Strategic brand positioning for professional service firms – or how to win before the pitch is even called

Strategic brand positioning is one of the most powerful marketing concepts and should be at the heart of every ambitious professional services firm’s brand strategy.

If you peel away all the fluff and decoration, branding is ultimately about positioning your firm in the minds of your potential clients so clearly that, when they come around to needing your services, they already perceive your firm to be the best solution for them in the market.

That’s it really; the rest is tactics – how to achieve this given the complexity of large multinational firms, global client markets, communications overload, competitive pressures, etc.

Positioning is one of the most powerful marketing concepts.

First among equals

The Apple brand is valued at around $400bn, and most of that is down to the power of its positioning in the market.

Yes, its technology and products are fabulous, but in reality, so are those of its close competitors.

Apple is so powerful today because, since Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1996, he relentlessly focused on positioning the Apple brand in the minds of Apple’s target consumers as simple, creative, and human.

A rich and insightful combination for a technology brand that, even today, competitors find impossible to match.

No one stands in line overnight to be the first to own a new Samsung phone or a Dell computer. If you’re interested, Mark Ritson presents a very good and uncomplicated précis of the Apple brand positioning in this short video.

One firm always has the inside track in any pitch, and if you’re not getting the signals it’s you, you can be sure someone else is.

One step ahead

Because it’s business, and the numbers are so much bigger, it’s tempting to overcomplicate it and believe that, compared to consumer branding, b2b branding must be a complex science that demands a 120-page PPT slide deck to even describe the problem, let alone the solution.

But it’s not that different from how powerful consumer brands – Apple, Mercedes, and Four Seasons – successfully ‘position’ themselves in our minds before we have any need for what they’re selling.

They do this so that, when that time comes around, we already have a clear mental shortlist of the ‘best’ brand or brands in the market – at least from our perspective, which is all that matters.

An old friend of mine, a seasoned senior partner from a Big 4 consulting firm, once told me, “one firm always has the inside track in any pitch, and if you’re not getting the signals it’s you, you can be sure someone else is.”

Clients rarely invite a pitch without having a very good idea of which firm is best positioned to win it. That’s the value of strategic brand positioning.

McKinsey’s brand positioning is almost as clear as Apple’s if not quite as valuable.

In the eye of the beholder

It’s easiest to see this at work most clearly when the stakes are highest – because then money is no object, and it simply comes down to who is perceived to be the ‘best that money can buy.’

But in reality, there’s no absolute and accurate way to measure ‘best’ even though we comfortably use that language – it’s more like “our sense is that among the group of firms who do this sort of thing very well, we perceive this firm to be the best for our situation”. And that’s a brand positioning.

It’s not smoke and mirrors. A firm must be a qualifier first and have all the necessary credentials and track record to be considered. But that’s not enough to win. The best-positioned firm must also have built up a reputation for more intangible attributes of ‘bestness’ than that.

McKinsey’s brand positioning is almost as clear as Apple’s, if not quite as valuable.

For many years McKinsey has focused its brand positioning on being the consulting firm of choice for the Fortune 100’s most significant and complex business problems. Their equivalent of Apple’s simple, creative and human is something like rigorous, authoritative, and networked.

Like clay-pigeon shooting, it’s a good idea to project your brand ahead of where you are today, not simply reflect it.

Shine a light 

To develop a robust strategic brand positioning for your firm, you need to dive into three overlapping areas of research and discovery:

  1. Truths – what you do best (or could do best)
  2. Wants – what your target clients value most (or would value most)
  3. Differences – what competitors find hard to match (or would find hard to match)

A thorough investigation of these three areas will help you look for ideas to create a strategic brand positioning narrative.

The reason for the ‘do best / could do best’ distinction is that brand strategy should be forward-looking, not just backward. Presumably, your firm already has an ambitious business strategy that sets intentions to expand and win in specific key capabilities and markets.

Like clay-pigeon shooting, it’s a good idea to project your brand ahead of where you are today, not simply reflect it.

This strategic brand positioning is the key to the enormous success of the Apple brand.

Think Different

Now, this is the bit where you have to think hard because there will be lots and lots of noise in all this research and discovery, and your job is to find a clear path through it all – a straightforward brand positioning narrative that makes sense in the minds of the market.

Taking Apple as an example, with hindsight, it seems a little hard to believe that such a straightforward brand positioning – simple, creative, and human – could really be at the heart of a $400bn brand.

Of course, it isn’t. The thing that created all the value was Steve Jobs’s vision that a complex technology product should be simple enough that a child could use it rather than require knowledge of coding, should focus on the creative things that customers do with the product rather than just what the product itself does, and be human in scale and aspiration rather than futuristic and machine-like.

This strategic brand positioning is the key to the enormous success of the Apple brand; the three-word précis is simply a tool to help communicate the vision to those inside Apple responsible for projecting the brand to the market.

So whilst a strategic brand positioning is unlikely to be simplistic if it’s going to be distinctive, it is essential to boil it down and look for creative ways to articulate and communicate it to others – inside and outside the firm.

You’ve got to balance completeness with clarity. This is where some clever words and phrases are helpful, as they are when communicating any relatively complex ideas.

Then, armed with your strategic brand positioning, it’s all about the tactics.

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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.