Branding is a whole-firm sport

Branding can be superficial. That’s not a cynical view; it’s just that there’s no absolute necessity that what’s referred to as a branding exercise must be more than skin deep.

But, if it is only skin deep, it’s not going to be transformative – and done well, branding can be truly transformative for a law firm, consulting firm, indeed any flavour of knowledge-led organisation.

The big difference between superficial and transformative is whether the whole firm is actively engaged

Same but better

There’s good evidence that knowledge-led businesses with strong brands are 2-3 times more profitable than their peers with very similar capabilities but weaker brands.

The big difference between superficial and transformative is whether the whole firm is actively engaged and involved in driving the brand strategy forwards or just the marketing team.

That’s hard to achieve – requiring strong leadership, underlying ambition, and a strategic approach to brand development – but the return on investment is far greater. Just do the maths on the potential return of 2-3 times your firm’s current profitability and weigh that against the considerable challenges involved in making your brand strategy a whole-firm sport.

The creatively named ‘quadrants’ model below demonstrates what’s involved in making it a whole-firm activity.

If that looks like a lot to chew on, think about your competitors who seem to have strong brands. Are they strong because they have a catchy tagline or because what they stand for in the market appears to run throughout their firm and is as visible in their hiring strategy and high-profile client work as it is in their marketing activities?

Here’s one we made earlier

If you’re interested in a deeper dive into a real-life example of a knowledge-led firm that has taken a whole-firm approach to branding and has had enough time for the fruits of their labour to show, take a look at PA Consulting. First, read the branding case study to understand the story and then look around their website – not just to see the marketing campaigns, which are excellent but also to read the client case studies and look at their 2020 annual report. The brand runs through everything.

The silver lining is that once you’ve done the hard yards and built up the branding momentum, it gets much easier.

It’s evident to the casual observer why they’re achieving so much success, and that’s part of the mystery of branding; we instinctively know it’s powerful, but most organisations fall short of taking the whole-firm approach. Maybe because it genuinely is harder to take this route initially and why it’s so important to weigh that against the potential for transformative outcomes.

The silver lining is that once you’ve done the hard yards and built up the branding momentum, it gets much easier. The sceptics become advocates and what was at first an ephemeral vision of what could be, becomes part of the firm’s fabric and even ‘the way we do things around here.’


Ian Stephens

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