Stories are the Building Blocks for Professional Service Firm Branding

Brands are ultimately about meaning. Stories are the building blocks of meaning. And stories that connect your brand with a fundamental human need can help you build a powerful bond with your clients.


In our experience, this is as true for management consultants, accountants, law firms and architects as it is for carmakers, technology manufacturers, fashion designers and food brands. The difference is that while we have long accepted that emotional connection can drive consumer purchases, we like to think that business-to-business purchases are driven entirely by cold reason. They are not.

We have spent many years interviewing C-suite executives who purchase professional services. Sometimes one firm has a “silver bullet”, a tool or insight or method that nobody else has, so the choice is obvious. It happens, but it’s vanishingly rare (and quickly copied).

More often, clients have to choose between firms that have very similar offerings, people and approaches. So how do they pick? We have found that they make choices based on the story the brand tells them… the story that the brand allows them to tell about themselves.

Certain narrative patterns or storylines tend to recur within particular categories of professional services firms. The table below illustrates a few of the story patterns we often see in our work with these firms.

StroyLine TableCredit: Archetypal story patterns based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and Carol Pearson’s The Hero And The Outlaw

Each of these narrative patterns enables a brand to evoke and address a deep human need, even when offering an abstraction such as professional advice. And each of these stories can be told in a multitude of different ways.

By understanding these patterns, a professional service firm can drive differentiation and preference.


So how do you discover and then develop your authentic brand story? There are strong clues in your firm’s origin story and in the recurring iconic stories about the firm that your professionals tell themselves. The stories that clients tell about you (and the language they use to tell them) are also powerful sources. In both cases, it takes skilled questioning and astute listening to draw out the truth in the tale.

Once you have discovered the fundamental brand story that reflects the truth of your organization, it can then be developed into compelling market-facing messages, woven through all your communications and crucially, embedded in the culture of the firm and the behavior of your people.

August 7, 2015   No Comments

Mean Something If You Want To Matter

Mean Something If You Want To Matter

Any brand that endures and stands out from the pack does so by connecting with a fundamental human need.

Professional services firms, which deal with abstractions and intangibles, can begin to build and leverage this deep human connection by first understanding what they stand for – what they intend to mean to their clients and employees.

A powerful, authentic brand captures and signals the underlying human images-2meaning in your business – the thing that sets you apart and makes you matter to your marketplace of potential clients and recruits.

Your brand is therefore a strategic business issue, way more profound than issues like name, logo, tagline, or visual style. Those are symbolic expressions of the brand, shortcuts to the meaning in the business: they are not the brand itself.

One of the key challenges for a professional services firm is how to encourage clients to have a committed relationship to the organization, not just to the individual consultant. Brand offers a way to do this, by building a shared sense of the meaning in the business, while at the same time enabling individual professionals to express that meaning in a way that is authentic to them.

Our experience helping professional services firms to differentiate and market themselves effectively has helped us identify three key factors that set professional services brands apart:

  • Relationship is the envelope that wraps the client work. Professional services firms need to understand and leverage the emotional value of the client relationship as a key differentiator
  • Attracting and developing talent is as important as attracting and developing clients. Aligning the internal and external brand is crucial
  • Vision, values and beliefs drive the behaviors that convey the brand. Understanding and clarifying these areas is essential to building a meaningful professional services brand.

McKinsey-BCGTake McKinsey and The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the top two global strategy consulting firms. They each recruit similar people from the same set of elite schools, and they each address similar business challenges with similar intellectual tools. And yet clients see real differences and make choices between the two. How and why?

The answer lies in the meaning that both firms have built as they have developed their respective brands. McKinsey has come to mean power and control – the stability and order that enables prosperity. BCG on the other hand, has built its brand meaning around understanding and transformation – the insight that empowers you to change your circumstances for the better. Both are compelling meanings that speak to fundamental human needs, but each appeals to a different client mindset.

These two iconic consulting brands have used narrative and story to create meaning and differentiation as they compete for clients and talent. Our next post will explore how to use story as a tool to differentiate your firm, and to create meaning that attracts the right clients and the right recruits.


July 1, 2015   No Comments

For Professional Service Firms, It’s About Differentiation

Standing apart is always a challenge, especially for professional service brands.

The Arena is Large
These brands generate US $1trillion+ in revenues and represent a very large and growing sector of the economy. Of the U.S. professional services sectors, IT consulting is the largest, followed by law firms and management consulting firms.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 10.21.41 AM

Words Sound the Same
But if you step back and look at the self descriptions and claimed differentiators from the websites of the top ten professional service firms in each of the eight primary sectors, you see “brand blur” on a staggering scale. It’s astounding how many of the same words and descriptions appear. This represents an opportunity for a smart professional services firm.

PS Words

The reason is that professional services firms use generic terms is that they don’t want to lose a prospective client. They believe that if they cover the waterfront and claim everything, they can appeal to the widest array of prospects. But the opposite is true. Brand strength and power comes from being single-minded and consistent.

There is a Way to Differentiate
Successful brands spend great time and energy understanding what makes them different, and how to communicate that difference through marketing and through behavior.

The secret to identifying what sets your firm apart authentically and sustainably is to understand the meaning at the heart of the business. The route to uncovering that meaning lies through story. Stories are the building blocks we (humans) use to construct meaning and shared identity.

In future posts we will dig deeper into the connections between meaning, story and brand loyalty.

May 20, 2015   No Comments

Chipotle does the right thing…as the mainstream tide turns

Wherever you look these days, mainstream brands are engaging in initiatives or taking a stand on issues that were once considered “social or environmental causes of fringe groups”. Social media has given activists a voice and platform to reach the masses like never before. And whether or not there is enough hard data or scientific evidence to categorically support their causes, there are most certainly enough unanswered questions around issues such as the safety of GMO’s, artificial ingredients such as aspartame, red dye 40, and the prolific use of pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate, to name a few. Consumers are no longer in the dark and are asking questions, reluctant to blindly believe the safety claims of corporations. As such, many iconic brands like McDonalds and Pepsi find themselves directly impacted by this growing sentiment. And more than ever before, it is a case of “adapt or die”. There are many examples of brands that have been proactive, or at the very least, quick to respond. Yesterday Chipotle announced that 100% of their ingredients are now non-GMO. On the same day, Pepsi announced that they will no longer use aspartame in Diet Pepsi. And in January 2014, General Mills announced that Cheerios will be GMO free.


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April 28, 2015   No Comments

Disney World at $105 a day… How Brands Can Successfully Price Up

The recent announcement about Disney raising admission prices at theme parks to over $100 per day points to an important benefit of very strong brands… they can price higher and maintain upwards momentum.

Brands that provide extraordinary quality and a unique experience have enormous leverage to price higher. Said another way, it is possible to raise prices without much of a consumer push-back.


Here’s the rub. In almost every category, where products are essentially at parity, marketers struggle to hold prices, especially when there is a competitor who is willing to cut price to hold on to or grow a franchise. Thus, particularly in highly competitive categories, marketers become hostage to a pricing spiral, and reluctant to take risks or invest. As someone once said, it’s hard to look outside of the swamp when alligators are nipping at you toes. Read more →

March 3, 2015   No Comments

Change the Washington Redskins Name.

I was asked by a friend about the Washington Redskins name issue, which was so eloquently written about in the New York Times Opinion Pages on June 24 by Michael Lewis and Manish Tripath.


Here is essentially what I wrote as a reply….

This is an interesting branding question on many levels. I am in complete agreement with the Michael Lewis and Manish Tripath conclusion.

1. Money aside, (changing the name) is the right thing to do.

2. The “model” they used (have not seen it) indicates no significant loss in revenue. My experience with name changes would bear this out. In fact, the opposite is often the case. I understand the argument about existing brand equity, but there are other important factors.

3. We would advise that the team owners look at a new name as an opportunity to re-energize the fan base. What if it attracted more fans and advertisers? Looking at the upside might help all involved think about a different and better brand and future for the franchise.

4. Lewis’s idea of involving the Native American community leaders is a brilliant way to move forward in a positive manner. It could result in an even larger upside, albeit the process might be complex so as not to disenfranchise anyone.

Change is scary for many, but, in this case, necessary. Not only has the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office voted to strip the team of trademark protections, but changing the name is the right thing to do.

June 26, 2014   2 Comments

Using Sustainability to Build Brands

17lbs. That’s the weight of the 2014 Restoration Hardware shrink-wrapped collection of catalogs – 12 catalogs to be exact – that arrived at my house, unsolicited, via UPS. My first reaction was disgust. Utter disgust at the waste of paper and ink and use of fossil fuels required to ship it to my house. As a diehard proponent of sustainability I am horrified, but as a branding consultant, I started to think about why so many brands are reluctant to challenge the way they have always conducted business in order to become more sustainable.

RH Catalog

Does Restoration Hardware really have to send out 17lbs of catalogs to sustain their business? Isn’t there a better, alternative way to market their products? Why is it so difficult for them to think outside the box and challenge the status quo? We live in a virtual world, a digital age where so much business is now conducted online and on mobile devices – you’d think that they would embrace online catalogs, finding new creative and innovative ways to showcase their products in a virtual world. Perhaps it’s inertia? Or fear of losing business. Or maybe they just have their heads in the sand?

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May 21, 2014   6 Comments

Updating Intel’s Font for the Mobile Future

Intel just created its own proprietary corporate font to be easier to read in the global digital world. They call it “Intel Clear”. A smart move in a number of ways. First, it gave them the opportunity to assess the equity in their existing font and think through whether and how much to change. Second, It caused them to think about how their critical audiences, internal and external, national and international, should perceive Intel as the communications media evolve so dramatically and rapidly.

New Intel Font

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April 8, 2014   No Comments

Caution: What will happen to my Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskeys?

The acquisition of Beam Inc. by Suntory Holdings of Japan, has created a storm of concern about whether the heartland American brands, Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark will change. With enormous heritage, both brands have very loyal franchises and passionate consumers.


And despite the fact that they have been around for a long time – Jim Beam was founded in 1795 and Maker’s Mark in 1958 – these brands continue to enjoy organic growth, and are benefitting, possibly even contributing to, a resurgence in the popularity of bourbons and whiskeys globally. Read more →

January 17, 2014   1 Comment

“Cheesepocalypse” and the Importance of the Velveeta Brand

Ad Age reported that Velveeta inventory is running low, just as Superbowl parties are only a few weeks away. This has created yet another media feeding frenzy. The Chicago Tribune calls it “Cheesepocalypse”. But the underlying reason is quite deep. Velveeta has earned our trust as a brand that hasn’t changed, and in the confusing world we live in, anchor brands are very important. Moreover, anchor brands like Velveeta often become part of a national tradition, a cultural touchstone that has meaning and value beyond the functionality of the product.

Velveeta was invented in Monroe, NY in 1908 at the Monroe Cheese Company. By 1923, it was spun off into the Velveeta Cheese Company and subsequently sold to Kraft Foods. In the early 1950’s, the product was reformulated into a cheese spread, and has not wavered since. Used as a base for dips, and in sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, it has been a staple in homes in North America and Canada. It is also an ingredient in dips at Superbowl parties everywhere. Read more →

January 10, 2014   No Comments