How do we make our brand stand out when we are all doing the same thing?
Posted by Bob Mytton
This is a question I've heard many times from people in professional services. In this article, I wanted to share some thoughts about building a brand so it can be easily recognised, remembered and understood.
Branding legal or financial services is different to other sectors. In our 23 years of creating and refreshing brand identities and developing brand campaigns, Mytton Williams has worked with many professional services companies and advised on how to identify and communicate key points of difference. When we review this sector, it does confirm just how blurry and cluttered the competitive landscape can be. Although every company is unique when you get to know it inside, at first glance, financial and legal services often appear pretty much the same to the outside world. This is a risky situation when customers have little time to discern more deeply when they have other interests, or need to rush a decision when it becomes an urgent priority. But that blurry crowd of similarity provides a significant opportunity to gain competitive advantage by investing in a strong and memorable brand that stands out. A well-conceived brand identity becomes a powerful strategic asset. If yours is blending into the competitive wall-paper, it is not performing.
So if you want your brand to stand out, where do we start? A strong brand conveys the recognisable face and values of a company. As such it must represent the people and internal practices as much as the strategic plan. The starting point is therefore uncovering that uniqueness inside each company. Many professional services firms begin with very similar terms they want to convey, such as “we are high quality, we work with integrity”. These are not distinctive or surprising and give us little to work with. To get beyond the obvious, we need to delve deeper to reveal what is at the heart of an organisation. Finding and accentuating this alongside the nuances will give us the ability to create something distinctive that will have competitive substance and longevity. To do that initial discovery process, we need to make sense of the intentions inside a company and the perceptions of it on the outside.
Internal engagement and involvement
We start by looking inside a company, as we find success in branding is as much about having good internal engagement as having the right external design agency. If your team has no real momentum or vision to step-up and change, a brand experience will be lack-lustre. If internal processes are preventing decisions and slowed by risk-aversion and compromise, fresh and bold ideas will never flow through. If the timing is wrong and the budget gives room for nothing but tinkering, any brand project will struggle. And if the senior team believe that branding is just expensive window-dressing, that is highly likely to become the self-fulfilling end result. These internal realities have to be faced, and an initial indicator of whether any company is serious about brand can be revealed by asking: who will be involved in a brand project?
Elevating a brand to really stand out or launching a significant brand campaign is a strategic exercise. It doesn’t just need a point-of-contact person to pass design ideas and comments back-and-forth. Key stakeholders must be brought on board early. For bigger brand projects, that means inviting a selected group of Partners, Directors, those who develop new business, and those who deal with existing customers, to work alongside the people that handle your brand and marketing internally. This core brand team will have shared responsibility for being involved in the process and ensuring the outcomes will meet a range of immediate and longer-term needs. To inform this core team, we also interview a wider set of stakeholders across the business and a cross-section of customers. As outsiders, we will hear the core themes that people are raising without us having any internal biases. Themes might reveal problems that are being experienced or fears about changing a brand, but they also capture perceived strengths and an initial collection of ideas about ways to improve.
As we facilitate this network of involvement from the very beginning, projects gain from the benefits of co-design. It gets people involved early and gives them a chance to have their say. It also provides an opportunity to explain the process and the importance of building the brand. If your previous experience has been one of isolation, trying to lead a brand project by negotiating the likes and dislikes of the Board, we would advise you to think again. How might you spread responsibility for branding more actively? Managing Partners and CEOs need to be on-board and ready to lead the discussion and champion brand development work.
Start from your strengths
As a recent report from AccentureStrategy confirms (based on nearly 30,000 interviews across 35 countries), consumers are not just making decisions based on lists of features or prices; they are assessing what a brand says, what it does, and what it stands for. But before we get carried away with the influential importance of brands, we also know that Partners and Directors get nervous about allocating large budgets for complete rebrands. This is understandable. Whilst we don’t support tinkering with brands, because it inevitably creates more of a mess, it is important to say that refreshing your brand communications to make them stand out is not always about changing everything. In fact, the solution for many of our clients is more often about making the best elements of an existing brand work harder.
More magic, less logic
Competitor analysis will show how your firm is sitting among others and confirm the strongest and weakest elements. It will reflect how your company appears from the outside when compared to others – which can be surprisingly revelatory. It also reveals to us where we can add a unique creative way to buck trends or fill a gap. Data is increasingly being used to provide feedback on what’s working and what isn’t, but the logic of data does not provide the magic power of a great creative idea that works intuitively as well as rationally. As Bill Bernbach, a creative director who changed the face of advertising with his unconventional approaches, said: “logic is hopeless in marketing – you will end up in the same place as your competitors.”
Create distinctive brand assets
What an external competitor review also reveals is the visual noise that your company is trying to stand out from. The customer experience of a service – the people customers meet, the way they are talked to, the processes they go through, the value they receive – is where a brand delivers on its promises. But before that can happen, a prospective customer has to make a choice of who to turn to. In sectors with broadly similar service offers, visual distinctiveness waves a flag that attracts attention. This does not mean the graphics equivalent of donning fancy dress. Brands have many visual components and, like a well-tailored suit, they can be tuned just as effectively with sophistication and subtlety to create an impact. The deployment of a distinctive name, strap-line, specific style of photography, illustration or typography can all be effective. And it can be about having a very distinctive logo or symbol. A well-curated combination of these brand assets builds a unique company toolbox that can cope with the demands of delivering anything from as small as a twitter icon to as big as a billboard.
One component of that visual stand out toolbox is colour. Humans recognise colour, then shape, then words, as they hone down and decipher visual information. Colour should not be under-estimated and should not be left to the personal preferences of the Board. Research shows that a distinctive colour increases brand recognition by up to 80%. Established sectors tend to have traditional colour schemes, for example in law and accountancy there is a dominance of blue. Stepping away from the dominant colours of your sector will create stand-out. If you become the only bright and bold company with your colours, every time you are seen there is an improved chance that even a casual glance reinforces a simple mental recall.
Once there is a distinctive set of brand assets reflecting the genuinely unique position of your company, we get to the importance of applying them consistently over time. A good brand gets stronger over months and years with a combination of long-term brand-building activities and short-term sales campaigns across multiple channels. But, often with the best of intentions, sales campaigns are especially susceptible to wandering off course as teams want to try something different. Combine that with similar intentions for recruitment campaigns, press campaigns, and internal communications that all start going in their own directions. Over time this will create a muddled inconsistency to the outside world as well as your staff. It presents a barrier to standing out and will suggest a company that lacks confidence and stability – two traits that are paramount to professional services.
Maintaining consistency does not mean applying a straight-jacket to a brand by enforcing exactly the same cookie-cutter layouts and formats repeated again and again. Yes, there will be a company name, a logo and a colour scheme to maintain. Successful brands rarely change these elements without exceptional reasons. For example, the Coca-Cola logo has not changed significantly since 1900, and Tiffany has been using its recognisable duck-egg blue since 1845. But consistency is less about internal policing to ensure a logo is in the same place and more about designing campaigns so that people collectively remember and share the core idea.
With a core consistency, brands then do have flexibility in how their tone of voice can be adapted and campaign calls-to-action can be designed appropriately to resonate with specific audiences or situations. It takes time to build this, but legal and financial services companies play a longer game to their advantage. Other sectors, particularly fast moving consumer goods, often need new and quirky ways to grab attention that leads to an immediate purchase decision. Professional services work differently, building trust and reputation with repeat-business relationships over time. In these circumstances, a crucial role for a brand is to support the recall of a name and a positive association at a later date. Consistency will lock-in that memorability.
Capitalise on the little details
Brands aren’t static. Every moment of a customer’s brand experience is important, from how you draw their initial attention, to how you respond to their needs and then maintain an ongoing relationship. But like bad coffee on arrival at a conference, a high-price product delivered in a cheap box, or a friendly sales conversation followed by overly confusing forms, what might seem like the small stuff in that customer experience is worth sweating over. Little frictions, frustrations and contradictions will undermine your investments in consistency. Look out and listen for them. In markets where the main purchase features are of similar quality, the small differences are where you can really stand out. There is the opportunity to surprise and delight people with careful attention to detail that goes above and beyond their expectations. And that creates brand experiences they will remember and then recommend.
This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of PM Magazine, published by Practice Management International LLP