Wednesday 18 May 2016,

Your brand is meant to help set you apart from your competitors - help your targets and clients distinguish you from the rest. In professional services, differentiation is almost impossible. An audit, is an audit, is an audit. In fact 90% of what you do is the same as your competitors. Even our descriptors are the same; we're all commercial, and we all understand our clients business. Lee Grunnel (Thirteen) and Ingrid Brown (Emperor) shared with us three steps that will help your firm discover and display the 10% that shows how you are truly RAD (relevant, authentic, distinctive) - that is to articulate, communicate and demonstrate what makes you truly distinctive.

1. Articulate
Lee and Ingrid first suggest you begin by answering the following questions about your firm:

  • What do people know about you?
  • What don't people know about you?
  • What should people know about you?

In order to answer these questions, you need to think about what it's like working for or with your firm; uncovering the nuggets that encapsulate your brand by sifting through quotes, directories, awards submissions and feedback from client and employee surveys. This should help to carve out and articulate your mission and purpose, core messages, and brand proposition; that is who are you, what do you do, and why you do it?

The Financial Crisis brought about high levels of mistrust in professional services making authenticity key when articulating your brand’s purpose. A useful step to consider is why you (or the founder) started the business. Narrowing down the 'why' of your firm provides a sense of purpose which can guide consistent decision making and behaviour throughout the business. Lee and Ingrid used Virgin as a great example of this in a B2C context. Although Virgin operates within a wide range of industries including airlines, telecommunications, and tourism, their underlying purpose and the guidance to their decisions is that they exist to better the life of the consumer. As a result any Virgin business focuses on customer service and experience, boasting to provide a better experience than their competitors, as well as funnelling this message through all client touch points. In the professional services industry, this may translate to focusing on helping clients to grow. Such a firm would only bid for work with businesses that are looking to grow or innovate. While the firm may now bid for less work than before, they will win a higher percentage of the work they do bid for as they will be better suited to those businesses. Furthermore high growth and innovative businesses will seek to work with that firm, knowing what they stand for and the compatibility that exists between them.

2. Communicate
Once you have identified what your brand is and can articulate it clearly and consistently, this second step considers how to create a story that meets the needs of all your stakeholders.

Lee and Ingrid explain how simple this is, but note that many firms fail at this point. Put simply, they advise that firms should create their brand story and then 'turn the volume up or down' accordingly; that is, tweak the main story according to your audience and what they care about or how much information they need. Don't be afraid to go slightly off the central message. If your purpose and brand is strong, the underlying message will remain consistent even as you highlight relevant points of the story, and mute other points. 

Where firms fail at this point is where they only say what they are doing, but do not do what they are saying. Your brand message must flow throughout the business to the actions of your employees, and through all your channels of communication. This is best achieved by defining the firms' values. These values are a firms' DNA and should go beyond what the client expects e.g. honesty, integrity, teamwork, and should come from the bottom up to ensure authenticity. Look to select values that draw out specific behaviours. If you can write down how you would demonstrate each value with a new client, then the values have passed the test.

3. Demonstrate
The final step is to demonstrate the brand message and values that you have defined. Lee asked the audience: Do you want your client to feel like they could be dealing with anyone? And how do you demonstrate you are distinctive across all of your touchpoints?

To ensure that what your client is experiencing is uniquely you, consider how you currently reward your employees. Often it is the high billers who are promoted, however it may be wise to reward those who truly live and breathe your brand promise.

Client experience and client journey planning is also becoming more important and is a great way to be distinctive. An IBM study found that Millennials' number one factor in buying services is a seamless client experience. Looking at your client experience and journey enables you to see all the client touch points, and determine where and how you can interact with the client in a distinctive way to make the biggest impact. Lee noted that the only firm in professional services industry currently openly looking at the client experience and journey is Grant Thornton.

Ingrid has set out the 4 Ps for ways to differentiate: 

  1. Your people - relates to attributes
  2. Your processes - relates to how you work and bespoke processes
  3. Your physical environment - relates to your essence and aura i.e. How people feel when they are with you or in your space/office/building
  4. Your purpose - relates to your beliefs and provides people with an emotional connection which strengthens their desire to work with you.

Lee and Ingrid summarised their insightful steps and tips with two statements. Firstly, that creating a brand is about the rigorous process you go through, not just having a great idea or light bulb moment. And secondly, that it's about finding the things in your firm that already exists - that 10% that make you distinctive.

Bunmi Ogunbona
Grant Thornton International Ltd