Unlike product brands that you can pick off the shelf or take for a test-drive, most professional services organizations sell an intangible. The product cannot be fully “experienced” until it’s purchased. That intangible is usually a promise to produce a desired future outcome that improves the condition of the customer.
Professional services are sold on reputation and trust, and a strong brand establishes these qualities in the minds of prospects. The prospect buys into the promise based on their level of trust with the provider. For this reason, brand building for professional services companies is often more critical to building business value than for product brands.
In an age where most service brands are price driven commodities, professional services brands have to be positioned in the minds of customers with razor sharp precision. To be effective in creating relevant differentiation for their brand, marketers of professional service brands have to be thinking about building cathedrals in the minds of their target customers, rather than providing bricks (services) to them.
To build cathedrals in the mind, service brands must focus on un-covering their value to clients and customers beyond the functions of service delivery. Service offerings, claims of expertise and quality delivery are table stakes in uncovering the real “value” of a service brand. When “services” are in abundant supply, customers need something more than ephemeral claims to make purchase decisions, and more importantly, become loyal advocates of the service brand.
If you take a close look at the current claims of most professional services brands in any discipline, here’s a list of the most common (and forgettable) claims:
– We are client focused
– We are global
– We build lasting relationships
– We value trust and integrity
– We are experienced in your industry
– We are results driven
– We provide quality outcomes
No there’s nothing inherently wrong with these attributes all by themselves, but if you happen to be the CEO prospect seeking a professional services firm, wouldn’t you think these would be the antes in the deal? These claims are ubiquitous and don’t buy much relevant differentiation for the brand. Yet surprisingly enough, these are the core messages that most professional services brands hang their hats on. In the noise and clutter of the modern marketplace, much more is required to stand out and win.
Building Cathedrals In The Mind
Because the business of professional services is based on service delivery and efficiency, it’s difficult for brand owners to elevate their value propositions beyond the table stakes necessary to be in the game. Few are thinking about building cathedrals in the minds of the prospect.
Cathedrals are “highly valued outcomes” clients and customers desire that cannot be easily obtained. When your service brand represents a highly valued outcome not in abundant supply, chances are your brand will command a premium position, you will command premium fees, and business development will primarily be centered in responding to inbound inquires, rather than outbound marketing and message delivery.
There are two types of “outcomes” clients and customers will commonly desire:
Basically the customer says, “we need to get this done or something bad will happen”.
There is a penalty for not buying, so essentially there is no option for the prospect — they must buy. Accounting, Law Firms and Pest Control Brands serve these blatant outcomes.
In this case the customer “doesn’t know what they don’t know”. Needs are unknown and unarticulated until the service brand enlightens the prospect to an outcome that, once revealed, is one that can’t be lived without. Research Firms, Science and Technology, Advertising Agencies, Public Relations Agencies, Architecture and Engineering Firms serve latent outcomes.
It’s critical to know just what type of cathedral the prospect has in their mind. Is it latent or blatant? In many respects this sets the context or frame of reference for the services brand. Essentially it is the game the brand has chosen to play in. More importantly, having this insight will reveal the level of resonance and relevance the prospect will have for your services.
The next piece of the puzzle is brand positioning. Here, the challenge is to distinguish between required attributes – the ones that all competitors must have – and the truly unique attributes that only your firm can credibly claim.
At its most basic level, brand positioning comes down to this:
What outcome the brand provides (value proposition), to whom (target customer), better than anyone else (proof).
Let’s look at these three essential components in more detail:
The Brand’s Value Proposition
This is the “one thing” that your brand will stand for beyond delivering services. This one thing must be highly valued by the target client and not be in abundant supply by competitive brands. This “one thing” usually has absolutely nothing to do with providing functional benefits to clients.
The Target Customer
For professional service brands, defining the target customer is more about “fit” than demographics. A good fit between service provider and client to be is usually based in the ability of the prospect to:
– Actively seek a solution to a blatant or latent desired outcome
– Appreciate the “value” of the outcome more than the cash to obtain it
– Trust the providers expertise
– Demonstrate a rapport that builds relationships quickly
– Have the financial resources to engage
Defining the target customer is about exclusion not inclusion. To position your brand deftly with precision requires the art of sacrifice. Not everyone will fit.
For professional services brands to “own” the one thing that matters to a prospective client requires you prove the claim of expertise. Saying its so, doesn’t make it so. Of course, the gold standard of proof is found in current clients who have experienced the value and gladly share this experience with their peers and your prospects. Of course a well-positioned brand can’t do everything exceedingly well. It must be highly specialized-offering deep and narrow expertise providing high value outcomes not possible through generalist competitors. Without substantiated proof, the value proposition will ring hollow.
Brand marketers must remember, for professional services brands to become the one in a million in the minds of prospects and clients, three things need to be in continuous alignment at every touchpoint in the value chain:
The brand must resonate.
The brand must differentiate.
The brand must substantiate.
The Blake Project Can Help: The Brand Positioning Workshop
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education