The power of key messages

From philosophy to business, if you want to communicate your brand narrative in a way that cuts through the clutter, key messages are essential.

As well as establishing one of the world’s most substantial philosophical movements, (or 4th largest religion depending on how you view it), Gautama Buddha could also have claimed to have invented the modern communications discipline of key messages.

With its Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, and Five Precepts, Buddhism seems perfectly designed to cut through the media clutter and present itself with clarity and consistency across all the various communications channels available.

Admittedly, at the time these channels were limited to word of mouth and the occasional Ola leaf, but they cut through, nonetheless.

And it’s likely that if the Buddha was forming his thinking today, he would probably be advised by his CMO to see if he couldn’t reduce it to one list rather than three. But you can’t argue with the results!

Key messages are at once one of the most straightforward and challenging components of successful branding for a modern professional services firm.

From Buddha to brand

For a modern professional services firm, an agreed set of powerful key messages is a vital component of a successful branding strategy. They give leaders, partners, and all those involved in marketing the firm a framework to ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet – and with well-designed messages, they’ll be singing a pleasing tune as well.

Whether it’s the firm’s website, a press release, or a panel pitch to a new client, a set of key messages is a valuable tool for all those involved. Many of the most successful professional service firms have clear and consistent key messages, particularly those that are big, and international, and provide multiple services across multiple sectors.

Key messages are at once one of the most straightforward and challenging components of successful branding for a modern professional services firm.

The easy bit 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 communicate a firm’s proposition to the market.

The advantage of having a set of separate points (over a single ‘positioning statement’), is that it makes it easier to include a diverse range of concepts without too much need for linguistic gymnastics.

The challenging part is that to be powerful, these messages must be simultaneously, ‘relevant, distinctive and true,’ which is where the hard work begins. A bit like learning to juggle, one on its own is easy, two a bit harder, and three – well initially nigh on impossible it seems at first!

The toughest part is to avoid knocking all the corners off and ending up with something supremely bland.

Relevant, distinctive, and true

You must start with a sound basis of robust insight. Depending on the sector that insight can be quantitative (numbers), qualitative (opinions), or more likely a combination.

Then the challenge is to work with that body of insight on one hand and the firm’s leadership team on the other to craft a set of messages that simultaneously capture client propositions (relevant), the firm’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.

You can often witness this when you read the press release announcing a firm’s new brand – that goes on to trot out a shopping list of ‘nice things’ that everyone would like without any attempt to argue that this firm does these things any better than everyone else, or indeed that it does them at all.

It’s not easy. I vividly recall the Chair of a big global firm observing that “it seems we pay you half the fee to give us your advice on what our messages should be, and then the rest of it to stop us diluting them into something meaningless.”

However, pull it off and you’ll have a tool that’s worth its weight in gold, and that will endure for many years.

McKinsey & Co, as an example, developed many of their key brand message themes, (only the most important work, brightest people, up-or-out, rigour, etc.), decades ago, and even if they’ve evolved to suit the changing times the themes still resonate today with clients, staff, and recruits.

More recently, PA Consulting has transformed its business, in part by adopting a new and powerful purpose-led brand positioning that has a set of distinctive key messages at its heart.

And a perennial favourite of mine, Goldman Sach’s business principles, which have endured almost unchanged since the 1980s.

Establishing a set of relevant, distinctive, and true key messages for any professional services firm is one of the most effective ways for CMOs to engage skeptical partners in the ‘dark magic’ of branding and can be a good stepping-stone towards a more ambitious and holistic brand strategy.

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.