The 3-in-1 Drivers of Brand Preference

by | Brand Strategy

Attributes that drive brand preference are akin to biblical laws. The Old Testament laws numbered 613. When Jesus was asked which of the laws was most important, he consolidated them all down to one; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He added a second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I have conducted research on brand preference drivers around the world. I have tested numerous buying attributes in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Like biblical laws, drivers can be consolidated down to one.

The attribute that drives a buyer’s brand preference is what I call CYA Power— Cover Your Ass Power.

CYA Power is the brand strength that allows a buyer to make a purchase decision and minimize the risk of making a “career-limiting” move. It is the old adage, “You never get fired for hiring IBM.” If you are more of an optimist, the opposite side of the same coin is MMLG Power or Make Me Look Good Power. There are three attributes that comprise CYA/MMLG Power: Expertise, Results, and Relationship.


Expertise measures your firm’s knowledge in an area in which the client is deficient, but in need. The buyer expects that if she pays you a premium for what’s in your head, then you better be a hell of a lot smarter at it than she or your competitors are. This allows her to say, “I hired the experts in X, if they can’t solve the issue, then no one can.” Or, “I hired X because they work with the top (fill in the blank.)” If you are crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat, you want the best Atlantic Ocean sailor for your type of boat.

RELATED: Are Your Industry Experts Competent?


Results demonstrate your ability to deliver the outcome associated with your Expertise. You say that you know sailing, but how many times have you crossed the Atlantic successfully and in what weather conditions? How long did it take? What shape were you, your passengers, and the boat in when you arrived?

Business buyers buy services for one simple reason: profits. Your results need to demonstrate a clear line of sight to the bottom line. That means higher revenues or lower costs. Outsourcing, law, accounting, risk management, strategy, marketing, sales training, design, reorganization, quality control, et al are purchased through the lens of your buyer’s contribution to that end.

The buyer’s unstated desired result is a guaranteed outcome. Simply put, he would like to have a CYA card from your firm that eliminates the majority of the risk of hiring you and delivering on his project. As a buyer you understand where the client is coming from. As a service deliverer, that idea makes you shudder. Firms talk a lot about standing behind work and client satisfaction. Unfortunately, while a guarantee would differentiate your firm, I have yet to meet a firm’s legal counsel who would approve such a bold move. However, you can differentiate your firm’s results in terms of speed, associated project complexity, or lower cost. Whichever you choose, you should be aware that on time and on budget are table stakes.

RELATED: Why Top Firms Share Good, Bad and Ugly Results


Before you skip this paragraph because you think you have a grip on it, think again. The Simpatico attribute is about the ease of doing business with your FIRM, not personal trust. Personal trust is a component and much has been written on interpersonal trust. Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford is the lingua franca of professional services firms. It is a must-read, but it does not encompass this entire attribute.

The ease of doing business reflects broader operational, financial, technological, and cultural perspectives. Is your firm sophisticated enough in its systems? Do you manage risks properly? Are you financially sound and have sound financial practices? Are you overly legalistic or rigid in negotiations and agreements? Do you move too quickly or too slowly? Do you nickel and dime me for every change order? Do your consultants have to fly first-class and stay in five-star hotels?

If you wade into the crowded waters of relationship brand attributes, be careful. A term like “trusted advisor” has deluded many a firm into believing that they somehow had a corner on trust. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot own a brand attribute unless another firm is willing to own its antonym. Do you know any firm that would be willing to own the “untrusted” advisor moniker? I didn’t think so. If everyone owns an attribute, then no one owns an attribute. The same goes for “quality,” “responsive,” and “integrity.” These are table stakes, not differentiators.

RELATED:  Are Your Firm’s Values Any Different than the Local Dry Cleaner’s?


If you want to differentiate your firm, you must own an attribute(s) that differentiates you and is ownable. Keep in mind that choosing to focus on one of the three attributes of Expertise, Results, and Relationship does not negate or lessen the impact of the other two. The weight given to each attribute will differ by buyer and situation. If I am on trial for a murder that I did not commit, I don’t care how expensive or easy a lawyer is to work with. I just care about finding a lawyer who has the expertise on my case and a list of clients who have been found not guilty.

CYA/MMLG Power is why CEOs hire McKinsey for strategy. It is not because McKinsey’s strategies are better than competitors’. The CEO fraternity relies on McKinsey to give it air cover for the unpopular business decisions it wants to make.

Pick your area of Expertise and DEMONSTRATE it through Results while you make it easy for your Relationships to sing your praises.


Be prudent.

About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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