A practical guide on how to make your brand refresh a strategic play

Andy Knox, Consultant and Ben Kent, founder Meridian West

“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

This widely quoted insight from Jeff Bezos was a neat, personalised way of communicating that your brand is essentially everything. It stands for what you do, why you do it, how you do it and why people should engage with you.

As we all know, brand is not the sole concern of retail businesses like Amazon. Increasingly, professional services firms have been kicking the tyres on their own brands. And it’s easy to understand why.

  • No prizes for just turning up Professional services markets are some of the most over-supplied and therefore most intensively competitive in the world. This is feeding through into the numbers. For UK top 100 law firms, for example, 90% of firms reported growth in fee income in 2018, but one of the Big 4 accountancy firms characterised this as largely “unprofitable growth”. Margins are broadly in decline, including at top 10 firms where they decreased 3.4 percentage points from their 2014 high. Everyone is getting squeezed through a combination of increasing costs, client demands and competition. Against this backdrop, there are no prizes for just turning up and the question “why you”? has never been so pressing.
  • Tech accelerates unbundling and sub-branding The pace of unbundling, where clients unpick and look to re-price the component parts of service delivery, is quickening. The key driver here is technology which is taking on an increasingly wide range of tasks and doing them better than people and at vastly reduced rates versus the billable hour. Again focussing on legal, Stanford University now lists 1256 companies “changing the way legal is done” and private equity investment in legal tech was up 713% in 2018 to $1.7bn. Similar innovation is sweeping through accountancy, consulting, surveying and other professional service businesses. Understanding where you sit in that evolving eco-system is important and firms are more and more faced with decisions around whether they create sub or entirely separate brands for more technology-centred offerings.
  • Purpose and values Increasingly advisors are following their clients in carefully thinking through and communicating their purpose and values. This is not an empty exercise, with buyer decision making increasingly informed by not just what you can do, but the kind of people you are, alongside more evidence that “purposeful brands” do better. Purpose, value and brand are closely connected.
  • Consolidation Over the last few years, pressure on the underlying economics of professional services businesses has been forcing greater consolidation, even in areas such as law where successfully realising these combinations has generally been elusive. The challenges of integrating different businesses, which have different cultures and histories have been exhaustively documented. Properly structured, brand is a hub which can afford enough freedom for practitioners to perform in a way that works for them, while creating enough of a sense of shared identity to underpin a coherent value proposition to clients from the firm as a whole.

Some practitioners hear brand refresh and think solely about design. Great design can do important things for look and feel. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a considerable shift in visual identity and tone of voice across professional services. The formal dark blues or purples designed to convey stability, consistency and steadfastness have given way to neon pinks, yellow and oranges, in part informed by the re-drawing by tech and social media of what it means to look and sound modern. We’ve gone for neon pink in this piece.

But fundamentally, refreshing your brand is not just about revisiting fonts and changing the colour palette. It’s about taking a long, hard look at the underlying substance of the business and making sure you can successfully articulate why and how you create value for clients better than others. And in a way which is hard-wired to their needs rather than your own internal org chart.

As such, it’s a pretty existential exercise, but one which needs to be firmly rooted in a candid view of the economics of the firm and what clients really think. There are 3 phases we typically go through with clients to make refreshing the brand a strategic play. These are building an intelligent first position, road testing the proposition with select clients and refining and then taking to market, internally and externally. We bullet point the key components of these phases below.

1. Build an intelligent first position

  • Involve your people Run targeted internal workshops to harness the insights across different levels of the firm from seasoned practitioners who know their markets in depth to trainees who’ve recently made their own brand choice in putting the start of their careers in your hands. Also use this as a platform to begin to build momentum, engagement and ownership around evolving the brand.
  • Understand, forensically, what your financials are telling you Looking through billing histories, what are clients primarily coming to you for now and what’s the direction of travel? So “growth stocks” as well as established names. Translate this into how you most consistently identify or could identify in the market. What’s the financial DNA that links a diverse set of specialisms? How important is national vs international? London vs regional etc.? Brand should ultimately reflect and support firm strategy and this is as much about the numbers as the words.
  • Know your own narratives It sounds daft, but we are consistently struck by how few firms have a detailed, centralised understanding of the good work they are doing for clients across the firm. This tends to be because most practitioners are running so fast in their own lanes, that they don’t have the time or the energy to do much looking across. Moreover, outside of trade directory submissions, there are no or very limited mechanisms to consistently capture, filter and refine, in a succinct “this is the benefit to clients” way, what they have done. This is a significant missed opportunity. The pool of positive client outcomes and experiences will be the place you need to go to substantiate any claims you may want to make and bring the brand to life. If you don’t know your own story, how do you expect to (a) be authentic; and (b) get your clients to listen?
  • Supplement with informed desk-top research In practice, professional services businesses tend to be opaque relative to other sectors. You can’t, for example, easily compare analyst notes on like-for-like sales in specific product areas or across client channels and geographies as you can do in say pharma, or telecoms or financial services (where listed). Market insights tend to be localised and locked in the heads of busy practitioners. But there are some useful brand perspectives you can garner, in particular understanding the brand stories of relevant competitors and why or how they resonate.
  • Distil into potential brand propositions, but sweat the details not the headline From the above inputs, you need to crystallise down to 2 or 3 alternative brand prototypes.

Spoiler alert: generally, there is no silver bullet, no unique magical word formulation that nails a brand in isolation. It’s no surprise to find that many professional services businesses follow a well-trodden path to similar phrasing and almost identical headline positioning. “Trusted advisor”, “Outstanding outcomes for clients”, “Combining technical expertise with a commercial take” et al.

At this stage, treat brand propositions and in particular straplines or descriptors as working titles. More important is to have made headway on the body of supporting evidence – the proof points from around the business. If you drill down from the headlines statement you have to hit something solid immediately, something that if you were in a room with a client and you said out loud, you would see the client engaged and nodding. It doesn’t have to be complete at this stage, but it does need to be developed.

What goes with this, is another key point. Professional services businesses tend to be very accomplished in describing what they do as a technical exercise, often in specialist terms. Clients want to hear more about what this means for how you can help them with. Reflect this in your brand.

2. Road test with select clients and refine

  • Build the interviewee list with care You have a limited number of names to keep this manageable. Make every name count. Ideally your interviewee list is made up of the following:
    • A blend of substantial clients that are good proxies for the areas that matter most to your business now or have the greatest potential going forward and where you plan to invest
    • At least one contrarian voice on the brand, ideally, if potentially sensitive, a valued client that has recently moved away from the firm
    • At least one gatekeeper or intermediary (banks, PE houses etc.) who is in a position to influence buyer decision-making
    • Mix of gender and age
    • Mix of geography (where relevant)
  • Make it a considered conversation Develop a set of broad open questions that encourage a wide-ranging conversation about the work you’ve done together, budgets and buying preferences, perceptions of competitors and future needs. Seek candid responses and note every word. Once you’ve been through this, get feedback on the potential brand proposition and be especially alive to how the client is hearing each word. It is likely that when you are using straplines and descriptors that you may imbue them with a meaning that clients don’t and vice versa. Language and tone are incredibly important here and anything that does not resonate as authentic is likely be called out.
  • Use experienced third parties (aka do not try this at home) The more honest these sessions, the more valuable they are. There are things that your clients may say to third parties that they will not say to you. You do not want to cut across these conversations. Drawing out clear and insightful feedback that may significantly influence how you position in the market is an art, that requires skill, care and experience. Use seasoned third party interviewers who understand the professional services market place and your position in it and, importantly, are well briefed by you ahead of the sessions on relevant client histories and recent interactions.
  • Weight heavily the feedback from your clients as you refine the proposition These are incredibly valuable sessions to the entire brand exercise. It’s very easy for brand propositions to be carefully nurtured within the internal “echo chamber” of the firm. This is the reality check. If it’s not landing with your “first pick” clients, it’s unlikely to land more broadly. Do not be afraid to re-think, adjust and move forward again along different lines, if this is what the feedback is telling you.

3. Take to market internally and externally

  • Campaign the brand with your own people Getting internal buy-in to a refreshed brand is fundamental and needs to be led from senior leaders within the firm and not just marketing. Internal audiences are often under-estimated and tend to be smart and well-informed, if sceptical. Proof points are just as important here as externally and, in many ways, the bar is higher. If you can’t persuade your internal audiences that what you have come up with is both authentic and compelling, you will struggle (a) to do this externally (b) to foster the right kind of internal behaviours you need to deliver on the brand. That said, a “brand roll-out” with a big fanfare risks falling flat. A better approach is to use your proof points to socialise internally the good work that is being done across the firm (in itself a useful, but sometimes rare, exercise) as a natural bridge into your brand thinking. This is also the opportunity to demonstrate how brand, strategy and values pull together.
  • Ready your implementation As with any “take to market” exercise, you need to have a range of collateral to hand to support the conversations you are going to want to have. So this means all the usual suspects: brand proposition; strap line/elevator pitch; case studies and proof points, but also your “speaker bench” (who is going to talk to what) and media strategy. You don’t need everything worked out, but you do need 6-12 months of “runway”, with some sense for direction of travel within that period. As ever, the maxim “show not tell” is relevant here. If you say you are, for example, private wealth specialists, it is much more powerful to lead a client debate which showcases some perceptive thinking on relevant issues that matter to clients, than just to make the bald statement in isolation. Right size your effort and allocation between “showing” and “telling”.
  • Community building is key Good content is essential, but it needs to find and land with its audience. Put as much effort into community building with individual clients or clusters of clients as you do into content production. Brand building efforts can and will fail if they do not find audience. They will also falter if the client journey experience does not match the underlying brand promise. Understand that experience and how you measure up.

So to sum up, brand is not about fonts, or colour palettes, but neither is it about straplines and high level purpose statements.

Fundamentally, and this is particularly the case with professional services, brand is about two things. Personal relationships that work and credible experience as someone who can help clients solve real world problems and create value for them. To circle back on the Jeff Bezos quote, this is ultimately, what you want them to think of you when you’ve left the room.