Brand Architecture in Professional Services: Curing “I-didn’t-know-you-did-thatitis.”

by | Brand Strategy

Professional Services Brand Architecture

Why do your clients buy services you offer from other firms?

It happens time and time again. You learn through the grapevine or through a loyal client that another client has just chosen a competitor for a service that you provide. When you  ask your client why he chose a competitor, he says, “I didn’t know you did that.” You feel frustrated and perhaps even angry or threatened by this change to your relationship.

When these situations occur, consultants often blame a lack of marketing volume or effectiveness for the lost business.  While this may be the case, the primary cause of “I-didn’t-know-you-did-thatitis” is more frequently a discombobulated brand architecture—one that confuses and overwhelms clients and prospects.

DOWNLOAD: The 20 Biggest Brand Mistakes Firms Make (And How to Avoid Them)

What is brand architecture? Brand architecture is nothing more than a systematic way of organizing the identity of the products and messages of an organization so people understand how clients are served.  Here is an example of a familiar company, FedEx.
It is simple and straightforward and shows clearly a manageable number of channels and services.


FedEx Brand Architecture

Here is an example of a typical mid-sized professional services firm’s brand architecture at the practice/service level:

  1. Communication
  2. Strategic HR and benefits communication
  3. HR branding
  4. Employee listening
  5. Learning programs
  6. Global communication
  7. Change management
  8. Corporate communication
  9. Communicating green
  10. Mobile apps
  11. Comm.Unity
  12. Compensation
  13. Board advisory
  14. Equity compensation
  15. Global compensation
  16. Management advisory
  17. Nonqualified deferred compensation
  18. Performance and rewards
  19. Sales effectiveness and compensation
  20. Surveys and benchmarking
  21. Total remuneration
  22. Valuation services
  23. Global Investment Advisors
  24. Global Technology and Delivery Solutions
  25. Defined benefit administration
  26. Health and welfare administration
  27. Global equity solutions
  28. Kinetic application technology
  29. Separation solutions and administration
  30. Health and Productivity
  31. Health and welfare plan management
  32. Clinical strategies
  33. Consumer engagement
  34. Health and welfare audits
  35. HIPAA compliance
  36. New directions in healthcare management
  37. Health and welfare administration
  38. Specialized services
  39. Retirement
  40. Plan strategy and design
  41. Defined contribution plan consulting
  42. Plan governance and fiduciary responsibility
  43. Compliance and regulatory risk management
  44. Actuarial consulting and financial management
  45. Multi-employer and governmental plans
  46. Investment management and consulting
  47. Ongoing plan operation and administration
  48. Talent and HR Solutions
  49. Talent planning
  50. Talent deployment
  51. Talent engagement

At which word did you stop reading? (I made it to number 28, “Kinetic Application Technology.”) Most firms believe that in order for clients to understand a firm’s full breadth of services, it must list them all. As this list illustrates, the strategy overwhelms people, and they stop listening. This is an issue that plagues large and small firms alike.  Large firms want to represent a full breadth and depth of services. Small firms want to look bigger than they might actually be.

There is an axiom among marketers that clients do not buy drill bits; they buy holes.

Most firms are just selling ¼ inch, high-speed, titanium drill bits! Clients just want a ¼ inch hole fast, easy and cheap; whether it is made of titanium, laser or water jet is less important. If we intuitively know that simple is better and that clients buy benefits not features, why do so many firms fall into this trap?

There are two reasons firms have confusing brand architectures:  Opportunity costs and Partner rewards.

Opportunity costs  Many firms believe that if they limit marketing to a core set of services then they limit their growth prospects. Again, firms think that the more they promote everything, then the greater the chance that something will stick. The opposite is true.

Partner rewards  Firms promote and reward based on an individual’s ability to build a growing practice and keep a lot of mouths fed. By not “listing” a practice on a webpage or brochure, a potential or existing partner feels that he/she is penalized in the business development game. No one wants to put someone at a disadvantage or create a political firestorm.

The fact of the matter is that there is a simple way to overcome these issues. All it requires is strategic, collaborative leadership and answering some key questions. Ask yourself the following:

– What is our current brand architecture and does it align our business strategy and brand positioning for the future?
– Does our current brand architecture focus on our current/future client perspectives or our internal organization structure?
– Does our current architecture foster increased demand generation or confuse the market?
– What is our firm’s value proposition and positioning? Does our brand architecture make it clear to the market and our people?
– What should be the driving precept of our brand architecture?
– Does our current brand architecture position us for changes in the industry/category and support our company strategy over time?

Here is a nice example of a client-focused brand architecture that speaks the client’s language and makes it easy for the client to see how the firm can help.

  • Creating the high performing organization
  • Successful M&A
  • Global expansion
  • Driving and encouraging innovation
  • Employee engagement
  • Workforce productivity
  • Developing top teams
  • Attracting and retaining talent
  • CEO succession

This firm is from the same industry as the prior example. Which firm do you think makes a stronger impression, is more memorable and clearly demonstrates how it can help?


One of the consistent drivers of firm selection is that the client feels heard and that the firm demonstrates that it understands the client’s business. To make it easier for your client to see how you can help, you must speak to the client’s issue or aspiration and communicate your core capabilities in a simple, straightforward way.

Developing an effective brand architecture is a firm-wide effort, and it requires firms to make strategic choices and investments. These decisions involve opportunity costs and require political capital to prioritize.  As you evaluate your brand architecture, keep these goals in mind:

  1. Business success depends on aligning your firm with your clients and their needs.
  2. Brand architecture should support your client-focused business strategy and play a defining role in how you communicate your firm’s value.
  3. As a client-centric firm, your business and marketing messages should articulate and reflect the needs of your clients by making your offer simple and relevant to your clients and prospects.
  4. Your brand architecture should be composed of the elements that you deem the most important to support and extend your brand in the marketplace (not just the biggest practices).
  5. Your brand architecture should exist to help the marketplace understand the many elements of your offer and not reflect your internal structure.
  6. The brand architecture will influence and inform all of your brand activities –- from people to process, products, services, and environments.

Remember these key goals and you will go a long way in curing “I-didn’t-know-you-did-thatitis.”

Be prudent.

Biggest brand Mistakes cover download

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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