Differentiating through brand experience

Professional service firms can build their brand reputation by studying how the best consumer brands deliver innovative brand experiences.


Brand experience is hot in consumer and service branding. Driven by three forces:

  1. The need to differentiate from competitors with increasingly similar products and services.
  2. The need to coordinate all the brand ‘touchpoints’ that people encounter to create a better overall brand experience.
  3. The need to deliver a consistent online/offline brand experience as customers increasingly flit across the boundaries of the two, oblivious to the logistical and technical difficulties involved.

Premium professional services are, of course, significantly different sectors from hotels and banks in terms of marketing and branding.

Still, it’s useful to stand back and think about the similarities as well, particularly when you remember that buyers of professional services are also people.

People who also are customers of banks, hotels and every other consumer sector as well and so are consciously or unconsciously influenced by what’s going on in these other areas.

What have you done for me lately?

There’s a nice slide from IBM I saw somewhere that said — talking about the digital world — that “the last best experience that anyone has anywhere, becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.”

That’s a pretty high bar we’re setting for brands, but when you think about it, it’s so true.

We get frustrated today if a bank’s app takes more than a split second to respond when only a few years ago we were amazed that you could do banking online at all — and on a mobile phone? Impossible!

When we call the bank to query a transaction we just noticed on our phone as we travelled the subway, we expect the call centre operator (in whatever country they are sitting) to know what we’re talking about and resolve our issue. And mostly they can. How cool is that?

As well as achieving online/offline consistency, a handful of leading brands are seeing opportunities as well as threats in delivering a fantastic brand experience.

Most firms are pretty up and down…delivering a consistent brand experience to their clients.

We’ve all experienced, or at least heard about the experience of opening an iPhone or iMac box – everything from the tactile texture of the card to the gentle ‘tug’ of the vacuum seal as you lift off the cover, oozes sophistication. It almost seems a crime to throw it in the recycling. If you’ve ever stayed in a Ritz Carlton you’ll have noticed the brand experience they deliver through their people.

It doesn’t have to be luxury and premium — India’s no. 1 low-cost airline, Indigo, makes the flying experience fun.

Rather than serving a scaled-down / cheaper version of the standard premium airline experience, Indigo embraces the experience and makes it feel more like a street food market experience with colourful packaging with witty text and silly names for everything.

Trading up

A $30 flight from Delhi to Bombay feels a long way away from a New York or Sydney law firm or a San Francisco or London innovation consultancy but the principles of brand experience still apply — both in terms of getting the basics right/consistent and the opportunity to stand out with some well-thought-through innovations that get noticed by clients.

Most professional service firms are pretty up and down when it comes to thinking about and delivering a consistent brand experience to their clients.

Up, in that they pride themselves on certain parts; maybe the view from the client reception or the impressive art scattered around the equally impressive client meeting spaces.

Down, in that these same firms can have a clunky and frustrating client guest WiFi system or documents that look old-fashioned and vary in quality from team to team.

Your client’s reference points are the rest of their world — not yours

The solution is simple. The consumer brands that are getting brand experience right, know that even if many of their customer touchpoints are delivered by entirely separate parts of the business (packaging, customer services, advertising, in-store, online) they need to put themselves in the shoes of their customers and work out where the cracks are.

They probably make that cross-channel experience someone’s job.

It’s essential to think about what messages you want your brand experience to communicate to your clients. Not all firms are aiming for the same things.

A five-star client reception might suit a Wall Street investment bank but might be off-putting for the clients of a digital tech consultancy in Soho.

It’s also essential, as the IBM quote says, to keep in mind that just because some aspects of your experience are better than they’ve ever been, your client’s reference points are the rest of their world — not yours.

The classic example of this is coffee.

Now that every other high street store seems to be a coffee shop, and even those have long lines at 8 am every morning, it’s reasonable to assume that most of us have become quite fussy about the coffee we drink and the way it’s made.

Yet, despite spending a fortune on the meeting room — Fritz Hansen tables and Eames chairs — many premium professional service firms give their clients luke-warm, stale, filter coffee in huge flasks, with powdered milk.

They think they’ve made improvements by upgrading the filter coffee to Starbucks.

A first world problem I’m aware, but useful to illustrate that it’s important to see things from the client’s POV.

Can you hear me?

Another area ripe for change and innovation is the client’s experience interfacing with your firm virtually — everything from conference calls and video links to client document centres and emails.

A great brand experience innovation that’s taking something frustrating and making it easy.

When the pandemic first struck it was a case of coping with what you had but after a while, you have to ask, are you making this experience easy for your clients?

Your website might say that you deliver a ‘seamless global service’, but if the client finds the experience of connecting with your teams virtually anything but seamless, that’s likely to influence their perceptions.

In my work, I see a lot of firms wrestling with technology to connect their people and clients around the world.

One firm stands out clearly in my experience for the way they handle the often frustrating task of connecting people through the various video links. The standard approach is to have multiple people all around the world, with more or less knowledge of the technology, busily pressing buttons on their keyboard and mouthing “can you hear me?” You know the scene.

In this firm they have one small team sitting somewhere — they could be anywhere — that’s able to support and even control their video technology all around the world.

These two or three people are genuine experts in this tech and know all the tricks and hacks to make it work seamlessly.

They’re accessible from anywhere — like an Alexa for boardrooms — and if there are problems, they fix them quickly and expertly.

It’s a great brand experience innovation that’s taking something frustrating and making it easy.

Another client of mine is famous for the experience clients receive at the reception — nothing weird happens, it’s just warm, personal and consistent.

I’d experienced it myself and noticed it immediately. Still, even I was surprised that when I interviewed some of their clients about the firm’s reputation and strengths a number of them, unprompted, referenced the client reception as an illustration of the quality of the overall client service ethos of the firm.

Making a difference

Nothing is a substitute for shoddy quality work or the right attention and attitude of client-facing people.

But above a certain level, most people accept that it’s nigh on impossible to differentiate from your closest competitors on the quality of work and general responsiveness alone.

Thinking about how to innovate across the whole spectrum of client touch points — physical and digital — can lead you to make some relatively small adjustments that just might get noticed and make that all-important difference in client perceptions.


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.