Brand initiatives in a professional services firm can be a bit complicated. Often times it’s because questions further upstream haven’t been answered. In this episode we’ll talk about what those questions are and what firms should be thinking about when it comes to developing and articulating a brand for their firm.
About the Episode
Branding a professional services firm can get complicated. There are many levels of investment that can be made and it all comes back to having a clear strategy for the firm. In this episode, Jason and Jeff aim to provide clarity around how leaders should be thinking about brand initiatives for their firm.
To start the episode, Jeff shares the two purposes of a brand in a professional services firm and reasons why a firm would want to invest in their brand:
1) To attract your ideal client
2) To attract the best talent
Next, Jason and Jeff talk about the different levels of investments firms can make in their brand, from the underlying strategy that governs the brand, to the platform (messaging and the visual identity systems) to present it to the marketplace, to brand building activities, which are the things you’re doing to build awareness and relevance in different market segments.
Jason and Jeff spend the remainder of the episode talking about why it’s important to go upstream of brand initiatives to the foundational strategy of the firm, and why getting the strategy right is critical before making any type of brand investment.
The content for this episode is inspired by Rattleback’s article The Rattleback Brand Framework and Prudent Pedal’s blog post The 20 Biggest Brand Mistakes Firms Make (and How to Avoid Them).
Other resources mentioned in this episode:
Creating an “Umbrella” Brand: Brand Mistake No. 10
Jason Mlicki: Okay, Jeff. So when we last talked, we agreed that we’re going to talk about brands and frameworks and models today. And we did that because we were doing a series around point of view and the importance of adding one and the process for developing one. And we said, well, a point of view as a part of the greater landscape of a brand.
And so we said, let’s talk about that today. So, let’s do that.
Jeff McKay: I love brand.
Jason Mlicki: You’re lying. You’re lying. I know you’re lying, because for the last five minutes and prepping to start this podcast, we talked about something way different than that.
Jeff McKay: If the truth be told to the listeners, we had a really rough time kicking off this podcast. Both of us, we’re like, “Oh, brand and professional services is such a complicated thing.”
And if you don’t think it’s complicated, you will by the end of this. So we’re going to talk a little bit about our models and maybe that’s not right. Our thinking that gets manifested in models and why we think that way.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, no. Of course, the funny thing is I feel like our job is to bring clarity to these things and so I hope they don’t leave more muddled than they did coming in. But anyway, let’s do our best to make that happen.
Jeff McKay: Well, what we’re probably going to do is tell everybody that their first born baby is ugly.
Jason Mlicki: Well, you know, sometimes that has to be said, in the business world, I mean, not necessarily in your personal life. I would not recommend that.
All right. Before we started you actually said something and I want to start there because you said, I think you used the phrase, what’s the purpose of a brand? And you said there’s really just two purposes. So, let’s start there because actually I think that’s a compelling way to talk about it.
Jeff McKay: I think it’s a very practical way of looking at it because sometimes when firms get into branding initiatives, it becomes all consuming and self consuming and it’s expensive. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of resources. And if you don’t even know why you’re doing it, it’s just a big waste.
So when I think about the purpose of brand, there’s two reasons we want to solidify something and the first one is to attract our ideal clients and more and more of them and to retain them.
The second is to attract the best talent that I can afford for my firm. I want the talented people that are out there and there is a competition for them. Come to my firm, I want to have my choices of people. Anything outside of that is off target and a waste of time.
Jason Mlicki: Now, the interesting thing I commented about that was to me, I totally agree with you and I love the way … in this case, this simplistic answer, right? That there’s just two reasons to make any brand investment at all. And I think we will both agree that there are so many different types of investments you can make in a brand.
I mean, when people say brand, often what jumps to their mind as a logo or messaging or something very simplistic and that’s what’s in their head. But the reality is is that those are just assets of the brand and there’s so many different levels of investment and things you could be investing in when someone says we want to invest in our brand.
And one of the things as an agency that we see a lot of is that when a client says, “Hey, we want to invest in our brand and we want to talk to an agency about this,” they have a predisposed in their head, whatever it is that they want to focus on.
Maybe it’s the identity system, maybe it’s the logo, maybe it’s the language, you know, in their head they’re saying, man, we just were not clear on how we address the market and it’s fuzzy and wonky, and we just need help. And what ends up happening, the reason I’m saying all this, what ends up happening is the objective that they have to start the dialogue is downstream from those master objectives. And a lot of times we’re a little bit befuddled because we’re saying, well, yeah, your language, in how you describe it to the market is not good right now, but what damage is that doing? Let’s look at the damage and go upstream to the source and make sure we’re clear on if we fix that, how is it going to help us and then how are we going to do something with that?
Right? It’s that old adage of the tree fell in the woods. No one was there to see it. Did it actually fall down? You redo the messaging, you redo the brand platform, and but nobody’s there to see it, then did it happen? Right? Does it matter?
And so what I’m trying to describe is that we do like to break brands down into a couple of different categories or brand investments. I don’t know, a couple of different categories. We say, well, you can invest in the strategy. What is the underlying strategy that governs the brand? You can invest in the platform, the platform being the messaging and the visual identity systems, all the things that are wrapped around it to present it to the marketplace. Or you can invest in brand building activities, which could be outward oriented work, right? You know, things you’re doing to build awareness and relevance in different market segments and any of those things could be classified as brand investments.
And I would argue that the end goal of attracting top clients, attracting top talent actually happens in the brand building investments first and foremost, or that’s where that stuff actually happens. But it’s the upstream strategy and platforms that are critical to have before you make those investments. Does that make any sense? See, I’ve befuddled people probably.
Jeff McKay: I think it makes perfect sense. The brand building initiatives are going to fail if you’re not clear on whom you’re trying to attract. And most firms get that wrong, because they’re going too broad.
Jason Mlicki: Yes.
Jeff McKay: And they try to be too many things to too many people. And I wrote a blog post on this past week about firms that create umbrella brands. They think they’re creating a master brand, but they’re really creating an umbrella brand, and the umbrella brands just stretch to accommodate all these practices that have their own agendas and own markets that they’re going after, and they end up meaning nothing to anyone.
So I think going upstream, you know, the brand needs to attract the right clients. Well, what are the right clients? Well, the business strategy should be telling you, you know, the strategic priorities of who you’re going after. I think what you said makes perfect sense. You got to go upstream before you get downstream.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. And the funny thing is, is the investments upstream generally don’t have like a direct, I’ll say it, direct ROI or direct impact, right? So you could spend a lot of money really figuring that out. Like, who are we trying to attract and for what? And you haven’t really done anything yet to actually attract them, right? But you have to get that clear definition.
And a lot of times, at least what we see, a lot of firms just don’t have those answers. And so, one of the things that we make a really big point of in our branding model is to separate strategy and platform, that they’re separate things. The idea of what is the strategy of the firm and the brand or the brand for the firm, I should say. And then what is the platform that we’re going to use to present that strategy to the marketplace?
And a lot of times, those kind of get mashed together, which I tend to believe that that’s not a good thing. And when I say strategy, I’m not necessarily saying, well, not talking about color palettes and language and brand attributes necessarily, I’m talking more about, to your point, who are we trying to attract for what, what expertise do we have to provide value to them, that to us is positioning the intersection of what we do and who we do it for. And then how do we do what we do and then why do we do what we do? So it’s kind of those very simplistic fundamental questions that often just go unanswered.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Almost every firm I’ve worked for, or I’ve worked in or maybe I should say worked with, clients or employers, always miss some fundamental mark and for me, the core of a solid brand strategy if you will, there are four attributes and there are four areas that you need to address.
The first one is the core capabilities and in professional services firms, that’s going to be the expertise that exists, whether you’re an accounting firm, an IT firm or a strategy firm, you’re starting from some core capability.
The second is, where can we apply those core capabilities? There’s some market opportunity that exists out there and a business strategy should identify that market opportunity.
And then the third one, and we’ve talked about this before, I specifically call the third one brand relevance. And you might call that brand, you might call that positioning, but is what we do in those core capabilities relevant to the buyers of that market opportunity? And those are kind of trifecta of both business strategy and brand strategy.
If you want to attack a new market opportunity but your core capabilities aren’t there, how are you going to build them? Or, how are you going to acquire them? How are you going to integrate them, is a key element that would fold into brand strategy because you’re going to have to alter how you’re talking about the firm based on those things. But all three of those surround culture and you and I have talked quite a bit about this.
Jason Mlicki: Well, wait a minute. Wait a minute; time out. You say all three of those surround culture. Do you mean the opposite? That culture really is layered around all three? Is that what you’re really saying? I mean, culture lays underneath all that
Jeff McKay: Yes, it’s the foundation.
Jason Mlicki: Or on top of all that.
Jeff McKay: It infuses. Your core capabilities are going to attract a certain type of talent. If you’re an actuarial firm, you’re gonna attract actuaries and actuaries have a general personality type, right? If your core capability is accounting, you’re gonna attract accountants. Accountants have a specific personality type. You’re an agency, you’re gonna attract creatives. Creatives have a certain type of personality.
So, just at its most fundamental level, without even founder infusing values and morés into the culture, you kind of already have a personality coming out of that. But all of that, that culture infuses all those. How you think about your core capabilities, how you deliver those core capabilities, how you grow those core capabilities are all driven by your culture. And you talk a lot about this, Jason. Thought leadership is not rewarded because of your culture. Well then, your core capabilities may be somewhat weak. But yeah, culture is at the heart of that and infuses each of those three.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I like that a lot. I mean, as you know, the model that we apply is very similar, here at the agency that we apply with our clients.
Like any good agency, we like to try to make things alliterative. So, we kind of take your first three things and we roll them together under the moniker of positioning. The idea of what is our expertise, where do we compete, and what are we known for? And then we wrap point of view. As you talked in the previous podcast, the notion of well how do we see what we do should be done or why do we do what we do as sort of that key point of separation. And we take a third component, which we call personality, which is sort of embodied in the culture of the firm and the way we’re going to communicate about the firm.
Because I do think there is some outward expression here that that can come to play around how do we want to talk about ourselves. How do we want to present ourselves to the world? What type of language do we use? What type of imagery do we use? That’s sort of like some of the what do we want people to feel when they interact with communications from us so that when they interact with us that it’s consistent and it makes sense.
So I’m sort of reflecting back, I guess, what you said, but I do like the way you’ve kind of held culture off on its own instead of culture underlays everything because you’ve so pointedly said through the years, to get growth, the growth you want or whatever, what you are or are not going to do as a firm is kind of bound by your culture. So having it be the platform for everything makes a lot of sense to me, I guess. A long winded way of saying it.
Jeff McKay: Well, I would contend that if all a firm did is get clear on its ideal client and whom it wants to serve and didn’t do anything else downstream that you described in terms of platform and building. I’m not saying don’t do that. I’m saying if they did not do that, just getting clear on our ideal client and whom we want to attract, they would be miles ahead, because the culture can take that and infuse that clarity into what they’re already doing without even changing a logo or anything else.
All the rest just amps it up, but because most firms don’t get clear on whom they’re serving, they squander the money in your platform and your building.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean the other place that I see firms with just lots of missed opportunities, where that translates downstream and to all kinds of problems is just outward messaging.
There’s just so many firms that just do a terrible job of describing what it is they do and who they do it for and the value they create and the benefits of a relationship with them. And that all roots back to the lack of clarity on who they’re trying to attract and for what and why.
So you come into the site, you come into A, an experience with that firm and you’re just completely lost. You have no idea what they do or who for or it’s so muddled and confusing that you know, I just wonder how much business are they just pushing away because when people come in, they have no idea what the firm does or why it matters?
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: Think about the damage associated with that. I mean if you’ve got 15, 20, 30,000, 50,000, 100,000 people hitting your web property in a year, that some of them could absolutely be potential clients. Some of them could be potential talent, and they leave because they have no idea who you serve and why it matters. The lost revenue potential is enormous. Enormous.
Jeff McKay: Kind of come back to some other topics that we’ve discussed on other podcasts. You know, buyer’s journeys are really popular right now in marketing nomenclature and fads, and I think it’s a good thing, but a brand in order to attract clients needs to answer fundamental questions that the client is asking or the prospect is asking along that buyer’s journey, and most don’t, like you just described.
And if I don’t even know who you are, the most fundamental thing is just give me a business description. “We are a X.” You can’t believe how hard it is for from to answer, “We are X.” Are we an advisory firm, are we a consulting firm, are we an accounting firm? Are we an IT firm? Are we an agency? Just give me a descriptor of that and if people could just get clarity on something that simple, they would make huge inroads.
But I have lots of clients, they have trouble and normally it’s because of practices and stuff and competing visions. But your prospects need to know where you’re going to play.
Jason Mlicki: They don’t want to pick a category. Yeah, I like to use the phrase buckets. You have to pick a bucket and in your 20 brand mistakes, you use a different word. I can’t remember what it is. Maybe it’s typology, I can’t remember. But it’s essentially just saying people have a need to categorize you to bring clarity to the world and when you don’t get pick a bucket and let them bring some clarity to their world, then they’re forced to pick their own bucket and chances are good you’re not going to like the bucket they pick.
And the pushback that I get from clients as well, “You know, when Apple launched the iPod, they created a whole new thing, a whole new marketplace. Nobody had ever seen it before. They didn’t create a bucket. They didn’t say it was a better MP3 player. It was the iPod,” and I’m like, “You’re not Apple and you’re not launching a brand new product that nobody’s ever seen before. You’re providing a service that they’ve seen many, many times in many different flavors.” So, don’t make those analogies.
You in your brand mistakes, I don’t remember which mistake it’s tucked under. You do a really nice job of explaining schemas. That’s the word you used, explaining the need for just a client to be able to drop you into some bucket that makes sense to them just so they can feel grounded and not feel entirely lost.
And then you also go on to describe how the first interaction you have with that client is going to shape their perception, and it’s going to shape the bucket you’re in for a long time to come and that’s just reality. So understand that and say, well yeah, we got hired to do … I think your example you gave was we got hired to do quality control and now we want to go provide a different service. Well, they think of us for quality control. So, now we’re going to have to do some heavy lifting to change that perception, and that’s okay. Just understand it. You know?
Jeff McKay: Unless. Unless you’ve done a good job from a brand strategy perspective tying that to a clear type of positioning. Here’s an example. And I just had this conversation with a client, this past week or one similar to it, most professional services firms … I think this would be a good metaphor, refer to themselves as, “We’re a transportation company.” Okay? If you think of transportation company, what comes to mind? Do you think of planes, trains, bus, Uber?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I don’t know.
Jeff McKay: Cars, trucks, bikes? Transportation, I get that you move something from point A to point B, but you need to narrow that down. So, let’s say you take transportation company down to, “I’m a car manufacturer.” Okay. Well, that helps me eliminate planes, trains and buses, but still cars. So general.
Is that luxury car? Economy cars? Trucks? I don’t know. So if you narrow it down and you say, “We are luxury cars.” I’m like, oh, okay, now I can kind of get luxury car, right? Some brands may come to mind, but what type of luxury car are you? Are you a German luxury car? A Japanese luxury car? Or maybe even throw European or American or Japanese ahead of those, and then break them down. So I mean, just that example, you can see how you begin to solidify in your mind the importance of positioning in order for clients to go, “Yes, I have an interest in you because you’re a German luxury car manufacturer. And that’s what I want.” So now I know it’s BMW, it’s Mercedes or whatever else comes out of that category. But most firms don’t do that.
They’re just, “We’re a professional services firm,” or a we’re a services firm.
Jason Mlicki: The interesting thing is that, and this may be a good pivot because we’re kind of nearing the end of the podcast, but to me that’s a positioning problem, right? They just really have not been able to get clarity on defining what their firm is and who it’s for. But the fascinating thing to me is that the other thing that they struggle with is that the client oftentimes, those are all features of the firm, right? The features of the firm are we have 350 people. They’re architects, engineers, consultants, materials scientists. We have 12 offices located in the upper Midwest, blah blah blah.
Jeff McKay: Stop! Stop!
Jason Mlicki: There’s this laundry list of stuff. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care, don’t care. Right? The client doesn’t care about those features. What they want to understand, of course, is the benefits which tend to be rooted in the point of view, tend to be more around what is it that you can help me accomplish in this world? How do you deploy these 350 people in 12 offices to create change that matters to me, to help me?
So you know, one of the things I think is interesting about the frameworks that we use or the frameworks that you use is, is that while positioning is so critical to get it right, once you’ve got it right, usually what we’re telling our clients is, okay, now that needs to go in the back seat a little bit and now we’ve got to focus on the why stuff, this mushy point of view stuff and that’s what we have to lead with. We have to start with these bigger ideas.
In my experience, you can’t get those point of view things right unless you have clarity on the positioning piece. It’s really hard if you don’t make some of those decisions.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, I would say it’s impossible, because the point of view is going to be on an issue for your ideal client. And if you haven’t answered that, then what’s the point? You’re just adding to the noise in the market and the positioning-
Jason Mlicki: I am going-
Jeff McKay: Go ahead.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I need to hear what you’re going to say cause I’m about to end this podcast.
Jeff McKay: Oh my God. As you say that, I have this vision of this big bowl of spaghetti that’s just been spilled out of a pot and it’s kind of folding over the sides of the bowl. What did we just talk about and what are people going to take away from this?
I think the thing to take away is, and this is why it’s on the stupid Shinola list. Stop talking about brand, translate the business strategy into a differentiated positioning, and we probably should just do a podcast on positioning, and that will shape how you began talking to your clients, sharing a point of view. Point of view will be infused by your firm’s culture and personality, so you don’t even have to worry about that. Let it just be what it’s going to be. But there’s definitely an order to this.
Jason Mlicki: Well, that’s a pretty good set of takeaways. I’ll give you an A for effort on that. Next time, we’re going to spend more time I think on point of view and we’re going to have a guest with us. Do you want to share?
Jeff McKay: Nope. You have to come and listen, because I think this person will kind of blow your perception of what a point of view actually is and how you actually use your point of view, whether you agree with it or not, and personality in delivering it.
Jason Mlicki: Well, then I will await with bated breath.
Jeff McKay: Jason.
Jason Mlicki: All right, man.
Jeff McKay: Hey, can we never talk about brand again?
Jason Mlicki: No, we’re probably gonna have to. All right, I’ll talk to you next time.
Jeff McKay: Bye, buddy.