Brand communications. Talking to the hand.

A brand communications campaign can be a powerful way to reposition and update a professional service firm’s reputation in the market. But it takes an unusually single-minded and long-term approach to pull it off.

Out of sight 

For me, the Oort Cloud is a good metaphor when it comes to approaching brand communications for professional service firms. A bit geeky I know but go with it.

Think about your entire market as a ‘solar system’ of clients and potential clients with your firm as the star at the centre of it all (it’s a metaphor so might as well think big).

From your perspective, there are your close and loyal clients who know you well (the inner planets). Then a bit further away, there are your network clients who know a bit about you but aren’t currently engaged (the outer planets). And then finally, beyond that, there are countless thousands of clients who are so far away from knowing you that you might as well not exist (i.e. the Oort Cloud).

How on (or from) earth do you reach them?

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 nothing about your firm. And what’s more, feel they are already pretty well served by their existing network of firms.

I’m not only talking about smaller firms here, I mean the big ones too. The biggest firms may have the advantage of greater name awareness, but data shows that knowledge beyond this among prospects is extremely shallow, and often way out of date.

They’re not listening and have less than zero attention span

The glass-half-full view of this challenge is that there’s a vast untapped reservoir of potential clients out there.

The problem is that they aren’t going to be the slightest bit interested in hearing about your (fantastic) services.

They’re not listening and have less than zero attention span.

And yet. On the other hand, senior decision-makers – like the rest of us – are at the same time, consuming more and more content through a plethora of digital channels than ever before. Massively more.

The challenge for a professional services firm wanting to get on the radar of the 90%, is to meet this conundrum head-on and set a bar to create compelling content that entertains, engages, and interests first and sells almost nothing.

The Oort Cloud is a good metaphor for brand communications in professional services

Reaching the parts

Everyone who was there remembers IBM’s smarter planet brand communications campaign. And probably no one can remember any of the communications its rivals were putting out at the same time. But what was it about? Nothing and everything.

There was a ton of it, and most of it seemed to consist of brightly coloured icons and short pieces of text that roughly said: “IBM is doing interesting things to help create a smarter – tech-enabled – world.”

There were also a few text-heavy case studies placed in industry publications — that probably no one read because they were very, very long and quite dry — but gave the impression in passing that they had lots of stuff to say about these sectors.

The campaign won many accolades and was probably one of the most potent professional services/b2b marketing campaigns ever. It changed perceptions of IBM from a ‘maker of boxes’ to a ‘technology services’ company — one that had a point of view on the future and was confident of having a significant role to play in it.

This campaign was talking to the Oort Cloud. Yes, IBM was already well known as a name, but known for the wrong things, which can often be harder to shift than not being known at all.

From then on, most people, in business circles, had a better impression of IBM and saw them as a tech company that could advise on digital transformation as well as supply the hardware.

IBM killed it in 2015. Big mistake. And what replaced it? A campaign about ‘Cognitive Business’ apparently, who knew?

After a few false starts, IBM recently launched another new campaign titled ‘let’s create’ which feels as if it could have more legs if they stick at it.

Strategically it’s interesting because, alongside the Smarter Planet campaign, you can see the evolution of the centre of gravity of the entire Big Tech industry over the last three decades. Today, IBM’s strategy is to reposition the firm again. This time from ‘technology services’ to ‘digital entrepreneurs’.

People are intrigued by what’s going to happen next, in the future. The problem with case studies is that by definition they are about the past.

PA Consulting — the innovation and digital transformation company — has recently run a brand campaign that features octopuses, seashells, and butterflies. Rather than sell services, it asks questions, such as “Can an octopus teach a robot to hold an apple?” alongside other equally intriguing questions. There aren’t any case studies, no 20% better, 30% faster, stats.

The idea is simply to engage potential clients in their Oort Cloud — who may never have heard of PA and right now would not be in the slightest bit interested in an advert about their excellent but very specific services.

No, this campaign is trying to appeal to the part of these clients’ brains that notices a headline in The Economist, Wired, or the New Scientist.

It’s business

The ultimate ambition, of course, is to attract clients, but PA knows that if they tried to do this with case studies — the traditional b2b model — they would fail.

People are intrigued by what’s going to happen next, in the future. The problem with case studies is that by definition they are about the past. Often a few years in the past. Projects that you completed two years ago that have been live for a year or more are not that interesting to people who aren’t shopping for your particular services. No case studies are. Don’t do it.

What you can do for clients today — is also unlikely to be interesting enough to stop them in their tracks and grab the necessary attention.

What you might be able to do in the future might be interesting, though. And what you think the future might hold can be engaging, if you can build some confidence in your thinking.

Try and devise some engaging communications that might penetrate their attention field and even intrigue them

Baker McKenzie — the global law firm — is working with The World Economic Forum on a project looking at the ‘future of the corporation’ in an era of stakeholder capitalism, and environmental concerns. That’s interesting. Interesting enough perhaps to pique the attention of a passing CEO or General Counsel who might genuinely find the issues and challenges engaging.

Surprising but true

Of course, what’s unsaid and critically important here, is that these examples of brand communications, aimed at the 90% of the market that are non-clients, have to have a connection with the firm’s brand proposition — and that in turn has to connect with what the firm does well and hopefully better than everyone else.

If it doesn’t, then what’s the point of the engagement? Other than perhaps a temporary boost in name awareness. So, the Smarter Planet campaign ‘worked’ because the headline communications linked through to IBM’s brand strategy at the time — to drive perceptions of IBM as a leading global IT services business.

If you’re thinking about brand communications, remember that the people you want to talk to aren’t listening. Try and devise some engaging communications that might penetrate their attention field and even intrigue them.

Then you can begin to open up that vast reservoir of untapped potential clients.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.