Brands within brands

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

Most large multi-practice, multi-sector professional service firms have a particular branding challenge when it comes to messaging — brands within brands.

The key takeaways:

  • It’s simpler than you might think
  • Clients can navigate a portfolio of 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.

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 that might on the surface be apparent — in a high-value, 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 the other would most likely have been spun out by now.

Relevant, distinctive and true 

The place to start is key messages.

The easy part 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 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.

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 you work with that body of insight and the group’s leadership team, 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

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 13’s brand messaging is all about the camera quality and resilience 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 — premium and cheap, 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, 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 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’Oréal), The king of beers (Budweiser), Let there be change (Accenture).

And…stretch

In the consumer world another factor to 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 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

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’).

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 an amazing 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 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.

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Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, bringing deep expertise and experience in strategic branding to the unique challenges of the global professional services market.