From philosophy to business, if you want to communicate your brand story in a way that cuts through the clutter, key messages are essential.

As well as establishing one of the world’s most substantial philosophical movements, (or 4th largest religion depending on how you view it), Gautama Buddha, (or simply the Buddha), could also have claimed to have invented the modern communications discipline of key messages. With its Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path and Five Precepts, Buddhism seems perfectly designed to cut through the media clutter and present itself with clarity and consistency across all the various communications channels available. Admittedly, at the time these were limited to word of mouth and the occasional Ola leaf, but they cut through nonetheless. It’s likely that if the Buddha were forming his thinking today, he would probably be advised to see if he couldn’t reduce it to one list rather than three, but you can’t argue with the results.

From Buddha to brand
For a modern professional services firm, an agreed set of powerful key messages is a vital component of a successful branding strategy. Once decided, they give leaders, partners and all those involved in marketing the firm a framework to ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet – and with well-designed messages, they’ll be singing a pleasing tune as well. Whether it’s the ‘about us’ section of the firm’s website, a press release or a panel pitch to a new client, a set of key messages should be a valuable tool to all those involved. Many of the most successful professional service firms have strong key messages, particularly those that are big, international and provide multiple services across multiple sectors.

For a modern professional services firm, an agreed set of powerful key messages is a vital component of a successful branding strategy

Key messages are at once one of the most straightforward and challenging components of successful branding for a modern professional services firm. The easy bit is what they look like: a set of bullet points that fit comfortably on a piece of paper (ideally on half a piece) that together communicate a firm’s proposition to the market. The advantage of having a set of separate points (over a single ‘positioning statement’), is that it makes it easier to include a fairly diverse range of concepts without too much need for linguistic gymnastics. The challenging part is that to be powerful, these messages have to be simultaneously, ‘relevant, distinctive and true,’ which is where the hard work begins. A bit like learning to juggle, one on its own is easy, two a bit harder and three – well initially nigh on impossible it seems at first!

Relevant, distinctive and true
You have to start with a sound basis of robust insight. Depending on the sector that insight can be quantitative (numbers), qualitative (opinions) or more likely a combination. Then the challenge is to work with that body of insight in one hand and the firm’s leadership team in the other to craft a set of messages that simultaneously capture client propositions (relevant), the firm’s competitive strengths (distinctive) and are authentic and credible (true). The toughest part is to avoid knocking all the corners off and ending up with something supremely bland.

However, achieve it, and you’ll have developed a tool worth its weight in gold that will endure for years or even longer. McKinsey & Co, as an example, developed many of their key brand message themes, (only the most important work, brightest people, up or out, rigour, etc.), decades ago, and even if they’ve evolved to suit the changing times the themes still resonate today with clients, prospects, staff, and recruits.


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.