Users & Choosers: Balancing both in professional services branding

A professional service firm’s brand needs to be strong in two domains – one is often overlooked. 

Users and choosers

When a pitch doesn’t work out, CMOs often get feedback from their business development teams and partners that “the client thought we were the best team, but they went for the safe choice – the brand their board would know”.

What they mean is that although our brand is strong in one domain (the ‘users’: the client deal team, the GC, the in-house lawyers), it’s weak in another (the ‘choosers’: the CEO, the board, other advisors).

While this is partly – and understandably – designed to console colleagues, it can also be dangerous in the long term if it leads to a lack of attention to addressing the problem.

Often, 100% of a firm’s marketing budget is exclusively focused on users

Mind the gap

There are usually two hurdles to addressing the problem.

Firstly, targeting the needs of the choosers audience with marketing feels intangible and even unattainable – it isn’t but it needs thought. As I’ll show in a moment, their needs differ from the users, and any marketing directed at them must embrace this.

The second hurdle is more straightforward to fix. Often, 100% of a firm’s marketing budget is exclusively focused on users; choosers aren’t even in the plan.

GE Healthcare and Rolls-Royce don’t put all their marketing budget eggs in the users’ basket

Giving it both barrels

A quick detour to think about the framework before returning to what to do.

Most strong consumer brands don’t have this problem; their target market is the user and the chooser. So, the brand has one set of key messages and one proposition at the core. Think Nike, Apple and Facebook.

But in many areas of high-value B2B products and services, purchasing decisions are much more complex, and brands need to simultaneously talk to at least two different sets of stakeholders who often have distinctly different KPIs in mind when deciding who to go with.

One is obvious – the users – primarily concerned about how the brand will deliver against their needs, which are carefully laid out in the tender RFP.

The other is less obvious – the choosers – who may have different concerns and needs that may or may not even be clearly articulated in the RFP.

Take a brand like GE Healthcare, which makes all kinds of sophisticated and expensive medical equipment and technologies used in hospitals. Their ‘users’ audience is medical professionals, who are highly concerned with the performance of the equipment, patient experience and day-to-day reliability.

Their ‘choosers’ are hospital C-Suite executives and procurement teams concerned with financing options, cyber security and potential patient liability. GE Healthcare knows that each of these audiences could make or break the deal, so it needs to have built its brand reputation simultaneously among these two audiences in the months and years before the tender.

Another good example is Rolls-Royce (the aircraft engines, not the cars). Rolls-Royce needs to build its brand among ‘users’, pilots, and maintenance crews, who are likely to be concerned with things like reliability, safety, performance, and availability of spare parts. But it also needs to build its brand among airline executives and aircraft manufacturers who are more focused on things like ROI, financing options, sustainability, and even fuzzier topics like geopolitics.

GE Healthcare and Rolls-Royce don’t put all their marketing budget eggs in the users’ basket – they spread it around carefully.

Choosers are much more focused on the firm’s overall brand reputation

In good company 

In professional services, the differences between the needs of users and choosers are just as acute. However, while the users’ needs are often quite tangible, the choosers’ needs are more subtle and harder to pin down – let alone translate into effective marketing content.

Choosers are much more focused on the firm’s overall brand reputation – at the macro law firm/consultancy/advisor level – and probably pay little or no attention to the ups and downs of the firm’s brand in service lines A, B and C.

They want to know if the firm has the right market reputation profile for their organisation (which is usually more aspirational than realistic; the reason every FTSE and Fortune 100 board says it wants to pay its executives ‘top quartile remuneration’), and they want to know what the risks are to their reputations if anything goes wrong.

These needs are more subtle than the B2B examples earlier (like cyber security and finance options) but are addressable. A classic one is your firm’s website homepage. It almost certainly addresses your users, but what if a board member of a major company has just seen a recommendation to use your firm and goes on their phone between meetings to check you out because they don’t know you?

Is your ‘greatest hits’ story front and centre, not just your ‘latest hits’? And even better, have you been putting interesting content in front of them over the years that appeals to them as senior executives and entrepreneurs?

These (and many other ways to reach them) aren’t easy, but they aren’t impossible either. Unless none of your brand and marketing programmes are aimed at this task – then it’s impossible.

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.