Your firm’s brand is arguably its most valuable asset. This is our mantra. We preach this to our own audience. All. The. Time. We are used to hearing that a firm’s most important asset is its people, not necessarily the brand. But people come and go. And unless an individual’s reputation and industry presence is so strong that they impact the entire firm’s marketplace position, “people” only get you so far. Your brand is what prevails over time and beats the competition.
Strong brands hinge on strong differentiators. Differentiators are the foundational components of communicating your brand clearly and consistently. If there is no difference between what you say about your firm and what competitors say about their firms, you have a weak brand. Unfortunately, this can have a negative impact on your firm’s growth and profitability. High growth firms are 3X more likely to have a strong, easy-to-understand differentiator.
And within the realm of professional services, technology services firms struggle to articulate the right technology differentiator. With often complex service offerings with even more complex acronyms and terminology that describe those service offerings, technology firms too often fall back on differentiating around being a “trusted partner” and having “best in class people.”
Here is a quick test to see if you have a true technology differentiator. Think of some way you believe your firm is different. Then ask if a potential competitor could ever say the opposite. If the answer is “no,” it is probably not a good differentiator (this is why having great people and offering great client service don’t pass this test).
Let’s first peel away some very common misconceptions about what makes a bonafide technology differentiator:
Your differentiator is not your firm’s name
Your differentiator is not your logo or tagline
Your differentiator is not your website or marketing collateral
Your differentiator is not your mission statement, culture, or core values
Your differentiator is not your “people”
Instead, each of these are tools that help your differentiator communicate your brand. But they are not differentiators in and of themselves. How do you then come up with relevant differentiators, ones that support your brand and help you stand out in the marketplace? Our research points to five key factors around which firms should consider building their differentiators to achieve brand strength:
1. A Well-Defined Target Audience
While it’s tempting to think of your firm’s differentiators as having universal appeal, it’s rarely the case. It’s far more strategic to build your differentiators around a clearly defined and well-understood target market. To be meaningful, a differentiator must be relevant to “someone.” No differentiator can try to be relevant to everyone. Many professional services firms are reluctant to specify a target audience. They do so at their own disadvantage.
2. Relevance to the Success of the Target Audience
Your differentiator must also be seen as being relevant to the success of your client. It’s not enough to be nice people or even knowledgeable and helpful. Those fall into the “nice-to-have” category. The real driver of a successful brand through relevant differentiation is your ability to define the problem, solve the problem, and make your clients successful. You aren’t just a bystander; you are a contributor to your clients’ success.
3. Proof through Marketing with Informative Content
Content marketing involves providing a steady stream of useful information to potential clients or influencers. Think educational rather than promotional. Over time, potential clients learn how you approach problems and develop trust in your firm. When they need assistance, your firm is at the top of their list. Content marketing relies on winning clients by sharing something of value rather than trying to persuade or “sell” them. As such, it is a great way to call out your differentiators, build a brand, and generate leads.
4. Promotion of Your Domain Experts
While your people in general are not a strong differentiator on which to hang your brand, many firms have legitimate experts that become well known and influential among their target client group. While small in number, we call these fortunate few Visible Experts℠. By deliberately developing one or more of these high-profile experts, a firm can dramatically increase the power of its brand.
The strength of a Visible Expert’s personal brand transfers to the entire firm by virtue of the “Halo Effect,” so well known in the marketing community. In the same way, as a university becomes more prestigious when it has a Nobel Prize winning faculty member, so too a professional services firm benefits by having a nationally known, high-profile expert on its team.
5. Soul Searching Your Expertise
What industry verticals do you already have strength in? What kind of services are you good at delivering? Where do you offer the most value and enjoy the greatest success? Most established firms have a large number of industry/service combinations to consider, since growth has often been opportunistic.
Because the differentiators on which you develop your brand are so central to the ongoing success of your firm, they should be a matter of focus and investment. In reality, this is rarely the case. Because so few competitors are giving brand building and differentiators the attention they require, you have a great opportunity to benefit and gain a meaningful competitive advantage.
Use the Brand Building Guide below to find more tips to differentiate your firm.