The Delusion of Managing a Professional Services Brand

by | Brand Strategy

Grabbing the lapelCan you really manage a professional services brand?  Sure, you can choose a positioning, manage brand architecture somewhat, write a great tagline and boilerplate and control the visual identity, but those things really aren’t what professional services brands are about.

Recently, I attended a great session at Deloitte put on by the Association of Management Consulting Firms called “The New Digital World: Changing the Marketing Function in the Consulting Industry.”  The thrust of the seminar was on the changing role of the chief marketing officer. The room was filled with talented marketing leaders from some of the world’s leading consulting firms.

Part of the day was spent in breakouts discussing topics like “big data” and brand. I had the pleasure of being a part of the brand breakout led by Deloitte’s John Copulsky, National Managing Director, Brand and Eminence. (How is that for a COOL title?)  John solicited the group for brand-related issues. I suggested the topic: Can you really manage a professional services brand? The initial response from the group was, “That’s ridiculous! Of course you can manage a pro services brand!” This is exactly what you’d expect to hear from a room of marketers, but I’d argue that the response is a delusion. Here’s why.

When I talk about professional services brands, I use a simple equation:

Brand = Reputation = Behaviors

The brand of a professional services firm is nothing more than its reputation– and a firm’s reputation is shaped by the individual behaviors of its people. It is not colors, taglines or logos.  It’s people.  I don’t know many marketers who control consultants’ behaviors. What controls behavior?  Culture and rewards.  Those are leadership, operational and human capital issues.

I spent several years at Andersen. One of the many roles I had was director of brand management. In that role, I was part of a team that managed the firm’s positioning, brand architecture and brand identity around the globe. When I was in the role I thought that I was “managing” the Andersen brand. When the Enron debacle hit Andersen and the firm dissolved, I remember commenting that there was no longer an Andersen brand—that was until I attended one of the many job fairs the firm had to help place its people at local companies. We had recruiters from the best companies knocking down the doors to attend.

I will never forget a recruiter reaching across two of my colleagues to grab my lapel to pull me to his table!  It was not brand management that produced that result. It was a culture built on a mindset of our founder.  Arthur Andersen had a philosophy that he would recruit only from state universities because the students at those schools did not come from families of privilege and by their nature where more driven and hard working. He would train his people the way he wanted and created the St. Charles training facility to do so. The facility built and reinforced a powerful and differentiated culture of high performance and client centricity.  The popular belief at Andersen was that you were not truly a part of the firm until you had spent time in St. Charles.

When a firm acquires a new client, the firm’s brand messaging must answer 5 over-arching questions a client asks along his/her buying journey.

  1. Have I heard of you?  This is about brand AWARNESS and making sure that a firm’s name is visible in the market.
  2. Do I know what you do?  This about FAMILIARITY of services and expertise.
  3. Do you meet my needs?  In other words, will I CONSIDER you to help me solve my problem or achieve my aspirations?
  4. Do you meet my needs better than everyone else?  This is about convincing the client to CHOOSE you over another firm.
  5. Finally, did you deliver on your promises?  This is about the firm’s ability to perform and build loyalty as a result.

Numbers 1-3 are about credibility and are rational, objective decision criteria. Either a firm can provide the proof-points for its expertise (and results) or it cannot. Marketing plays a key role in communicating this content. These don’t necessarily differentiate firms. They just get you to CONSIDERATION.

Numbers 4 and 5 are about chemistry. They are irrational, and by this, I mean emotional. They are about relationship and trust. When a buyer makes a CHOICE among firms, s/he is buying an individual.  In my experience, the decision is deeply personal, and most people will never reveal the true reason for selection. You may hear that it was about fees or a presentation, but the truth may be that it is because a consultant went to an Ivy-league school—or didn’t. Maybe it was because he is Catholic or Jewish or atheist.  Maybe he likes rock climbing or cycling or wine. Perhaps it was his Brooks Brothers suit or his orange socks. Who knows? The point is that once a firm makes it to consideration, clients connect at an individual level not a firm or broad “brand” level.


The AMCF breakout group had an excellent and insightful discussion on this topic. (What would you expect from a room full of talented marketers?)

In the end, the group agreed that marketers can fall into the trap of thinking they are managing a brand when they are not truly controlling its most important elements. However, the group felt that marketing can and should have a profound influence on reinforcing the right culture by helping leadership understand its importance and the support and rewards structures needed to create a differentiated culture.

As I said in my post on Pope Francis leadership lessons, “Firms spend countless hours and dollars developing the right brand, tagline and creative communications. These things are important, but they are a distant second to the firm’s culture.  Every successful firm is built on a clear vision, strong values and the bold actions of its founder and subsequent leaders…Firms that spend time creating messages inconsistent with leaders’ actions and rewards are doomed to fail.”

What’s your opinion?

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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