cloud is a good metaphor for brand communications in professional services. I’m aware it’s a bit geeky but what can I say?

There are a few close clients who know you well (the inner planets), a few who sort of know you (the outer planets), and millions of clients who are so far away from knowing you that you might as well not exist (the Oort Cloud). What an opportunity!

Buried treasure

If you’re the CMO of a big but not the biggest professional services firm, it’s probably the case that 90% of the market knows little to…

Brand strategy can be a disarmingly effective way for management teams of professional service firms to get into the middle of those ‘lagging’ leadership behaviours that are holding the firm back. A brand-led approach can create good collective momentum towards changing them — without the inherent disruption and conflict of so-called ‘change management’ programmes.

The times, they are a-changing

Change management is all the rage at the moment, but management consultants — who are generally logical, rational, data-driven types — tend to see the world of work through their models and spreadsheets. …

In international law firm branding, being ‘successful in New York’ matters far more than a purely rational look at the data suggests it should.

Unlike London — the other global city that really counts — New York doesn’t have a total stranglehold on the market for premium deals and disputes. Historically only around 40% of total US premium revenues are sourced from New York — the balance from a range of other major US cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, San Fransisco, Washington DC, etc. Whereas in the UK, London accounts for much closer to 100%. …

A confident and successful business doesn’t hide its strategy — it should be visible to all — and the organisation’s brand should be the most tangible manifestation of that strategy to all its audiences inside and outside the office walls.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, it’s worth defining what’s a strategy. Well, there are multiple complex and complicated business school definitions available — try googling it — but the best of them all is Michael Porter’s aphorism that, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

So, it follows that if strategy is choosing…

As CMO of a professional services firm, do you see branding as an opportunity to put marketing at the heart of the firm’s overall business strategy, or a potential ‘career-limiting move’?

Partnership cultures are hard to navigate. They can be treacherous, but at the same time winning hearts and minds on a well-conducted branding strategy initiative can help transform marketing from a tactical to a strategic basis, and help marketing earn its seat at the leadership table.

Many chiefs

Delivering a marketing plan in any large partnership-led organisation is difficult enough. But at least the internal stakeholder group for each…

Ian Stephens

Branding for professional service firms | Founder & CEO at Principia Brand Consultants

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