Branding to distinguish yourself from the herd

Filed under: Focus |

“A branding program should be designed to differentiate your cow from all the other cattle on the range. Even if all the cattle on the range look pretty much alike.” -Al Ries, Branding Authority

Branding is an effective way to distinguish your company from the herd of professional service providers and consultants. Whether you are in accounting, law, IT, training or management consulting, it is just as important to brand your business as it is for a rancher to brand his cattle. Branding is about getting your market to see your company as their preferred cow.

Listen to the Customer

Are you selling what customers are buying? According to Alan Weiss, author of “How to Establish a Unique Brand in the Consulting Profession,” “brand elements should be examined in terms of what has attracted someone to you, not what attracts you to yourself.” Unfortunately, many of us in the world of professional services are so married to our own methods and approaches that we don’t take a long, hard look at what we are selling when we encounter “sales and marketing” problems.

Remember, sales are made in the mind of the customer. Successful brands sell you more than a product or service – they sell you an experience. Diamond maker DeBeers sells romance; Nike sells self-actualization, Disney sells family fun and Starbucks sells time to relax. As Howard Schultz, chairman and chief global strategist of Starbucks, puts it, “we’ve known for a long time now that Starbucks is more than just a wonderful cup of coffee. It’s the experience.” A critical component of a successful brand is listening to the customer, understanding the value and experience they are looking for and differentiating yourself from the herd in delivering it.

Create Your Brand

Once you understand the voice of the customer, explore your brand essence. Who are you and what do you stand for? What value do your customers seek from you? Which services do you sell most often? Why do people refer business to you? Where does your passion and popularity converge? Define what your business is and what it is not.

Your company name, tagline, logo and description should convey your focus, communicate your value through your customers’ eyes, and promise delivery of that value. FedEx’s “Absolutely, Positively Overnight” campaign differentiated FedEx from its competitors and defined its value through the eyes of the customer while making a promise. Likewise, while the Energizer Bunny keeps going and going, the customer identifies with both the value and the promise of the brand.

Position Your Brand

One of the most difficult issues with professional services branding is deciding how to position your brand and services. Weiss outlines several options that you can use singularly or mix and match. You can build a brand on your company identity (i.e. McKinsey, Accenture, etc.), on groups of services (works best for a generalist), on a single service (turnaround consultants, Telephone Doctor, etc.) or on a personal name (Tom Peters, Alan Weiss, etc.). What’s important here is that you do more than provide a laundry list of services. You must purposefully consider how you want to position your brand.

Of equal importance in professional services is making sure that you make the intangible tangible. Do customers want to help their employees embrace new technology, or do they want a five-day application training course? Do they want a proven methodology for helping leadership teams do the right things, the right way, or do they want Six Sigma tools? Do they want a full range of offerings designed to address common legacy-related challenges, or do they want someone to help them convert data from old systems to new systems?

This intangible communication is so prevalent in professional services, that Deloitte created Bullfighter, a fun, free Word and PowerPoint application designed “to strip the bull out of business” by checking jargon and readability. So, in positioning your services, clearly let your customers know what you do and the value they’ll receive.

Communicate Your Brand

It is not enough to merely decide on a brand – you must communicate it. This encompasses not only your traditional marketing materials such as business cards, brochures and presentations, but also the total experience of doing business with you . . . how you answer the phone, respond to requests and interact with the customer. In most professional service firms, these latter experiences often carry more weight than a snazzy tagline or a flashy Web site. Another effective way to communicate your brand is to become a thought leader of that niche by authoring newsletters, white papers, blogs, articles and books, as well as speaking at industry conferences. In this relationship-based business, many consultants swear by offering a free “assessment” or “profile” to get in the door and prove their value.

Stay Consistent

Who will leave the light on for you? You probably know this because Motel 6 has been saying it for 40 years. Marketing is not a one-time event. How can you consistently and continuously engage your customers in your brand? Unlike corporations with enormous advertising campaigns to market products, professional service firms need to be creative with how they touch their customers. Be disciplined in your brand and marketing – communicate your brand in every article, every newsletter, every meeting, every Web page and every phone call.

It’s time to take out the branding iron and stamp your business with its own unique identity – and in the words of Professor Jean-Noel Kapferer, author of “(Re)Inventing the Brand” – time to “replace conformity and the ‘herd’ mentality with the philosophy of the brand. After all, a brand’s strength is built upon its determination to promote its own distinctive values and mission.”

Lisa Travis is president of Adelante Consulting. For information, visit Adelante at or email Lisa at