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There was a time when professional service firms barely even thought about their brands. Professionals delivered good work, they kept their shoes shined bright, and brand reputation seemed to take care of itself.

No longer.

Today, firms are facing new headwinds that are making old ways of business extinct. Client organizations have more knowledge and greater in-house capability than ever before—reducing their dependence on outside experts. Meanwhile, lower-cost, tech-enabled disrupters are challenging many established players—chipping away at traditional business models.

With these shifts in the market, professional service firms need to actively manage their reputations like never before. They need to develop a clear, compelling, and differentiated market proposition that speaks to client needs, and they need to deliver it across every client interaction. So how does a top law or accounting firm stand out from the crowd?

We have five simple principles on branding for professional services to get you started.

1. Start from the top: Leadership commitment is essential. Without it, your brand building exercise is likely to be a short-lived marketing effort with limited return on investment.

Senior leaders need to have a clear understanding of expected program output, their anticipated level of involvement, and, of course, the required investment. Most importantly, they must be willing to engage in and publicly support the brand development process. Their input and approval on any new brand platform are key, and, once developed, they should embrace it as a key component of overall leadership messaging.

2. Open the process: Professional service brands are living, breathing entities. People are the product, and they are in the trenches selling and delivering work each day. When developing or refining your brand, it is imperative to engage firm employees throughout the process. Publicize the initiative and get opinions from as many firm employees as possible. Not only will they have a wealth of insight that will lead to better solutions, they are much more likely to embrace and deliver your ultimate recommendations.

3. Listen to the market: Unlike brand managers in media-centric categories, professional service marketers don’t have access to extensive syndicated category and customer data. It’s up to each individual firm to develop the fact base and insights it needs to meet the demands of the marketplace. Qualitative insight is always helpful to identify issues and focus the discussion. However, quantitative methods are critical in order to survey a statistically relevant set of clients and prospects and to uncover what really drives category decision-making.

4. Define your purpose: As professional services globalize, many firms are engaged in a race for geographic scale and breadth of capability. Achieving scale and a range of capabilities is key to many firms’ growth, no doubt. However, based on our research, scale and scope of services is rarely a key decision driver for buyers.

As such, professional services marketers must move beyond product and capability stories and start building greater depth into their brands. Clients today want to know what makes your firm tick. They want to know what drives the firm forward and what motivates your employees to get out of bed each morning. Building a strong professional services brand today often starts with defining a firm’s purpose and then building a purpose-driven brand framework that communicates powerfully to the marketplace. 

5. Build from the inside out: A splashy ad campaign is nice, but it doesn’t mean anything if the firm isn’t geared up to actually deliver on a campaign’s promises. For professional service firms, employee involvement and engagement is key. After all, they’re the ones who deliver the firm’s experience to customers and prospects on a daily basis.

We recommend managers first socialize any new brand initiative with internal audiences. Each employee needs to understand the brand and also their individual role in delivering it. Only then can firms truly project a powerful brand promise—and expect their people to live it, breathe it, and deliver it on a daily basis.

Matt Egan is Senior Director, Strategy at Siegel+Gale.