Brand building in professional services: How to stand out from the crowd
Standing out in the B2B market can be a tricky business, particularly in professional services where rival companies compete to deliver similar services. Rebecca Ley talks to White & Case, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, and PwC about why a strong brand is crucial.
The success of professional services companies is critical not only for the many businesses they help, but for the UK economy – in fact, the sector represents 15% of UK GDP.
From architecture firms to financial advisors, the range of the businesses that professional services cover is incredibly vast, yet the difference between them and their competitors is not. In a world where customers are increasingly calling for tailored, responsive and customised solutions, this is a problem.
So how does a professional services company differentiate? The answer for many is to focus on brand. “Brand plays a very important role as a way to distinguish yourself and highlight important underlying values,” says Steve Sinclair, head of sales and marketing at PwC.
For PwC, it’s all about purpose and values, explains Steve. “People want to work with those who share their values,” he says, “We see that all the time in B2C, but those relationships are increasingly important in B2B too.” What the business stands for, says Steve, is what makes it stand out.
Steve Sinclair, PwC
"People want to work with those who share their values"
A trusted brand is a remembered brand
“Brands live in one place and one place alone,” says Brian Macreadie, head of brand and campaign marketing at BCLP. “That’s the mind of the client. Can you imagine having an indistinct, ignored or forgettable brand – and still wanting to outperform your rivals? Good luck with that!”
It’s a strong argument and one that shouldn’t be ignored. But how do marketers at professional services firms ensure their brand stays firm in their customer’s minds?
For Brian it really comes down to being trusted. “Trust in professional services is probably the most critical factor impacting purpose,” he explains. “As a marketer, if we are to persuade clients to consider replacing an incumbent adviser, they need to really trust us. And I mean potentially ‘putting their career on the line’ trust us.”
Brian Macreadie, BCLP
"Brands live in one place and one place alone, the mind of the client"
Steve agrees that a trusted brand is a remembered brand. PwC positions itself from the pack by maintaining its reputation as ‘leading on trust’, as well as being recognised for quality, technical knowledge and excellence, says Steve.
Building trust means a constant monitoring of relationships. “We spend a lot of time analysing the feedback we get,” explains Steve. This includes information from every project the company runs, post-decision reviews from clients (whether PwC wins the business or not) and conversations with key stakeholders during the course of the year.
“The feedback tends to be plotted on a buyer journey so that we understand how we’re being perceived. It gives us a very detailed view of what we’re good at and what we’re not good at,” says Steve.
He believes it’s crucial to ensure the values you’re famous for are embedded into how partners and directors behave with clients. “A classic example is around transparency,” he explains, “around the fees you charge, the diversity of your team, the experience you’ve had. Being open about who you are, and what you do reinforces the values.”
Steve Sinclair, PwC
"Being open about who you are and what you do reinforces the values"
A sense of pride
Julie Parsons, global marketing communications director at law firm White & Case emphasises brand as essential to gaining good relationships in the first place. “Of course lawyers always get business because of individual reputations, but there’s a limit to the people they know,” she says. “A strong brand brings people closer to the negotiating table and allows you to build relationships. It ensures prospects will seek you out when the need arises, ” she explains.
Julie believes differentiation is about what you do, not what you say. “You need to focus on what your real competitive advantage is,” she says, acknowledging that this might only mean small gains when the services you offer are similar to your rivals. “But it’s looking at those attributes you outperform the competition on. For White & Case it’s the strength of our global network, which is difficult to replicate, the strength we have on the ground in those markets, and client commitment.”
Julie Parsons, White & Case
"A strong brand brings people closer to the negotiating table"
Of course, no one outside of the company will believe in your brand, vision and purpose if your own employees don’t. They must be your brand ambassadors.
“Your people are both the product and the route to market,” says Julie, explaining that internal marketing is just as important as external. An employee who has a sense of pride in the organisation does the external work for you, she says, and delivering on your employee proposition means that people will want to be your advocates too.
Brian agrees, while highlighting the problems associated with an industry built on people. “In professional services we're promoting people and their intellectual capital, but people all have different personalities and styles of working, so creating a consistent brand to unite diverse people can be complex.”
Investing in your partners’ reputation can infuse the lifeblood of your business, but also presents a challenge, warns Brian. “People that you’ve supported heavily to build their personal brand can resign and walk straight out of the door to a rival”.
Julie Parsons, White & Case
"Your people are both the product and the route to market"
Looking for external cues for success, Julie points to understanding your audience as well as your competitors. Designing relevant content that speaks to the right buyer at the right time can help attract prospects. “It doesn’t have to be onerous,” she says, “short, pithy content drip-fed into the market with frequency is more powerful than a 40-page report twice a year.”
PwC also makes use of short-form content, using social media as a way to increase transparency while creating valuable information for its audience. This extends to reporting, where the firm has made sure to stay ahead of the curve.
The company was the first to go digital with its annual report, in a move to develop a clear tone of voice and approachable storytelling. “We were also the first to publish our gender pay gap figures and we’ve been very active in publishing diversity and inclusivity figures as we believe that’s part of building trust,” says Steve.
Julie Parsons, White & Case
“Short, pithy content drip-fed into the market with frequency is more powerful than a 40-page report twice a year”
Of course content can be a means to position your brand and remind your customer what you stand for. Professional services companies have to sell the invisible, focusing on intangible expertise rather than products. This means making sure they stay current, says Steve.
“Sometimes brands are seen for what they used to represent and not what they are now,” he explains. For example, PwC was historically known as an accountancy firm, but now consulting on a host of areas such as blockchain, AI and even drones. Moving with the times, and communicating your new vision to clients is essential to keep your brand’s reputation modern, he says.
Brian echoes this. He interprets brands as simply what their clients think of them. “All professional services firms can hope for is a clear vision of what we want client perceptions of us to be, and then do absolutely everything in our power to make that vision become a reality.”