Brand Strategy

 

Developing a clear and future-proofed brand strategy – and getting buy-in and commitment at leadership and partnership level – is the critical first step in taking control of a professional service firm's brand.

Brand means business

Brand is often a misused and misunderstood concept within partnerships – often confused with names, logos and graphics – but is best understood as something closer to 'reputation'. Your firm's reputation doesn't sit somewhere on your letterhead, it exists in the minds of your current and prospective clients as well as potential recruits when they're considering their relationship with your firm.

What leaders of professional service firms all over the world are discovering is that they can invest time and energy in their brand to gain competitive advantage over their competitors and fuel growth, just as they can invest time and energy in strategy, client development, talent management, etc.

Shining a light on the path

Before deciding a brand strategy it's crucial to first build a strong body of insight and knowledge about where your brand sits today and where you could and should position yourselves in the future. A combination of quantitative and qualitative research, conducted among partners and clients of the firm, sits at the heart of the discovery process. Additionally it's important to canvas opinion and views from associates and staff as well as analysing the brand positions of your various competitors in different markets and areas of practice around the world.

Debate and decide

That insight is then brought together into a meaningful analysis that can be shared and debated with partners and leadership teams in order to generate a strong consensus behind the optimal core brand strategy before extending it towards implementation.

We would say this wouldn't we, but this is where good advisors earn their crust. The nature of partnerships combined with the relative lack of deep experience in dealing with the topic among partners and leaders of a firm can be a recipe for compromise - or worse. 

Make it count

The cornerstone of a powerful brand strategy is a strong idea – a concept that galvanises the strands of thinking together into a distinctive brand narrative. It should pass four tests: a BIG idea (that will motivate people and move the needle), a SIMPLE idea (that can be communicated quickly) a DIFFERENT idea (that begins to distinguish you from your competitors) and perhaps most importantly of all, a TRUE idea (that has credibility – albeit a stretch – in the minds of clients and your teams). If it doesn't match this criteria it's hardly worth going on until you have something that does. 

Creating the blueprint

The blueprint of the firm's brand strategy can then be built upon this core idea – extending it into the firms various practice areas, client sectors and geographical markets – without either getting lost in complexity or becoming entirely generic.

The activities and deliverables required for each engagement will vary but are likely to include:

Activities and deliverables

  • Partner discovery interviews 
  • Client discovery interviews
  • Internal focus groups (associates and staff)
  • Internal electronic surveys
  • Competitor/market analysis
  • Brand strategy concept development 
  • Leadership engagement sessions
 

Brand Messaging

 

Part of the discipline of strong and active brand projection is the development of a suite of brand messages – from the macro and global through to the micro and local – that retain their punch and give coherence to the firm's various stands of marketing communications.

Left and right brain

Developing a set of brand messages requires a mix of art and science. The science is about ensuring the messages are hitting the right notes and relate clearly to the client needs that your brand is addressing; the art is about making it compelling, memorable and keeping it concise.

Tone of voice also comes into the picture as the language chosen to convey the firm's messages immediately begins to indicate the firm's culture and attitude towards its clients. There's no 'right' tone of voice, as every firm's culture is different, but it's important to ensure that the language reflects how you are and how you want to be seen by those you're aiming to influence.

Cutting through complexity

As with all forms of communication it's always very easy to overcomplicate the story in the name of rigour or completeness. Balance that with the reality that people are involved on both sides of the brand communications equation and it's easy to see that to cut through and motivate messages have to be memorable – even if unconsciously – and less is always better than more.

Activities and deliverables

  • Key audience mapping – internal and external
  • Messaging framework – macro to micro
  • Language and tone of voice definition 
  • Leadership engagement sessions
  • Brand messaging handbook  

 

 

 

Visual Identity

 

Presentation matters. We live in a highly visual world, so it's only reasonable to assume that, even when it comes to communicating the proposition of a professional services firm, the way the messages are presented in visual terms matters. Matters more than the words? Most certainly not; but matters? Most certainly.

IQ + EQ

In its simplest terms the visual identity of a professional services firm must reinforce the brand strategy and messaging it wants to get across to its external audiences. Generally – but not always – the strategic 'direction of travel' is to project a more modern, digital and innovative firm. It's rare that the brief is to be more old-fashioned, out of touch and conservative.

The challenge however in partnerships is that if messaging is a mix of art and science then visual identity is clearly more art than anything else. Or put another way; it's a lot more subjective and there are far fewer robust 'data-points' to orientate debate around. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

Dressed to impress

Developing a new or refreshed visual identity system for a professional services firm requires strong sensitivity to the world in which these brands exist. Law firms are not shampoos and management consultancies are not mobile phones – they need to look modern and innovative but at the same time premium and sophisticated.

Most good designers have very little or no direct experience of the buying process of top tier professional services. So, in order to put themselves 'in the shoes' of the client they are designing for, they need super-clear briefing and direction from the strategists they're working with and those strategists in turn need to be careful to guide but not stifle creativity in the process. 

Good judgment 

Then the process is about exploring options together in outline form and getting closer to the right 'fit' before getting serious about developing the one or two options to take through to final decision making. The role of the consultants here is to guide not follow, and if you find yourself reaching for the Pantone books in the middle of a meeting to 'find a colour' it's time to retreat and rethink the process.

The late Wally Olins, legendary branding expert and former business partner of Principia's CEO, Ian Stephens, used to tell his clients that when it came to judging the right design for their brand, "You need the courage of my convictions" – said for effect and with a smile, but there's something in it.

Despite the very real challenges, it's also true to say that, compared to most of the decisions leaders of global professional services firms have to make these days, developing and choosing a new visual identity can be one of the less stressful ones – it can even be quite enjoyable.

The activities and deliverables required for each engagement will vary but are likely to include:

Activities and deliverables

  • Audit of current system and marketing collateral 
  • Visual identity key elements (logo, colours, typefaces, etc)
  • Design of notional applications (website, documents, etc)
  • Guidelines development
  • Launch applications (first new examples)
  • Leadership engagement sessions

 

 

Brand Engagement

 

A professional service firm's brand has to be delivered by its people – either literally in person to existing clients, or through the content that its people produce and project to the wider market and prospective clients. To deliver that brand effectively of course the people who make up the firm first need to be armed with the right tools to do this.

Show and tell

Back in the day, when most professional service firms comprised maybe a hundred people in one location, inculcating staff into the firm's brand was done largely through osmosis. Before becoming a partner or getting any serious exposure to the firm's clients a person would learn about the firm's culture and the way it worked through an extensive period of apprenticeship or mentoring. Things have changed.

These days of course firms comprise many hundreds and even thousands of people and they may be dispersed across multiple cities, countries and continents. But the essence of effective brand engagement is still about passing on and sharing what the leaders of the firm believe in and as much as possible extending the firm's culture globally whether after organic growth or mergers, or both.

Tell me a story

It's not rocket science, but because everyone is so extended and 'busy' these days, brand engagement programmes need to be designed to make best use of good tools and judicious use of the time of some of the firm's most productive fee earners.

At the heart of a good brand engagement programme are stories. People learn through stories and good stories are the most effective way to pass on client servicing skills that can be quite subtle and intangible.  These stories can be 'melted down' into a set of principles that aid consistent communication and then real life examples can be captured to illustrate them and used as part of the brand engagement programme.

Activities and deliverables

  • Develop set of client service principles
  • Design 'brand-in-a-box' engagement toolkit
  • Engage and brief a team of 'brand ambassadors' 
  • Run series of brand engagement workshops
  • Reinforce with internal communications plan

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thought Leadership

 

A phrase originally coined by Joel Kurtzman of Booz & Co. over 20 years ago, thought leadership has entered a new age of importance with the rise of digital and social media even in the context of a professional services firm.

Good content sells

Essentially prospective clients are not that interested in hearing about your firm's unique selling proposition or its brand – at least outside of the confines of a panel pitch – but most of them are interested in content that helps them do their jobs better.

So increasingly one of the most effective ways to get on the radar of new clients, and to demonstrate to existing clients that they are in good hands, is to consistently roll out a steady diet of interesting, useful and sometimes even breakthrough thinking in the form of blog posts, articles, publications, seminars and occasionally even good old printed books.

Getting the ball rolling

From a brand building point of view the challenge is to ensure that over time the make-up of this content leaves prospects with the lingering perceptions about your firm that you're aiming for.

Whether this is an easy or daunting prospect to begin with depends on the existing culture surrounding thought leadership development within the firm. Many firms find that they need to go through a 'ramping up' phase where the relevant partners and teams are encouraged, supported and cajoled into developing their thinking and then helped to publish and communicate it to the outside world.

Going digital

The increasing saliency of social media – more LinkedIn than Snapchat admittedly – among business audiences presents huge opportunities for those willing to embrace it to find an audience and to develop their thinking over time leading up to and supporting bigger set pieces such as seminars and events.

Marketing teams within firms are usually best placed to harness, educate and support those client-facing professionals who need to be integral to the development and projection of thought leadership programmes. The challenge is to get the balance right.

Activities & deliverables

  • Audit of existing thought leadership content
  • Audit of firm's digital and social media channels
  • Develop annual thought leadership calendar 
  • Form 'editorial team' to support thought leadership programme
  • Stimulate and nurture initial ideas
  • Support content development
  • Drive social media campaign to support content publishing 
  • Review results and capture learning and best practices

 

 

Website / Digital

 

Although print still has a role to play in projecting the image of a professional services firm – even if it's largely an emotional one of familiarity – digital is increasingly of course the future.

Digital hub

Most of your firm's brand communications are today, and will in the future be, consumed through some kind of digital channel, so it's vital to appreciate the opportunities that digital offers; some of which are similar to print but some are significantly different.

Your firm's website is the hub which other digital channels will connect to and it has to play multiple roles. For some clients it's a directory – the first place to look for information on partners, deals, capabilities and of course directions to the office. For others it's the place where they start their research into firms they might be contemplating inviting to tender for a new project or panel pitch or where they go to look up a firm that has been recommended to them by a 3rd party.

Weaving a narrative online

Increasingly your website is also where prospects 'end up' after they've engaged with a piece of digital content that they might have come across on other digital platforms (LinkedIn, online trade journals and business media, Twitter, etc). In this case it's an opportunity to turn a chance encounter into a more substantial engagement by leading them onto more interesting, useful and relevant content about your firm.

This is the main difference between digital and print – which tends to be more of a one way journey – and requires a different way of thinking in terms of navigation and story telling. We've all been there, reading an article about X and following a link to Y and before we know it, like Alice, descending through the rabbit-hole following our curiosity.  

Many paths, one story

Websites and other digital channels need to be designed and deployed to support multiple strategies and address multiple audiences. There are many best practices to build upon and armed with a clear brand strategy you will be able to design a digital presence that  builds and reinforces your firm's distinctive voice and market positioning.

Activities and deliverables

  • Audit of existing website and digital channels
  • Competitor audit 
  • Development of digital brand strategy
  • Refresh or redesign of existing website
  • Review and redeployment of other digital and social media channels
  • Refresh or redesign of recruitment focused digital channels
  • Leadership engagement sessions

 

 

 

Merger Brand Express

 

When professional service firms merge the branding implications can be substantial.

However, for the leadership teams of merging firms there are so many other critical items on the agenda that all too often branding is rushed – or even worse, fudged ­–  and the opportunity to tell a powerful new brand story to clients and potential recruits, whilst the merger is making headlines, is lost forever.

The reality of the situation demands a special approach, which is why we’ve designed a new advisory service, ‘Merger Brand Express’, specifically aimed at addressing the branding needs of firms going through a major merger.

Merger Brand Express isn’t the same as a proper brand review – but there isn’t the time or the bandwidth to do it ‘properly’: to consult widely with partners and clients, conduct the discovery research and do the development work necessary. On the other hand, some things must be done and will be done anyway – such as making a decision on naming, developing a high-level, strategic brand narrative to communicate the merger benefits to partners, staff and clients; maybe even designing a new logo or website landing page.

We’ve done all these things before, many times over, for some of the world's leading international professional service firms. The design of Merger Brand Express is based upon that extensive experience – applied to the special conditions present around a merger: the need to work at break-neck speed; the importance of working very closely and intensively with a steering group (ideally a combined-firm task force of partners and marketers); the benefits of quickly defining the branding questions that need to be answered and then rapidly answering them.

Our most senior team (led by Principia's CEO Ian Stephens) works hands-on with the steering group throughout and can bring to the table the best practices, experiences and objectivity that ensure quick and effective decision making and ultimately the best results.

The activities and deliverables required for each merger situation will be different but are likely to include:

Activities & deliverables

  • Advising on scope and defining the merger brand agenda and priorities.
  • Convening and briefing a combined-firm steering group of partners and marketers.
  • Assessing what relevant data and insights exist and what additional data can be quickly obtained from existing sources.
  • Developing a high-level strategic brand narrative statement and key messages for the new merged firm.
  • Defining the naming strategy, best objective options and brand equity migration approach for naming the new firm (in the event that eventually some names will be dropped).
  • Designing high-level materials required for launch-day (e.g. new logo, business cards, website landing pages, signage, etc.)
  • Planning an internal brand engagement programme and materials ahead of and at the time of the launch, (e.g. leadership video, key messages guide, etc.).

Contact us in strictest confidence to discuss the service and potential scope.