Building brands within brands

How should professional service firms go about building brands within brands without causing internal chaos or external confusion?

Professional service firms have a particular branding challenge when it comes to messaging: how to project a coherent brand for group A (which could be an industry sector — e.g. Healthcare, a skill practice — e.g. litigation or market — e.g. China) that on the one hand maximises the messaging and branding for group A while, on the other hand, avoids competing or conflicting with the messaging and branding for group B — all under a single firm brand name. (Other b2b and b2c multi-product / service brands face similar issues, but they have more ability to use brand architecture to signpost differences to customers — see my recent article on brand architecture).

The key takeaways:

  • It’s simpler than you might think
  • All brand messages need to be relevant, distinctive and true
  • Clients can navigate a portfolio of different service offers (sub-brands)
  • Watch out for conflict on a few particular themes that might confuse the market
  • Avoid creating conceptual ‘tag lines’ for service offers
  • Brands can stretch further than we previously thought
  • At least one influential person must look across the whole portfolio

Siblings not strangers 

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

On the other hand, a professional services firm that has a good overall 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 that might on the surface be apparent — in a premium, high-value, high-service, high-price firm it would be surprising to find a group that specialises in a highly-commoditised / price-driven work. It’s theoretically possible, but in practice, these business cultures are like oil and water. If they did emerge in a single firm, one or other of the groups would likely have been spun out before now to help both thrive more effectively.

Relevant, distinctive and true 

Key messages are at once one of the most straightforward and challenging components of successful branding for a modern professional services firm — whether they’re for the overall firm brand or a sub-set of it.

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

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

The advantage of having a set of separate points (over a single ‘positioning statement’), is that it makes it easier to include a relatively diverse range of concepts without too much need for linguistic gymnastics.

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

A bit like learning to juggle, one on its own is easy, two a bit harder and three – well initially nigh on impossible it seems at first, without some practice.

The first step is to start with a sound basis of robust insight. Depending on the sector that insight can be quantitative (data), qualitative (opinions), or more likely a combination.

Then the challenge is to work with that body of insight in one hand and the relevant group’s leadership team in the other to craft a set of messages that simultaneously: project the client proposition (relevant), capture the group’s competitive strengths (distinctive) and are authentic and credible (true).

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

Different strokes for different folks

People (prospective 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 iPhone 11’s current brand messaging is all about the camera quality and resiliance to smashing when you drop it, whereas 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 on — premium and cheap / innovative and traditional / big and small, for example.

In the branding jargon, professional services are a very ‘high interest’ category

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.

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 very strong in the other as well — 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 in front of them before ‘buying.’ Contrast that to the bandwidth you last devoted to choosing your brand of laundry detergent.

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’Oreal), The king of beers (Budweiser), New Applied Now (Accenture).


In the consumer world another factor, that professional service firms should be aware of when it comes to brands within brands, is the relatively new evidence that ‘brand stretch’ can go further than was generally thought possible.

The best example of this is in the car market; Mercedes and BMW used only to make relatively big and expensive cars. The prevailing wisdom was that if they made small cars at lower price points, they would dilute/destroy their brand equity. But then Mercedes made the A class and BMW the Series 1 — and they performed amazingly well in the market, and at the same time, their ‘big expensive’ cars also continued to sell well.

The key to their success is that while the smaller models were significantly less expensive than the big ones — and focused on different key messages in their branding — they were cautious about maintaining a focus on the brand components that could cause disconnects (‘safety and elegance’ for Mercedes, ‘performance’ for BMW).

Avoid creating messages that sound too much like tag lines for brands within the overall brand

In the airline sector, in the face of competition from the low-cost airlines, the flag carrier network airlines initially believed that they needed to maintain free meals and drinks as part of the brand experience in short-haul flights — while doing their best to compete on price with the low-cost carriers. Their thinking was that if they diluted the BA/AA/JAL customer experience on a 60-minute flight that would rub off on their brand in the premium long haul market.

In the end, they found that while they couldn’t be as overtly ‘cheap and cheerful’ as the low-cost brands, they could charge for meals if they brought their prices down a bit and closed the gap. What they realised at the same time is that they couldn’t cut down on things like reliability and customer service, which they rightly thought would confuse their customers and dilute their brands.

Getting stuck in

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

Practically, group A and group B should start by working on identifying the strongest messaging that they can (relevant, different and true) for their group without paying any 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).

He or she can do two things: when group A starts pushing ‘low price’ and group B ‘premium’ challenge them, whether both are authentic? (It’s most likely that 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’).

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

Given the earlier point about firms tending not to develop radically different types of services within the same firm ecosystem, this approach is the best way to give individual teams ownership and commitment to their branding and messaging while having a safety valve built in to head off any potential conflicts before they get too baked in.



Ian Stephens

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