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

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

Sustainability and Authenticity Present Huge Opportunities for Brands

Riddle me this: how do you boost sales by almost one third while telling your customers to buy less from you?

Sustainability and authenticity are the twin brand values that can power this exemplary business growth, and Patagonia is the current exemplar.


For some time now, Patagonia has been urging customers to repair and keep their $700 Patagonia parkas rather than buy new ones. The result? Sales increased almost one-third to $543 million last year, which included about nine months of the “Buy Less” marketing campaign.

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October 4, 2013   No Comments

Why David Brooks Almost has it Right about Brands

David Brooks, an Op-Ed Columnist at the New York Times writes a very interesting article about the differences between the use of and understanding of brands between the Americans and the Chinese. His premise is that the Chinese are not good at building brands that connect with consumers in the West despite the fact that they have the largest economy in the world. This will hinder their achievement of global economic dominance. He is right.


However, one of his notions is only partly correct and flies in the face of what great brands work hard at every day. Brooks believes that “People who create great brands are usually seeking some inner longing of their own…”. In this he is thinking about romantic notions of founder-led brands like Nike or Ralph Laruen.

What he is missing is that great business leaders spend a great deal of time and energy to understand their customers and their needs, and then address them in a way that builds an enduring relationship that can last a long time. In most cases it is the diligence and hard work requiredto build stronger relationships with consumers than competitors in every category that leads to sustainable market leadership.

Much of what Brooks writes about is very true, and he is astute to recognize as much as he does. Where he misses the mark is realizing that there is a process and method to establishing and building a strong brand that connects with key audiences that works on it’s own and is not necessarily founder led. Just look at a few minor brands like IBM, General Electric, BMW, New York Yankees, Mayo Clinic, etc. Sure each was founded by great thinkers and leaders, but they have evolved into very strong brands generations past founder longing.


Congrats to Brooks for recognizing how brand have become an engine of the Western economic growth. His basic premise is more than correct.

May 31, 2013   No Comments

Protecting & Enhancing Your Brand in Social Media – Whether You’re Joining or Creating the Conversation

As the old saying goes, “you have to be in it to win it”. That pretty much sums up the role of social media for brands today. Social media is no longer just one of many tools a marketer can use. It has all but become the cost of entry. In the 2012 Social Media Marketing Industry Report, 94% of marketers said that they use social media for marketing purposes. It goes without saying that some social media marketing is better than others, and therefore more effective at driving business results. But the bottom line is that companies can no longer ignore social media. This is true for every category and industry from consumer goods to professional services, from healthcare to the financial industry and for both B2C and B2B.

Here’s the rub: Because social media is a two-way street, gone are the days when a brand can control messaging through a monologue of traditional advertising and communication. What is compelling to consumers today, and to a large extent, expected, is a dialogue, back and forth. These conversations can be strategically initiated by the brand to disseminate a particular message, i.e. a new way of “advertising”, or a brand can strategically participate to help steer the conversation in a way that protects the brand.

conversations matter in social media

Either way, whether you are creating the conversation about your brand, or joining in conversations about your industry, which may ultimately involve your brand, follow these rules to not only protect your brand, but to take advantage of this new reality and use it to actually strengthen your brand:

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April 3, 2013   No Comments

Brands can be the Comfort Food for the Soul

For those living through the “Perfect Storm” of October 2012 that hit the East coast of the U.S., we all, collectively, had our senses heightened out of need. Many had no electricity, the coast had severe flooding, wind damage was everywhere and there were all manner of challenges in the days following the storm. What I found interesting is how some well-known “brands” comforted my soul as the winds howled and the storm raged on.

For example, we heated up Campbell’s Chicken Noodle and Tomato soup in the evenings over a propane stove. More than the warmth of the soup, the Campbell’s brand enveloped us with a smile and a comforting feeling that all would be OK. It was like a grandmother’s hug.

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November 12, 2012   No Comments

How Citibank has Lost my Loyalty

I have been a loyal Citigold customer for 20 years. But last Friday they really put a chink in my loyalty. Citigold is the “premium banking” part of Citi, a step above the masses. It has been very convenient for all these years. Here’s how they violated my affection.

First, they called me at home to market something. I guess there should be nothing wrong with that, but then again, I expect better than retail treatment as a Citigold member. Perhaps they were calling about a fraud issue, or an observation about how I could manage my account better. But they weren’t. [Read more →]

June 21, 2012   No Comments

What Branding and PR Professionals Can Teach One Another

“Long-term brand equity and growth depends on our ability to successfully integrate and implement all elements of a comprehensive marketing program.” – Timm F Crull, Chairman & CEO of Nestle

Branding and public relations (PR) professionals have a great deal in common. Branding professionals develop and communicate a promise. PR professionals bring that promise to life through stories, case studies, videos, events and points-of-view. Despite the common ground, branding and PR professionals don’t always collaborate. In some cases, this is because accountabilities reside in different departments. In other cases, it’s because each discipline has its own way of doing things.

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May 1, 2012   No Comments

You Earned My Loyalty. I’m Sticking with DYMO.

DYMO, one of the leaders in providing label printers, just treated me the right way, and retained my loyalty at a critical moment. I had recently upgraded to a new operating system for my Mac. As a result, my computer couldn’t communicate with my label printer. After trying several options, I finally called DYMO customer service, and they used that moment to secure my loyalty for a long time to come. When they realized that my label printer wasn’t compatible with my new OS, they generously said they would replace my printer with a new one… at no cost to me.

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February 10, 2012   No Comments