Brands are funny things, they keep evolving and no two definitions are the same. But they are increasingly an essential part of our personal and professional lives.

Brands are everywhere. The ‘art of branding’ has developed and become more and more sophisticated over time as brands have evolved from the world of products to services and more recently to ‘experiences.’ Interestingly, the cutting edge of branding in the wider world has recently evolved to be much closer to the way that elite professional service firms have for a long time thought about themselves and marketed themselves: building brands based on highly intangible, often emotional ideas and embracing internal organisational mission and purpose as a source of external differentiation. Appreciating this convergence is useful to those wanting to further develop their firm’s brand as a spearhead for future growth.

Where it all started
A quick reprise of the first 100 years of branding looks something like this…

Until about a hundred years ago (and for a very, very long time before that) people made stuff for other people they knew, and most things they made were commodities–sold by size, weight, and volume–an ounce of soap, a loaf of bread or a yard of linen.

Until about a hundred years ago…people made stuff for other people they knew

Then, around the beginning of the 20th century, entrepreneurs like William Lever (Unilever), Milton Hershey (Hershey’s) and W.K. Kellogg (Kellogg’s) worked out a new model whereby big companies, using modern manufacturing and distribution techniques unavailable to small local artisans, made stuff for people they didn’t know that was generally as good if not better than the local option. However, because this stuff came on trains and carriages from far away places and from companies that people didn’t know, the entrepreneurs worked out that if they ‘branded’ their stuff with a familiar name and well-designed packaging, people would begin to trust the unknown company selling the stuff and buy it. That worked pretty well. And because these brands were also competing with those of other big companies–not just the local artisans–the brands that were the most distinctive and differentiated did best.

Roll forward a few decades and companies worked out how to apply many of the same techniques to services. Banks, telcos, and insurance companies began to grow way beyond their local communities and developed trusted brands that fulfilled much the same role as they did for products: giving confidence to people, handing over their money to companies that they couldn’t see or touch, that it was safe to do so. That worked as well. Again the brands that managed to be more distinctive and differentiated did best of all.

Just do it
Another few decades passed, (this really is a super-accelerated narrative!). Then around about the 1980s and 90s, a few pioneering entrepreneurs realised that they could elevate their products and services into ‘experience’ brands that had big ideas behind them. Brands like Nike, Virgin, and Apple, emerged that did all the things that people expected from brands (great products, great service, etc.) and then some. They promoted ideas. Ideas that rode ahead of the product or service and engaged with customers on a new level: emotionally. Ideas like being ‘winners’ (Nike), ‘creative’ (Apple) and ‘iconoclastic’ (Virgin). These brands didn’t just aim to be trusted; they sought to stand for something significant, distinctive and aspirational in the minds of their customers. These brands also did very well and riding on the coattails of globalisation did very well in lots of places around the world at the same time.

‘Idea’ brands morphed into ‘purpose’ brands built on, often hugely ambitious, plans to make the world a better place.

And finally, bringing us bang up to date, sometime over the last decade or so the era of ‘idea’ brands morphed into ‘purpose’ brands built on, often hugely ambitious, plans to make the world a better place. The current poster children of this latest plateau of branding evolution include brands like Tesla, Google, and Uber that have stated missions to do things on a wonderfully grand scale, like “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” in Google’s case.

Unwitting pioneers
The reason why appreciating this historical evolution of branding matters to professional services firms is that they are of course highly intangible, premium services which are notoriously difficult to differentiate in the minds of clients. Nevertheless, iconic brands like McKinsey (management consulting), Goldman Sachs (investment banking), Wachtell (law), Arup (architectural engineering), PWC (accounting) and a few notable others have invested time, money and leadership putting in the hard yards over many years to build strong and incredibly valuable brands.

The interesting thing is that while professional services firms don’t tend to think of themselves as particularly innovative or pioneering when it comes to their marketing and branding, some of them are. Being people businesses and operating in incredibly competitive markets has meant that they’ve unconsciously adopted more of the cutting-edge branding techniques (standing for ideas, projecting a sense of their culture, etc.) than they might realise.

In so many ways it’s striking that the purpose and culture-based approach to brands championed by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Tesla has so many parallels with the way the most successful professional services firms like McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Wachtell, etc. think about their brands.

That’s it in a nutshell–if you have more time you can do no better than read the books of my two former colleagues: Wally Olins and Robert Jones. They are not only incredibly wise on the topic they are also highly entertaining and a joy to read to boot.


This article is part of a weekly series ‘How to think about…’; short summaries looking at the components of branding for professional services firms. Read them here as they’re published or look out for them on LinkedIn.

Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's leading strategic consultancy specialising in brand-led transformation for knowledge-led businesses.