This post is the first in a series to share how professional services can develop and execute marketing strategy. Unfortunately, this series will not give you a template that you can simply fill in. Instead, it will give you a strategic framework to guide both the thinking about AND deployment of your marketing strategy. Most importantly, it will help you to stop growing below their potential, “rebranding” needlessly, replacing marketing leaders every few years, and wasting so much money on marketing.
It will help you accelerate growth and build a leading brand.
The 2 major challenges to developing a professional services marketing strategy
The first challenge is overcoming the BS of PS.
The BS of PS is the unique pro services environment borne of erudite people operating within matrixed organizational structures, managing by “consensus,” being driven by contradictory performance measures, and competing in a world of fungible solutions. The BS of PS creates dysfunctional behaviors that lead to discombobulated marketing strategies and suboptimal performance.
Each firm’s unique BS of PS flavor necessitates different objectives, priorities, strategies, and approaches. Even in the same industry, geography, and size categories, firms differ significantly in culture, capabilities, client rosters, and reputational starting points. You cannot use a “fill-in” the blank template and create a smart, effective, and deployable marketing strategy because each professional services firm is unique in its own “dysfunctional” way.
Second, each professional services firm operates within a well-defined Performance Envelope.
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. Regrettably, 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 to “reinvent” the firm while maintaining the “core” that powers the engine. (Leading Firms: How Great Professional Services Firms Succeed and Your Firm Can Too, Kuhlman, 2013)
This is the essence and challenge of developing a successful professional services marketing strategy. The strategy must leverage the core while at the same time distancing itself from it. The BS of PS (i.e. the firm’s political and rewards structures) works against this essential expansion. The gravitational pull of the core sucks needed attention and investment away from the potential periphery.
As a result, firms continue to skate to where the proverbial puck was instead of where the puck was going. They lag behind core competitors or get flanked by specialists or upstarts who lack the legacy baggage of the “core.” The truth of the matter is that when managed correctly this natural lifecycle of peripheral expansion is at the core of marketing strategy and is best managed by a strategic marketing organization.
Developing a professional services marketing strategy to manage the dynamism of the Performance Envelope
The Performance Envelope is not a problem to be solved. It is a tension to be managed. Managing this tension requires business acumen, a willingness to embrace reality, and a strong leadership backbone to make and deploy strategic choices. Most firms think they possess these qualities and are developing a “marketing strategy.” But, in reality, few really do. Instead, their marketing strategy is nothing more than a bottoms-up attempt to hit a number followed by a top-down, financial reconciliation that allocates investments based on practice size. This dynamic creates an enormous issue within a firm.
If you are a student of the Growth School of Marketing Thought you know by definition that the Growth School’s goal is to strategically impact the firm’s performance. Impact is measured by revenue growth, market share, or brand performance—NOT marketing productivity measures.
READ: What is Marketing?
The path to growth, market share, and brand performance goes through these phases:
Awareness > Relevance > Preference
Awareness is a simple measure of name ubiquity (i.e. getting the name out).
Think about the KPMG logo atop Phil Mickelson’s head. You may see it a lot but have no idea who it is or what they do.
Relevance is the “permission to play” in a chosen market (geography, solution, industry, buyer, etc.)
Relevance is the bridge between the two. Relevance is about strengthening the Preference attributes at the Performance Envelope’s periphery. When done strategically and purposefully, a firm builds both Awareness and Preference.
Brand Preference reflects the buyer’s preferred provider for a solution.
Recall the famous adage, “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.” In brand study after brand study, professional services brand preference is driven by 3 attributes:
- Expertise – measures your firm’s knowledge in an area in which the client is deficient, but in need.
- Results- demonstrate your ability to deliver the outcome associated with your Expertise
- Simpatico – an intangible sensation that reflects a shared worldview and ease of doing business.
Brand preference is exactly what it says, “I prefer this firm because the people are stronger experts, deliver demonstrated results I value, share my worldview, and are easy to do business with.
Marketing’s job, and therefore the marketing strategy must ultimately define and deliver Relevance. By focusing on Relevance, firms build up Awareness properly and cost-effectively while at the same time building Preference of the firm’s new “core.” Unfortunately, most firms get hung up in the BS of PS, focus on Awareness alone, or conflate all three phases. You might be thinking that I am splitting definitional hairs. I can assure you the distinctions are critical in a competition where performance is differentiated in milliseconds, inches, and strokes.
In my next post, I’ll share how a firm begins to build its Relevance.