If your professional service’s firm’s branding and reputation management feel more like a wrestling match than a friendly conversation, you have a problem.
Too often, it goes something like this: You work hard to consistently express your firm’s brand. But in today’s digital-first world, the megaphone is in the hands of your customers. And a quick Google search reveals that they’re much less likely to follow your brand guidelines than your loyal employees.
Put simply, your brand is going off the rails.
Here’s where it gets interesting. If some experts are to be believed, the problem lies not with your firm—but with branding itself.
The Trouble with Branding in the Digital-First Era
In the early stages of the 2016 presidential election, Bill Clinton famously called a certain reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-hopeful a “master brander.” The comparison to branding wasn’t meant as a compliment. In an interview with CNN, he went on to say “the thing about branding is … you can be fact-free.”
Ex-President Trump wasn’t a master brander. He was a master liar. And while he may have been all smoke and mirrors, no brand worth its salt should ever be.
One thing is clear: Somewhere along the way, “branding” has developed a bit of a reputation problem.
Take Scott Galloway’s recent declaration that the age of the brand is now being replaced by the age of the product. In a continuation of Clinton’s assessment, Galloway wrote that brands have too often been a razzle-dazzle-filled bait and switch. “Create an average, mass-produced product and infuse it with intangible associations. … Emotion injected into a mediocre product (American cars, light beer, cheap food) was the algorithm for creating hundreds of billions in stakeholder value.”
It’s true that the pendulum of power has swung from brands to consumers. In the age of broadcast advertising, brand communication was a one-way street. Brands spoke, consumers listened. But the internet leveled the playing field. Between Google, social media and review sites, consumers can (and do) sniff out false brand promises a mile away.
So what does this mean for professional services firms like yours?
Why Branding (Still) Matters for Your Professional Services Firm
Contrary to what Scott Galloway and others might say, the power of brand isn’t falling to the wayside. The truth is, for professional services firms like yours, brand is more important than ever.
But there’s no room for error. Galloway is also right when he observes that consumers are no longly blindly loyal to brands. They use all the modern digital tools at their disposal to suss out the truth about brands and crowdsource the best coffee shops, mechanics, doctors, restaurants and, yes, legal and financial services firms.
Brand is still driving consumers’ decisions. It’s just that brands are no longer exclusively owned by the companies they represent.
To understand what that means, you must first expand your definition of what your brand includes. Too many professional services firms—especially those that haven’t done the hard work of uncovering their unique positioning—think “brand” is purely visual. It’s the logo, colors and typefaces that put a little polish on an organization’s website and marketing collaterals. In this limited conception, “brand” is a shiny piece of costume jewelry rather than a living, breathing embodiment of the entity it represents.
Your professional services brand is about so much more than just visuals. It’s represented in every interaction you have with your clients, from your website’s user experience (UX) and the way you answer the phone to your delivery of services and the outcomes you achieve. It’s your promise and your fulfillment of that promise, all wrapped up in one well-designed package.
Think of it this way: At the end of the day, your brand is what people say about your firm when you are out of the room (which is to say, when they start typing an unfiltered review or Tweet). The people who come in contact with your firm already have an impression of your company. Like it or not, that is your brand.
The question, then, isn’t whether your brand matters. It’s whether you are still controlling the narrative. Answer: You aren’t. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.
In today’s digital-first world—what Galloway would call the Age of the Product—the only way to control your brand’s narrative is to persuade your clients to talk about you the way you would talk about yourself. Put simply, you must substantiate your brand by walking the walk.
How to Craft an Authentic, Business-Driving Professional Services Brand
Take a look at your legal or financial services firm’s brand. Can you clearly define it? Is it consistently expressed across every touchpoint, from your website and presentation decks all the way down to your billing documents? Most importantly, does your brand accurately reflect your firm’s character?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, you have work to do.
The first step in creating an effective brand is to uncover the true-to-you nuances that make your firm unique. In the world of professional services, finding a way to differentiate yourself can be a challenge. After all, your practice areas, products and services may be quite similar to those of your direct competitors. Not only that, but defining a singular brand identity can be hard if your firm is composed of a diverse group of partners and advisors.
It’s not enough to describe the services you provide or talk about how good you are at what you do. Being smart and effective are table stakes. Your positioning isn’t about how smart you are; it’s about how your intelligence (or approach) differs from the competition. At the end of the day, professional services firms are selling their expertise. And there are thousands of ways to be an expert.
To uncover the unique qualities that make your firm tick, you’ll need to engage in an in-depth discovery process (and a hearty dose of research). Crystallize your positioning, and you’ll lay the foundation for a bulletproof brand.
Bottom line? The power of brand is as potent as ever. But if you don’t deliver on the promise of your brand at every touchpoint, your potential customers will quickly fixate on the deception at the heart of your persona.
Whether you decide to build your brand in-house or partner with a strategy-driven branding agency, authentic positioning is key to designing a brand that works for you rather than against you. Do it right, and your customers’ amplified voice can become your greatest asset.