I have yet to meet a managing partner, practice leader, CMO, or sales guy in a professional services firm that has been satisfied with their firm’s brand performance. When I ask “Why do you think your brand is underperforming?” I’m frequently told that the firm is “the best-kept secret that nobody knows.” In other words, leaders believe their brand is strong but just underperforming because of a lack of brand “awareness.” Their solution to the problem is to simply get more “at bats” (i.e. meetings) so its professionals can demonstrate the firm’s prowess.
Limited “at bats” is a popular and visceral measurement of an underperforming brand. However, not getting “at bats” is seldom the cause of an underperforming brand. It is a symptom.
I recently worked with a firm that was preparing to rebrand itself because it was not getting sufficient “at-bats.” It provides a textbook example of the causes of an underperforming brand and the way forward to reach a brand’s full potential.
The firm was a 25-year-old, IT company with $100,000,000+ in revenue. There was a robust culture and a clear sense of pride on the part of the firm’s 250 employees. The organization had a young, talented Marketing team but was driven by the Sales organization. The company had great early success positioning itself in the healthcare space and acquired an impressive client roster. It had expanded into 5 industries and numerous service areas which was driving an effort to rebrand itself as the go-to firm for “digital transformation.” The causes for underperformance were many and corrections were simple, but not easy.
6 Reasons for Lackluster Brand Performance
1. The Brand Lacked Focus
The firm defined itself and its culture as “client-centric,” which meant it literally did whatever a client asked. As a result, it produced a convoluted business model that saw itself as a VAR, system integrator, managed service provider, SaaS consultant, app developer, and strategic IT consultancy (see image below). A 250-person firm cannot stretch itself across that many disciplines and compete effectively against specialists in each area.
Chalk this up to leadership and the BS of PS. Without strong leadership, matrices, incentives, and ownership structures can incapacitate firms. Brand decisions made in committee, instead of by a strong leadership team, are seldom effective. Lack of strategic clarity and an unwillingness to make strategic choices creates a cascade of interrelated issues that lead directly to underperformance. Managing the brand is an executive responsibility like vision and goals.
If the world’s largest company, Walmart, can agree to position as the “low cost“ retailer brand, a firm of 250 people should be able to choose a focus as well. While focusing the firm’s brand on “digital transformation” was a move in the right direction that allowed the firm to pull its disparate practices together under one umbrella, it was not going to help the organization to break loose of the underlying Gordian business model and “do anything for the client” mindset. It needed to focus on an ownable market, buyer, and problem, not the broad swath of “digital transformation” which is nebulous and, at this point, a trite term.
To be successful, firms must come together around a singular attribute, market, buyer, issue, or POV. This is branding 101. Ironically, the firm’s early success in health care proved what focus can produce.
2. No Ideal Client
No firm would ever not describe itself as “client-centric.” However, in this case, that ethos led to a business model like the one above that is difficult to manage, difficult to communicate, unscalable, and, ultimately, less profitable. The brand attributes Expertise, Results, and Simpatico drive professional service brand performance. The more relative strength in each of these areas the greater the overall brand strength. By choosing an Ideal Client with whom you share Simpatico, a firm can achieve scale in Expertise and deliver specific Results much more effectively and quickly. Generic Expertise and Results do not differentiate brands. Buyers purchase a solution to a specific problem. By homing in on a particular buyer’s problem, a firm can build its reputation (i.e. brand) as the best in solving it faster and more effectively.
The firm could not bring itself to identify its Ideal Client. Instead, the Sales team drove client selection by pursuing clients where the easy sale was most obtainable. As a result, the brand did not sustain its strengths in key markets and became seen as scattered, generic, or irrelevant in solving client issues vis a vis its more focused competitors.
3. The Firm Did Not Fully Understand The Value It Provided
Top brands understand what their Ideal Client values and become exceptional at both articulating and delivering it. It is hard for a firm to scale the delivery an undefined value. On the other hand, well-defined value is hard to sell to a prospect that does not value it. If I do not value high performance in my automobiles, I am not going to be sold by BMW’s “ultimate driving machine” brand. If I value concierge service, I am not going to be sold on Motel 6’s “We’ll leave the light on for you.” sentimentality. If I’m a mid-market manufacturer, I’m probably not going to value your firm’s Fortune 500™ client list. Strong brands know the value they provide and for whom they provide it.
Both individual practices and the firm as a whole did not understand what clients were actually buying. The firm kept promoting practices like Project Management and Technology Adoption. These practices were good but they did not differentiate the firm’s expertise. They simply delivered smooth client engagements. In other words, instead of offering unique value, the firm was promoting itself on table stakes that are expected from every service provider (on time, on budget, no headaches).
This firm defined value as doing whatever the client asks to be done. “Let’s hire this firm because they will do whatever we ask them to do.” is not positioning for deep expertise, scale, and differentiation. Instead, the choice requires discounting fees to get the business, reinventing the wheel on each project, and repeating business with the same undesirable characteristics.
4. The Firm Mismanaged Its Performance Envelope
Managing the firm’s Performance Envelope is critical to both the firm’s long-term viability and brand performance. Mismanagement is the cause of most wholesale “rebranding” exercises.
The Performance Envelope is the zone where the firm does its best work (i.e. profitable work). This zone is recognized as the firm’s core business and drives the firm’s profitability, recruitment and training efforts, rewards structure, and brand. These cores are unstable and are under constant external pressure from competitor encroachment, competitive innovation, pricing pressure, and commoditization. This instability compels practice leaders to expand the Performance Envelope by pushing its edges outward with new solutions/practices that “reinvent” the firm while endeavoring to maintain the “core.”
IT is a constantly evolving industry and no firm wants to be caught behind on the latest tech trend. So, IT consultancies spin out practices as the industry evolves and client demands dictate. A performance issue arises when firms do not make strategic choices to kill languishing practices and reallocate capital investments to new strategic areas. This firm was great at spinning up new practices. However, it had multiple practices past their primes and was unwilling to shut them down. This led to a complex business model, a labyrinthine brand story, and profitability that was one-third of the industry average. High-performing brands manage their solution portfolios proactively and ensure that they are contributing to profitable growth, meeting their Ideal Client’s needs, and building the overall brand message.
5. No Intellectual Capital Agenda
Clients hire firms to solve problems. “Digital Transformation” is a complex problem. Unfortunately, the firm had chosen a marketing term to accommodate its complex business model instead of a well-defined client problem to solve. “Digital Transformation” is an amorphous and “ink-blot” business problem definition. The term means something different to every company. While the firm helps clients “transform,” thousands of other firms made the same claim.
Without a clear, cohesive point of view on digital transformation or sub-specialty, the firm could not differentiate its Expertise in this area. The firm needed an intellectual capital agenda and scalable consulting methodology that brought its disparate practices together in a unified story that clients valued and could understand. The firm had several strong thought leaders. However, the culture and its Sales focus, made it difficult to monetize its intellectual capital, produce consistent, high-value thought leadership, and drive a powerful consulting engine.
Being a thought leader is NOT easy. As they say, If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.”
What distinguishes a thought leader from the competition? One, the outside world recognizes that a leading company not only understands its own business but deeply understands the needs of its customers and the broader marketplace in which it operates. Two, industry leaders genuinely influence others by creating, advancing, and sharing ideas to help others. What industry leaders really do, whether big or small, is revolutionize the way others do business.
Thought leaders fall in love with the problem. They spend their time reading, researching, talking, speaking, connecting, analyzing, testing, solving, collaborating, writing, and communicating about the problem. This takes time and resources. Strong brands invest in these activities. More importantly, they reward the people who do them.
This firm did little to nothing on this front. For the most part, it redistributed its vendors’ thinking and sounded just like all the other channel partners doing the same thing. On a positive front, the firm had 5 self-produced, technical blog posts that produced over 50% of its website’s organic traffic. The posts’ thinking demonstrated what resonated in the market and the results that could be achieved.
6. The Firm Did Not Consistently Show Up As Its Best Self
The firm had demonstrated incredible prowess in helping hospitals integrate and adopt new technologies. It had recognized thought leaders and specialists that deeply understood and connected with its health care buyers from chief medical officers, doctors, and nurses. Its top salespeople had the confidence to sit down with anyone and discuss the ins and outs of integrating the latest health care technology. The firm even had some success doing the same in the Higher Education industry and working with local governments.
Unfortunately, the success was limited and the result of too few people capable of having the necessary strategic transformation discussion. While there was a client-centric culture and strong project management capability, the firm’s default approach became selling technology to low-level buyers because it was a quick way for the sales team to hit quota. In other words, the firm frequently sacrificed the more profitable, differentiated, and valuable work (i.e. its best self) just to sell hardware and software.
Ultimately, brand underperformance is a failure of leadership. When leadership is unwilling or unable to make strategic choices, the brand suffers. No amount of marketing communication can convince buyers that a firm is something that it is not. That is why it is critical for leadership to clearly define the client whom they serve and the value the firm delivers. Lack of clarity not only makes it harder to get a meeting it is also disheartening to the troops. Weaker brands require people to work much harder and get rejected more often.
When I worked at Andersen, I seldom had trouble getting through to buyers and decision-makers. I was good to go with a simple phone call, email, or introduction with any functional buyer or company size. Many of the other firms I worked for had similar brand power but on a narrower and more targeted basis. Firms do not have to achieve McKinsey-like brand recognition in order to thrive. They simply need to work hard to differentiate themselves and own THEIR market.
Building a high-performance brand requires focus, understanding your Ideal Client better than the competition, knowing the value you provide, demonstrating that value with a robust POV and intellectual capital, and showing up at your best time and time again. Without these attributes, firms squander valuable dollars, time, and effort because they cannot hit a target that they cannot see. In addition to demoralization, underperforming brands create slower growth, weaker profitability, and organizational misalignment.
Imagine a baseball team without a collective goal or belief in one another. People operate below their potential engagement levels because they don’t have others dependent upon them or bringing out their best. Individual players begin playing for themselves. Sure you get your “at bat” but who wants to play on a team like that?
It doesn’t have to be that way if leadership steps up.