Brand positioning or brand proposition?

They’re not the same thing, and whilst a good brand strategy can significantly impact either for an ambitious professional services firm, it’s important to know where your focus needs to be.


Branding is a notoriously ill-defined discipline.

Terms like brand positioning, brand proposition, brand purpose, and many other Ps are bandied about – often interchangeably in the same slide show – by people who really should know better.

This isn’t a textbook, so I won’t bore you by trying to define the lexicon here. Instead, I’m simply going to illustrate how brand strategy can solve specific kinds of brand reputation problems faced by professional service firms by deciding whether the problem is mostly about brand positioning or mostly about brand proposition.

The literal meanings are a good place to start.

Usually, professional service firms find themselves with a brand positioning problem to solve due to a new strategy.

Well placed

When I think about a professional service firm’s brand positioningI metaphorically sit back in my chair – on some veranda overlooking a vast savannah (it’s a metaphor, so travel is free) – and survey the brand landscape from a client’s point of view. When I’m doing discovery research, I ask myself – and the clients themselves what the competitive landscape looks like. What are the most prominent features out there?

More often than not, in professional services, the client’s perspective of the brand landscape is, at first glance, dominated by clusters of firms rather than individual names – Big Four, Magic Circle, Strategy Houses, etc. These are powerful brands, even if no one owns or controls them. It’s natural for clients to do this because it’s how our brains are wired to navigate the world – we look for patterns to help manage the complexity.

Often they can be helpful to the individual firms, but sometimes they become a problem because the cluster brand reinforces their positioning problem. It matters less if the term is malleable – like Big Tech or Big Four – but terms like Magic Circle, which emphasise particular geographies, can simultaneously be valuable assets and brand perception straight jackets.

Then, dig a little deeper. You’ll discover other positioning features that apply to these clusters and their individual firms – smaller, bigger, premium, mid-market, innovators, UK firms, US firms, etc. Again these tags can be tailwinds or headwinds depending on market dynamics and the individual firm’s strategic ambitions.

If your firm has a brand positioning problem, then it’s probably the case that this should be the main focus of your brand strategy.

In more crowded sectors, these labels can also extend to more specialist aspects of brand positioning – litigation specialist (law), tall buildings (architects), fixed income (banks) – and depending on the sector and the perceived importance of specialist knowledge and expertise can get incredibly tightly defined.

Brands are well positioned when the market perceives them to be placed roughly where they want to be in the competitive landscape. And obviously, firms have a brand positioning problem to solve if they aren’t.

Strategy made visible

Usually, professional service firms find themselves with a brand positioning problem to solve due to a new strategy.

Whether out of choice or necessity, they expand to a new geography, discipline or specialism. Or, they see an opportunity to move to a different place in the food chain – usually higher up it, but occasionally towards more significant revenues with lower margins.

If your firm has a brand positioning problem, then it’s probably the case that this should be the main focus of your brand strategy.

Brand repositioning takes time and demands consistency, but assuming the firm’s strategy has been carefully thought through, the results will be well worth it in the end.

Good examples of successful brand positioning strategies include Latham & Watkins repositioning the law firm, first from a premium West Coast brand to a premium national US brand, then again from a premium US brand to a premium international/global brand. Nokia has successfully repositioned its brand twice in its history, from a paper pulp business to the largest mobile phone brand in the world and, following the demise of its mobile phone business, into the world’s third-largest digital network equipment brand. Once one of the defining brands in the executive search sector, Korn Ferry has repositioned the brand to become a much broader ‘organizational consulting firm’.

A successful proposition-led brand strategy will focus much more on perceived differentiation

Well chosen

Brand proposition is very different. Proposition comes into play when you’re positioned roughly in the right place in the brand landscape. Now the question is how competitive is your brand vis-à-vis the other firms also ‘positioned’ in this space?

This is the more familiar aspect of brand strategy because it’s a lot closer to how most consumer brands use their communications to compete and applies equally well to professional service firms.

A successful proposition-led brand strategy will focus much more on perceived differentiation than a positioning-led one. It has to balance specificity with application across the firm’s core services – not always easy.

Good examples of successful brand strategies mainly focused on brand proposition include McKinsey’s efforts over the last few years to build credibility in all things digital to complement their data and finance-based proposition. Accenture is also making a considerable effort to add creativity to its technology brand proposition for both the web 2.0 era we’re in and even more so for the coming web 3.0. PA Consulting has successfully focused its brand proposition around innovation with its ‘bringing ingenuity to life’ brand strategy. 

Horses & courses

Of course, the real world is complicated, and your firm may have positioning and proposition problems to solve. The advice here isn’t to ignore one of them but to be careful to distinguish between them in devising your brand strategy and implementation, and not try to muddle them up because you’re likely to not do justice to either.

One way to do this is to separate the tasks and devote particular strands of your marketing communications to one or the other. This way, you can create readable content and consistent campaigns in any channel, knowing you’re pushing on both fronts.

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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.