The power of insight

This brand thing – what exactly is it?

What do professional firms mean when they talk about brand? Awareness? Reputation? Perception? Profile? Recognition? All of the above? When we’re speaking to professional firms about brand we frame the conversation around two propositions.

First, the reality that 90% of what one professional firm does is exactly the same as every other. 10% is distinctive. So when we talk about brand we’re talking uncovering and articulating that 10%.

Second, recognising there’s a difference between whether people do think of you and what they think of you. Both are important but need to be addressed in different ways – and understanding one without the other is pointless.

Often, we’re helping firms because they’re struggling with both these issues. They might be losing work, or not winning enough of their preferred work – or perhaps they’re trying to enter a new market.

The last scenario presents a fascinating oddity; although your targets aren’t thinking of you (because you’re not in their market yet), you have a unique opportunity to influence what they think about you when you do enter their market. As ever, making that happen isn’t as difficult as it seems at first.


Building a really strong professional services brand – based around that distinctive 10% – isn’t about having a great idea. It’s about a process of discovery; uncovering and then articulating something about your firm that people haven’t noticed before.

You need to answer three questions:

  1. What do people know about you?
  2. What don’t people know about you?
  3. What should they know about you?

There are a number of different sources of insight to help you do this:

  • Your people, who are the only group that can tell you what it feels like to work for you. What culture and behaviours do they see around them every day? This shouldn’t be restricted just to partners either – every person that works in the firm has a voice that should be heard.
  • Your clients, who are the only group that can tell you what you’re like at your best and how you’re perceived. Talk to them in person, but also review any existing materials that you have, including client feedback, directory quotes and pitch debriefs.
  • Referrers and intermediaries, who will be able to tell you why they do or don’t recommend you for certain types of work – and also why they do or don’t refer your competitors.
  • Your competitors. What do they say about themselves? What position and messages do they use in your target markets? What do they say about why they’re different? This will give you a clear view of what not to say if you want to stand out.

Of course, if you’re trying to enter a new market or trying to compete for new types of work, there’s another source to add to the list – the targets you’d like to work for. Why do they use the firms they do? What would you have to do for them to consider using you? Without knowing this you’ll always be stuck where you are.


The insight you’ve gained above will give you everything you need to articulate your distinctive 10%. There will be things that only some, but not all, clients know; there will things only some, but not all, of your people know; there will be things you might not have known yourself; there will be things you can’t believe you haven’t told people before.

But what do you do with all this insight? First, you create four outputs:

  1. A brand proposition. This is the word or phrase that distills and encapsulates everything you’ve uncovered about your firm; think of it as a statement of intent that captures exactly what you’re about.
  2. A positioning statement. This is the basic way you describe your firm. It should be used in your marketing materials, pitches, on your website, on social media and in face-to-face conversations. Consistency is essential for building market awareness about who you are.
  3. A mission. This articulates your purpose and the impact you have on your clients. Very few professional firms outside of the big four accountants demonstrate any sense of purpose; doing so will provide you with an immediate distinctive edge.
  4. Core marketing messages. Supporting your brand proposition, positioning statement and mission should be four or five key messages that communicate how you’re distinctive. It may be that these need to be tweaked so they’re specific to the different markets you’re in, but they should always link back to your core brand proposition.

Now you apply the RAD test. Is each element above relevant, authentic and distinctive?

  • Relevant, because it’s part of your strategy; it’s about what markets you want to be in, the clients you want to work with and the work you want to do for them. Unless what you say is relevant, people aren’t going to be interested. This is why it’s so important to speak to clients and prospects – they’re the people who will tell what’s relevant to them and what isn’t.
  • Authentic, because you want your people to talk about it. They’re more likely to talk passionately about and be advocates for the firm if what they’re saying feels real and they believe in it. This is why you need to engage your people in the process.
  • Distinctive, because you need to make the 10% of your business louder than the 90%. People are bombarded with so much information that whatever you say needs to be powerful enough to cut through everything else. The whole point is to stand out – and is why you need to understand what your competitors are saying.

Articulate + communicate

So you’ve uncovered your 10%. You’ve articulated it in a way that’s relevant, authentic and distinctive to the people who matter. Going back to our original proposition, you’ve articulated what people should think of you.

Now you need to make sure that people do think of you, or else all of that hard work is wasted. So how do you communicate what you’ve uncovered and articulated?

Think of all the ways you communicate with the world and tell your story. Your website. Marketing materials. Pitches. Thought leadership. Directory submissions. PR. Twitter. LinkedIn. Face-to-face meetings. Networking events. Blogs. Speaking at conferences. Your annual review.

Everything you say in each of these channels needs to be consistent. What you say on your website needs to be the same as you say in your pitches and marketing materials. What you say in meetings with clients and prospects needs to be the same thing they read in the press, your blogs and on Twitter.

Don’t think of digital marketing as something separate to your other marketing. All of your marketing is about putting the right message in the right place so it’s read by the right person at the right time.

Online marketing is just another great way of reaching more people in more places. But equally, don’t underestimate the importance of online and digital. Imagine this scenario:

Five firms are invited to pitch for a major piece of work with a FTSE100 company. Having reviewed the pitch documents, the in-house team invites two firms to present. What does that team do between now and the presentations? Sit back and wait? Of course not.

They look at the online presence of the team members set out in the pitch document. The team members from one firm all have a blog they use to comment about topical issues and trends. They’re on Twitter sharing updates and interesting news they’ve read. Their LinkedIn profiles are well populated, including various posts they’ve written. Their profile pages on the firm website share links to articles and pieces of thought leadership they’ve been involved in.

The other team has nothing.

Which firm do you think the client is most looking forward to meeting? I think we all know what team we’d rather be on. Don’t we?

Richard is Creative Director and owner of Brand Remedy and one of the pioneers of branding in professional services. His sector experience includes legal, accountancy, wealth management, financial services, real estate and public sector.