Meaning Drives the Professional Services Brand

Professional services firms often find themselves stuck in a value-destroying vicious cycle where commoditization of services and lack of differentiation drive profits relentlessly downward.

The key to breaking the cycle is to build a truly differentiated organizational brand, but professional services firms face some unique challenges when it comes to building a brand. 

One key barrier is that many professionals associate the word “brand” with appearance, logos, tag-lines, color palettes and so on – things they consider superficial and trivial.  This is an erroneous, if understandable by-product of cynical consumer product branding practices.

For a professional services firm, brand is about the meaning that binds your people together and enables them to create value.

The second challenge is that a professional services brand is conveyed through people and the relationships they have with clients. Third, the “product” is intangible and highly malleable.

Then there’s the nature of the people who are drawn to professional services. They are typically highly educated, independent-minded, autonomy-loving individuals who don’t much like to be managed. They are not going to march in lockstep or parrot a script. Those characteristics enable them to create value for their clients.

So if you want to build a brand for the institution, you have to honor that independence of mind while at the same time deliver an experience to the client (and the firm’s own professionals) that is sufficiently uniform to constitute a “brand”.

To do that you have to uncover and make operational the meaning at the heart of the organization that causes those professionals to join and stay with the firm. That is your firm’s enduring value-creating identity.

That identity, which is always there but often unexamined and therefore not articulated, shows up in the relationships your professionals develop with their clients, and in the value they deliver. Once you’ve articulated it, you can access it and be intentional about it. You can use it as a tool to guide decisions and behaviors.

Think of the most attractive and compelling people you know. Each of them radiates a sense of self: they know who they are and why that makes them uniquely valuable - and that knowledge guides and shapes their actions and the company they keep.

So it is with professional services organizations: your unique identity (who you are) determines how you create value.  It ensures that you attract and keep the right clients and the right talent.  It drives your success. And it challenges you to live up to it.