“Master brand” is a term used frequently in professional services.  A master brand allows a firm to present itself under a single moniker, one visual identity, one value proposition, and one tagline. Either no sub-brands exist or those that do are properly subservient to the master brand. Creating an umbrella brand is something very different.

Creating an umbrella brand often correlates with branding Mistake No.15: Making brand decisions by committee. Firms make the mistake of creating umbrella brands when they try to cater to the demands of individual practice leaders and be everything to everybody.

So what’s the difference?

The Difference Between a Master Brand and an “Umbrella” Brand

McKinsey is a master brand firm. The master brand works well for McKinsey because the firm has positioned itself very narrowly on “strategy” as a competency, “industry leaders” as a market, and the C-suite as a buyer. KPMG is an example of an umbrella brand covering a litany of kitchen-sink practices—Tax, Accounting, Consulting, and other flavors of the day like “Digital.”  The value prop is one-stop shopping. Except, each of KPMG’s practices have different business models. with different buyers, different compliance demands, different core capabilities, different ways of thinking, and different “employer” brands. In reality, the only thing holding an umbrella brand together is a logo and the shared services of HR and Finance.

Firms big and small want to sell to every industry, every company size capable of paying and any buyer who will listen. Every internal practice wants its practice to be visible to the market. The result is a brand with a generic and unsubstantiated value proposition and a list of services so long that buyers have difficulty placing the brand in their mental schema of service providers. Marketing gets no scale and every practice, with the possible exception of the original and established core service, suffers sub-optimization.

Making tough strategic choices about what they want to be known for is one of the hardest things for leaders to do. Irresolution leads to practices tugging and stretching a brand to accommodate their need to drive growth. The master brand breaks down and brand mediocrity results. KPMG has no real brand beyond “Big 4.” Deloitte, EY, PWC, Grant Thornton, and many others are plagued by the same problem.

The Downfall of an Umbrella Brand – Hewitt Associates

Hewitt made a strategic decision to pursue HR outsourcing and acquired outsourcer, Exalt (a strategic inflection point). The majority of Hewitt’s marketing investment went into building brand relevance in outsourcing. The result was a very strong outsourcing brand. Unfortunately, the firm did not reposition the entire business internally and externally.

The consulting arm of the firm had no clear direction and minuscule investment. The consulting arm fought valiantly, but the market began ignoring the $1 billion consulting unit of Hewitt. The best consulting talent at Hewitt felt it could not be successful being subservient to the vendor-based outsourcing model. The remaining consultants began developing consulting-focused sub-brands and investing marketing dollars in conflict with the firm’s strategic direction. Both outsourcing and consulting brands eroded. As a result of other suboptimal decisions, the entire firm was eventually sold to Aon, where there was no clear fit for the firm. Aon subsequently divested it to a private equity firm.

How to Avoid Building an Umbrella Brand

One of the irrefutable laws of branding is “The specialist wins.” That law is at the heart of this mistake. Less successful firms believe that the opportunity costs of choosing a focus are too high and that focusing limits growth and options for the firm. It is a fallacy.

In reality, brand focus:

  • Is more client-centric – The best client conversations are one-to-one. Focus allows you to speak to the specific needs of individuals while sustaining the efficiency of one-to-many communication.
  • Increases profitability – Specializing gives you economies of scale in systems, marketing spend, and service.
  • Enables faster growth – Focusing on a specific subset of needs provides clarity of message and the development of expertise.
  • Builds stronger brands – It helps you to clearly demonstrate how you can help and what you do
  • Reinforces culture – Focusing on client needs aligned with your “why” engrains the “why” in the organization and mutually reinforces the brand and culture.
  • Streamlines marketing and communication – Focusing on a specific subset of needs or attributes provides clarity of message.

Make hard strategic choices, focus on those choices, and relentlessly execute them.

Be prudent.

Biggest Brand Mistakes Professional Services

Image courtesy of Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash

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