Today, I heard another partner at a professional services firm express a desire to “have a brand like Apple.” Every time I hear that request I chuckle. Why?
I imagine a leadership team reacting to a branding firm’s creative team delivering a creative concept of a brand called “Grape” or “Watermelon” or “Pear” and how the partners would laugh them out of the room for the stupidity of proposing to name a firm after a fruit. A litany of statements like this would follow:
- “Idiots!! Morons! This is what you get from art majors!”
- “What the hell is up with all that whitespace. Fill that with facts, figures, and words.”
- “What dumb- – – chose white as a brand color? White is the color of generic brands! We aren’t generic! We are special. We hire the best people. We have the best process! We do high-quality work! Generic stupidity that what this is! Harumph!”
- “We’d be laughed out of the industry.”
Now that I have you chuckling or maybe feeling a little defensive, let me share how my actual conversations with partners unfold from here.
I like to continue the discussion with some simple questions:
- What do you like about Apple’s brand?
- What makes the Apple brand so powerful?
- How is Apple’s brand aligned with your strategic direction?
- What do you think it would take to translate Apple’s brand to your firm?
The answers to number one come quickly and usually are focused on words like “cool,” “different,” “creative,” “innovative.” The answer to number two often evolves around the “products.” When we get to number three, the answers aren’t as free-flowing. I hear things like “growth,” “innovation,” and “hiring the best.” At number four, the conversation is getting really quiet. I hear things like “cool office designs,” “more whitespace in marketing materials” and “be more innovative.” The reason numbers three and four are so difficult for partners to answer is because Apple’s brand does not translate to the professional services world very easily, if at all. Why?
1. Apple was Apple because it was created and run for three decades by a creative, maniacal, ruthless genius with a passion for the product. When was the last time you saw a personality like that successfully manage an accounting firm? A law firm? An engineering firm? Autocracy and risk-taking do not play well in a partnership matrix.
2. Apple had focus. Where did that focus come from? You guessed it, that maniacal leader. Often, by the time a partnership gets a consensus on a focus, the result is so watered down that it means nothing.
3. Apple was ruthlessly product-centric. Professional services firms are client-centric. I have met very few consultants, accountants, or architects who are not passionate about solving client issues. Steve Jobs had contempt for his customers. He felt it was up to him to show them what they needed, not the other way around
Many firms want a brand like Apple, but they lack the vision, courage, grit, or culture to create what is behind it. So many people do not know how unique Apple is and how Apple’s brand came to be Apple’s brand. There is much to be learned from Jobs and Apple. History will prove it one of the greatest companies of all time. Don’t try to be the Apple of accountants, lawyers, architects, or any other service firm. How the passions of your firm take form and are delivered is unique to your firm. Build on your own unique strengths, personalities, and peccadilloes.
Let Apple be Apple. Focus on YOUR passion. You, your firm, your industry, and your clients will be better for it.