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How do you brand a professional service firm, really?

 

Coke-Pepsi

Five steps to a strong brand.

As marketers, we know that your firm’s brand is a lot more than the logo on your stationery. But the true meaning of a “brand,” especially for professional service firms, is difficult to define. Ask ten people and you will probably get ten different explanations.

How do you differentiate your firm when the services you provide are similar (if not identical) to your competitors’? How do you stand out among your peers in a way that is authentic and memorable?

Let’s look at two product companies that have competed for market share for years: Coke and Pepsi. In 1969, Coke adopted the tagline “It’s the real thing.” They followed soon after with the slogan “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” and the famous commercial that launched the song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)”. In 1979 we heard “Have a Coke and a smile.”

In 1983, Pepsi countered with “The Pepsi Challenge” and the now-famous “Cola Wars” ensued. In blindfolded taste-tests, Coke fans across the country compared the two drinks. Pepsi concluded that “fifty percent of the participants who said they preferred Coke actually chose Pepsi.” But statisticians pointed out the big problem with the 50/50 result: people simply can’t tell the difference between Pepsi and Coke. Had Pepsi tested their own fans with the same challenge, the results would have been identical.

So if the two products taste pretty much the same, why did I ask for Coke, specifically, when I ordered a soda back in the ‘80s? The Pepsi Challenge proved what savvy marketers already knew: I bought the brand. I guess I really wanted to be on a hillside, in a hippie skirt, smiling and singing when I sipped my cola.

How can you apply these lessons to your own firm’s branding? Here are five important steps:

  1. Do your research
    Interview partners, employees, clients, and even vendors to get an understanding of how they see your firm, how they feel about your firm, why they chose to hire you and work for you.
  2. Make it about THEM, not YOU
    Your brand must resonate with your target audience. What are their needs and goals? What are their worries and nightmares? How will you help them?
  3. Think “headline”, not “novel”
    Your brand messaging is not meant to tell your entire story. It should capture attention, draw people in, and entice them to learn more. The facts and details will come later. Focus on one, strong, clear value when branding.
  4. Be consistent
    Brands are not built in a day, week or month, they take years. Chances are, when you start feeling bored with your brand, your prospects are just starting to remember it. Brands are built through consistency and repetition. Stay true to your core brand components across print and web, and make sure everyone at your firm understands and adheres to your brand guidelines.
  5. Be creative
    As you work with your agency to brainstorm the words and visuals for your website, brochure, or ad campaign, think conceptually, not literally. Instead of using photos of buildings or skylines or hand shakes on your homepage or brochure cover, consider images that convey the experience rather than the results.

Remember, branding is about eliciting human emotions. Appeal to your prospects’ feelings—make them smile, frown, laugh, or scratch their heads—and you’ll have a successful brand.

Vanessa’s article first appeared in SMPS Boston’s Outlook, June 2, 2014.