Branding is easy. Partnerships are hard

As CMO of a professional services firm, do you see branding as an opportunity to put marketing at the heart of the firm’s overall business strategy, or a potential ‘career-limiting move’?

Partnership cultures are hard to navigate. They can be treacherous, but at the same time winning hearts and minds on a well-conducted branding strategy initiative can help transform marketing from a tactical to a strategic basis, and help marketing earn its seat at the leadership table.

Many cooks

Delivering a marketing plan in any large partnership-led organisation is difficult enough. But at least the internal stakeholder group for each part of the plan is smaller and potentially more manageable — programme 1 for industry group A, programme 2 for country group B, etc

Whereas branding, at the firm level, means engaging with the partnership as a whole and asking — and answering — one big question, “who are we and what makes us special?”

In this article, I’m not touching on why having a clear brand strategy is increasingly important for a premium professional services firm. You can find that in other posts, for example here. In this article, we’re looking at how to navigate branding within a partnership.

“Who are we and what makes us special?” is the same strategic brand question that all successful organisations in every industry sector have to answer these days to thrive with clients/customers, employees and other stakeholders. Intellectually it’s also complex and complicated to answer this question properly when you’re Unilever, or Microsoft, or Apple.

However, no matter how big and international the brand, it’s easier when you have a hierarchical corporate management structure (CEO, CMO, etc.) because a) it’s someone’s job (yours) and b) hundreds of other senior people in the company don’t also think it’s their job.

It’s no accident that some of the most influential brands in the world were founded by ‘charismatic’ (aka, somewhat dictatorial) individuals — Steve Jobs, Apple; Arianna Huffington, HuffPost; Richard Branson, Virgin; Phil Knight, Nike. It’s easier to create alignment with an audience of one.

Pulling together

Being a partnership creates some unique challenges when it comes to branding but also some unique opportunities.

Branding done well can be truly transformational. Done just “ok” can be truly a waste of time and money.

The potential power of gaining internal alignment behind a coherent and compelling brand narrative is in some ways even more strategically important in a partnership business with fewer levers to align people than it is in a ‘normal’ corporate structure.

A strong brand can do that in a way that few other things can. Alignment is both the challenge and the opportunity — it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that maybe 80% of the external impact of branding for a top tier, international professional services firm comes from the internal alignment of the entire partnership around a common purpose and vision for the brand in the market.

But, because these partners are smart, independent-minded and sceptical, they won’t align around just anything you tell them to. That’s why the 20% — the brand narrative itself — is so critical to success. You don’t get the 80% without the 20% — like a computer without the Intel inside.

Branding done well can be truly transformational. Done just “ok” can be truly a waste of time and money.

A shopping list won’t cut it

In my experience, partners will align around an authentic narrative that both plays to their strengths and is realistic about their weaknesses.

It’s not worth spending half a million dollars to end up with an identical list of attributes that you could have copy and pasted from one of your competitors’ websites.

What they won’t align around, is a shopping list of ‘good things’ that nobody can disagree with, but are, on their own, entirely generic attributes of all ‘good firms’ in your space.

It would be unfair to single out anyone in particular. Still, in a recent video, announcing the new brand strategy for a law firm, I noticed a voiceover that (roughly) said: “We’re one client-focused, collaborative, integrated, partner-led team that solves complex challenges with smart business solutions in an efficient way.” I jest (slightly) as the real thing pads it out a bit into a few sentences, but these are the operative words.

Another firm decided to publicise that they’d spent some 4000+ hours researching their brand strategy — only to come up with “we put our clients first.” Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not enough, and it won’t cut it with partners who already feel that they are working their intellectual fingers to the bone trying to put the client first and know that they can’t use that to help them covert the next pitch up against their best competitors.

It’s not worth spending half a million dollars to end up with an identical list of attributes that you could have copy and pasted from one of your competitors’ websites.

It’s often said of a good business strategy that you could leave it in the back of a cab (in the days when people used paper I suppose), and it should be entirely useless to anyone other than the firm is was designed for — because it has been produced to take into account the authentic strengths, weaknesses and potential growth opportunities of one particular organisation.

The same applies to a good brand strategy. It should work for you and you only, for reasons that can sometimes be quite subtle, but that resonates all the same with the partners of that firm. I love the term ‘resonate’ in this context. I think it’s more an American English term in the way it’s used in business, but the scientific definition tells you all you need to know; a set of ideas that resonates with the partnership in a unique and powerful way and generates the reaction, “that’s us!”

The corners are what give a good brand narrative the power to resonate with its audiences.

How to do great

So what’s the recipe for success? Every partnership is different, but as a start point, this is what I’ve found works best.

  1. Engage with partners from day one — listen carefully to the influencers, even the most ‘challenging’ ones (I fondly recall one CMO referring to someone I was about to interview as “Scary Partner”). As well as gathering insights, I always use these initial interviews with partners as an opportunity to engage them in the subject and if necessary debate any scepticism and questions they may have before asking them questions. Not just for the fun of it — although it can be entertaining — but because these individuals will be critical stakeholders later in the process and if they’re not on board, they can be disruptive.
  2. Get high-quality client input — listen hard to work out why they think you are ‘the best’ for them why they choose you over the sea of competition for certain things. This is, of course, the most valuable source of insights. If you know how to listen and ask follow up questions, clients will help you work it out and then you can spot the patterns emerging across the different individuals, client organisations and sectors. It’s essential to select the right individuals and help them, help you, by having an engaging conversation that allows them to talk in ordinary language — not running through a checklist of questions about what kind of dog/cocktail/car the firm is. You’d be amazed!
  3. Develop a brilliant brand strategy — the critical 20% bit, and of course, not a breeze but covered in other articles.
  4. Engage with the partners again — to share the thinking. If you’ve done it right 25% will absolutely love it (for the same reason), 50% will like it, 25% will hate it (for different reasons). Do it badly, and 75% won’t care much, and 25% will still hate it. And you won’t have the 25% group of influential advocates on your side to help you get it through the next stage.
  5. Then you really earn your money — listen, engage, consider, argue, look at options — but don’t knock all the corners off. The corners are what give a good brand narrative the power to resonate with its audiences (take a look at this age-old parody of the VW ‘Think Small’ ad for a funny and timeless take on this).

On this point, I clearly remember the chairman of a well known global law firm client making the observation to me on the way to one of th0se mid-way partner sharing sessions that “it’s funny, it seems we pay you half the money to come up with the ideas and then the other half to stop us diluting the ideas that we commissioned you to come up with for us in the first place.”

I’ve found that, counterintuitively perhaps, a more single-minded and bold brand narrative concept is easier to get buy-in for than a lukewarm idea — probably because no one will help you fight for mediocre.

Then when the discussion is done, decide, get leadership behind it, and then go for it.

Go big or go home

Done this way you will have created a strong and resilient core to your internal and external marketing programme, thought leadership strategy, BD narrative for pitches and proposals, as well as a compelling recruitment brand story.

Done the other way, and you’ll have some warm words that will be quietly forgotten and overwhelmed by short term marketing needs.

Grasp that nettle.


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Ian Stephens

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