Brands within brands – macro and micro

In professional services, brands must work on a macro and micro level. However, most firms end up over-investing time and resources in the micro and neglecting the macro because of internal dynamics.

First impressions count

When clients first think about a professional service firm’s brand, if they think anything at all, it’s likely to be at a highly macro level – What kind of firm is it? What’s it known for? What’s its reputation?

The answers to these questions are critical. They frame everything that comes after. But, most firms spend little or any time or money actively trying to manage these perceptions compared to the resources they pour into ‘everything that comes after’.

It’s always the first question I ask clients in research interviews, and it’s always enlightening because it influences and informs so much about their perceptions of the firm in question (and its close competitors).

Despite its importance, this aspect of a firm’s brand – the macro level – is often neglected.

It’s not always an easy question for clients to answer because, of course, in professional services, there is so much competition at every level that distinctiveness, let alone uniqueness, is hard to come by.

But, everyone can answer the question, and often wrapped up in these first few sentences are the bones of the firm’s brand strengths and challenges.

“They’re a great mid-market firm”, “They’re known for their innovation”, “They’re one of the top strategy houses,” and “They’re a New York firm.”

The list goes on and on and is often sector-specific.

Despite its importance, this aspect of a firm’s brand – the macro level – is often neglected.

This is partly because it’s easy to see it as fixed and immutable (it isn’t) but mainly because, on a day-to-day level, almost all the noise within the firm that comes in the CMO’s direction about brand is at the micro level.

Micro means products, practices, and industries. In big firms, these groups can still be big and global, but even when not, the individual partners leading the groups often believe that their specific micro-level brand is the CMO’s priority – or should be.

The problem you can easily observe is that it’s too easy to stop at ‘relevant’.

Top table fare

The firm’s global leadership team is the only group well-placed to focus on the macro – as with many other strategic issues.

They are the only people with the necessary influence and mandate to get their arms around the firm’s macro brand and implement the programme to change it.

Other articles detail how to embrace and change a firm’s macro brand (Strategic Brand Positioning for Professional Service FirmsBrand = Strategy Made VisibleBrand Differentiation). Still, the kernel of it is key messages.

The easy part is what they look like: bullet points that fit comfortably on a piece of paper (ideally on half a piece) that communicate a proposition to the market.

The challenging part is that, to be powerful, these messages must be simultaneously ‘relevant, distinctive and true,’ which is where the hard work begins.

It’s a bit like learning to juggle; one is easy, two a bit harder, and all three – well, initially nigh on impossible, it seems at first, without some practice.

The problem you can easily observe by looking at many professional service firms’ home pages and ‘about us’ sections on their websites is that it’s too easy to stop at ‘relevant’.

How many times do you see an announcement of “our exciting new brand positioning” that lists a load of things that clients value – expertise, impact, service, quality, insight, innovation, creativity, experience… – without any attempt to claim any distinctiveness or ‘reason to believe’ that this firm is any better at these things than absolutely everyone else?

Anyway, that’s enough about the importance of the macro; what about the micro?

It would be surprising to find a group specialising in highly-commoditised, price-driven work in a high-value, high-price firm.

Siblings, not strangers 

How should firms approach brand messaging for individual product/industry groups without causing internal chaos or external confusion?

At first glance, this sounds challenging — different audiences with different needs and priorities.

However, in my experience, a firm that has a good strategy is highly unlikely to have developed individual groups with dramatically polarised market positions within the same firm. This helps.

To survive and thrive, firms tend to evolve more commonality between groups than might, on the surface, be apparent. It would be surprising to find a group specialising in highly-commoditised, price-driven work in a high-value, high-price firm.

It’s theoretically possible, but these business cultures are like oil and water.

If they did emerge in a single firm, one or the other would most likely have been spun out by now.

The tricky part is to avoid knocking all the corners off and ending up with something supremely bland.

Relevant, distinctive, and true 

The process with the individual groups is, in essence, the same as the one for the macro brand: working with the group’s leadership team to craft a set of messages.

Messages that simultaneously project the client proposition (relevant) capture the group’s competitive strengths (distinctive) and are authentic and credible (true).

The tricky part is to avoid knocking all the corners off and ending up with something supremely bland.

Or to get too tied up in knots trying to weave together different strands from the various micro-brand groups.

Individual firms are better known for some things than others, but that needn’t get in the way of navigating a portfolio.

Different strokes for different folks

Clients will inevitably have varying needs and wants from different services — even from the same firm. This shouldn’t be an issue; we’re easily able to navigate different key messages when they’re relevant to the product.

The latest iPhone 14’s brand messaging is about the camera quality and resilience to smashing when you drop it. In contrast, the MacBook Air’s brand is all about screen resolution and lightness — but that’s not confusing.

However, some themes are more sensitive than others to authentically be in different places — premium and cheap, big and small, for example.

If the iPhone’s messaging was about being ‘the best phone under $100’ and the MacBook Air’s ‘the best computer that money can buy,’ that would be confusing, as one undermines the other.

Whereas, it’s much easier to be at different places on other themes — for example, emphasising geographical network to multi-nationals and local market expertise to domestic clients, or deep bench strength in types of work requiring large teams and individual named experts for specialist advisory work.

In professional services, individual firms are better known for some things than others, but that needn’t get in the way of navigating a portfolio.

In the legal world, Kirkland & Ellis is famous for litigation and Latham & Watkins for transactional work. But both are also very strong in the other — it’s just not their historical signature strength — and the market can easily handle this.

In the branding jargon, professional services are a very ‘high interest’ category, where buyers are willing and able to devote a significant amount of bandwidth to investigating the various firms before ‘buying.’

But to do this, they must first get on the consideration list, where the macro brand plays a much more significant role.

Don’t just do it

Tempting as it is, avoid creating messages that sound too much like tag lines for brands within the overall brand.

It’s a hard call to say where ‘clear messages’ end and ‘tag lines’ begin, but generally, tag lines contain a degree of conceptual ambiguity — Because you’re worth it (L’Oréal), The king of beers (Budweiser), Let there be change (Accenture).

For a modern, sophisticated, professional services firm, branding matters at the macro and micro levels.

Getting stuck in

So, what’s the right way to navigate this within a professional services environment?

Groups A and B should start by identifying the strongest messaging they can (relevant, different, and true) for their group without paying attention to what the other group is doing.

But they should have a common ‘brain’ sit-in on both efforts (someone senior and experienced enough to be influential).

They can do two things: when group A starts pushing ‘low price’ and group B ‘premium’ challenge them, whether both are authentic. (Most likely, one isn’t and needs to find a more authentic way to address this market need – premium firms can be ‘highly efficient’ but not ‘low price’).

Apple has a ‘cheaper’ iPhone – the SE – and price is one of its key messages. But it’s not ‘positioned’ as cheap. It’s positioned as a fantastic piece of technology that costs less than the full-blown iPhone.

This person can also be aware if either group is developing emotive tag lines that might confuse at the firm macro-brand level — or may be more likely to conflict with messaging from other groups.

Looking both ways

Branding matters at both the macro and micro levels for a modern, sophisticated, professional services firm. CMOs will often feel much more internal day-to-day pressure from partners to help them with their group’s micro brand rather than invest in the firm’s macro brand.

CMOs should persuade the firm’s global leadership team to lend weight to the macro brand and devote appropriate time and resources to growing that in itself rather than simply letting it emerge as the sum of its parts.

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.