Branding's 'Big Bang'

10 years ago there were only about 4 or 5 international branding consultancies with any notable experience worldwide.

Now there seem to be about 4 or 500 in London and New York alone.

The sector has blossomed and expanded as individuals and teams have spun off from the big 4/5, design companies have morphed into branding consultants and many others have come into the space from digital and marketing backgrounds.

Yet, what’s striking is that despite this proliferation there has been little or no specialisation. Back when there were 4 or 5, specialisation would have meant marginalisation, so leaders continued to target ‘everything’ for fear of turning away potential clients and because their generalist backgrounds encouraged them to have a go at anything.

Some consultancies inevitably gain a reputation for sector experience and smart new business people know how to exploit that but still, none of the international firms explicitly position themselves as specialists.


The world doesn’t really need a 501st generalist branding consultancy; but there is a big need for expertise and experience as brand consultancy matures, from being a cottage industry into a substantial sector, at the same time as the domain of brand consulting has shifted from packaged goods to just about every walk of life imaginable.

So we decided to specialise on the sector we know best and enjoy most – knowledge-led businesses – consultants, lawyers, scientists, architects, engineers and designers.

It’s a sector that has come later to branding than others but because tangible product differentiation is nigh on impossible to come by, it’s a sector where branding in terms of reputation has long been valued and nurtured.

Initially by accident, and latterly by design, Principia’s founder and CEO, Ian Stephens, became immersed in the world of brand consulting for international knowledge-led businesses and discovered that although the context is very different from traditional branding, the modern principles of brands being about narrative, reputation and projecting a coherent story applied even more to the sector than others because of the importance of people in delivering the brand.

From Virgin and Nike in the 90s, through to Apple and Google today, successful brands are as much about ideas and stories as they are about products. Products have to be excellent, yes, but combined with a strong brand story great products become ‘insanely great’ and valuable brands.

The same applies to knowledge-led businesses – the firms who can organise themselves most effectively to project a strong brand to surround their excellent product are gaining traction on the competition and are thriving. When we started out in this sector we pointed to brands like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs as examples of superlative professional service firm brands and when we dug deeper into their histories we discovered that along the way their leaders had made efforts to galvanise the firm around a big idea and consistently project a culture, image, reputation, call it what you will to the market – whatever they called it at the time, it’s what we call branding now.

At Principia, our team has more experience dealing with premium, international, knowledge-led businesses on brand-led transformation than any other branding consultancy in the world and so we decided to bring all that experience together in one place and create a firm that specialises in the sector.

By specialising we can have more impact, innovate and create a value proposition for clients that we aim to turn into a leadership position by putting clear blue water between us and the generalist competitors. To do this we’re focused on three things:


Knowledge-led businesses are stacked full of super-smart people and that demands and rewards excellence. Our branding pedigree (Wolff Olins and Saffron) is world-class and our consultants need similarly excellent backgrounds to be able to meet the demands of the clients we work with. Our work must be incredibly insightful – IQ + EQ – and our branding credentials must be second to none


Over 15 years we’ve learned a lot about what works – and occasionally what doesn’t – and just as we all benefit from a specialist surgeon who’s ‘done this many times before’, some situations are more challenging than others but nothing is totally new. We apply the combination of our continuous learning and the newest thinking on top to cut through. Knowledge-led businesses are not like shampoo. They’re not even much like companies. Partnerships are very different institutions from command and control public companies and to be effective brand consultants need to know the ropes and know how to navigate the complexity.


Because we’re specialists we can focus tightly on what’s next and realistically be a global pioneer in our sector when it comes to brand consulting. We’re at the cutting edge in terms of emerging digital projections of knowledge-led brands, we’re in tune with the trends in business development and practice management that can help brand strategies be more effective. And we’re highly innovative when it comes to engaging people – from partners to associates and professional support staff – in developing and implementing the branding recommendations.

Our vision is to build the most admired consulting firm in the market – admired for its work, its people and its influence.

We aim to build a firm that the best knowledge-led businesses want to hire and want to include on every pitch list

We aim to build a firm to be proud of.

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.