The post-recession state of professional services branding is like living in a bland, empty room. Wherever we look, we see reduced brand activity and sameness. Once creative and compelling, professional service brands (via websites, advertising and other channels) now seem less visible. Sadly, it appears to us that both the quality and quantity of firm branding efforts are regressing.
Are past failed efforts to blame? Is the stumbling economy a disincentive to act? Or is it the pendulum swing to business development, the tremendous pressure on CMOs to drive revenue? Has anyone else noticed the fall off in brand awareness and memorability? Do we still believe brand is critical to creating preference?
Good questions, we thought. So we polled CMOs and CEOs at law, accounting and consulting firms around the world for their opinions. Respondents included leaders of local, regional, national and international firms with an average size of 382 professionals (full survey results at http://www.greenfieldbelser.com/research-page/brand-regression#).
Questions, answers and insights
Here, we’ve summarized four of the most important findings, including the questions asked, the answers received and the top line takeaways.
1. Brand Health. We asked how important is brand to the success of your firm, how helpful is your brand in achieving that success, and is your brand understood by key audiences?
- 95% of CMOs and 92% of CEOs/managing partners believe their brand is moderately or extremely important to success
- But only 26% find their brand “very helpful”
- On understanding, only 21% replied that their brands were well or perfectly understood by prospects.
The takeaway? Yikes! How can something perceived to be so important yield such poor scores in helpfulness and understanding? In live presentations of these findings, some of our CMO friends suggest that the answer lies in the degree of difficulty of executing branding efforts properly in any professional services firm.
One respondent shared this comment, “These days if you wish to undertake any sort of brand exercise, it must be titled ‘Strategic Positioning Initiative’ to avoid the factious response that sometimes arrives as talk turns to brand.”
Whatever you call it, our view is that pioneering brand efforts among professional service firms have given way to safer, less expensive efforts that suffer from unoriginality and are easy to ignore. Conventional wisdom suggests that in times of recession it’s better to tighten the belt and cut marketing and branding expenditures to focus on sales. However, when firms stop investing in the brand and marketing, they have fewer opportunities to sell. Healthy firms require strong commitment to both brand/marketing and business development—they go hand in hand.
2. Brand Distinction. Is your brand promise—the value proposition—unique? Is your brand expression (look, feel and voice) unique? Do you consider your brand to be innovative?
- Only 20%say their brands are “very” or “extremely innovative.”
- 66% respond that their promise of value is “marginally” or “moderately unique.”
- 54% say their brand identity or expression is “marginally” or “moderately unique.”
The takeaway? Unicorns and innovative brands are as rare as hens’ teeth. Again, responding CMOs and CEOs believe brands are important to success but say uniqueness is hard to come by in the professional services space. Perhaps this relates to the fact that lawyers and law firms typically follow precedent (and one another). Meanwhile, marketers toil in the business of awareness building and differentiation.
That’s the rub. The most innovative firms and best marketers have the courage to take risks, break with convention, and inspire interest in the brand among their audience.
3. Brand Quality. How do you rate the quality of your firm’s brand communication tools (things like websites, advertising, content marketing, etc.)?
On a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) CEOs and CMOs graded their own efforts:
- they gave websites a mean rating of 3.6 on the five point scale
- core identity (logo and such) scored 3.5
- proposal and pitch materials were 3.5
- videos, 3.1
- thought leadership and content marketing, 2.8
- advertising, 2.8
- social media, 2.5
The takeaway? On average, brand communications quality is, well, average. Given the Type-A personalities in leading professional services firms—those accustomed to performing at the head of their class and fields—the low scores might be hard to figure. But the effect of the economy sheds light on the tough grading. During the great recession, we saw marketing attention focused heavily on business development. And why wouldn’t we? During that time, sales were hard to come by as firms hunkered down among bleak predictions. We saw marketing communication investment devalued and more do-it-yourself branding within firms. Yes, that led to savings, but at what cost to quality, awareness, memorability and preference for firms?
Previous research shows that professional services firm clients and prospects have preconceived and immediate feelings about the quality of a firm solely based on the quality of brand communications. This, in turn, can have a noticeable impact on opportunities and on revenue.
4. Brand channels and investments. Which communication channels are most important and where do the greatest investments go?
- 85% believe firm websites are the most important channel; 92% say it is the greatest area of investment.
- 67% rate proposals and pitch material as the second most important channel; but only 30% say it is an area of greatest investment.
- 59% say substantive alerts, speaking and thought leadership are very important; 32% indicate investments here are highest.
- 35% viewed firm and practice advertising as most important; 45% reported it as an area of greatest investment.
The takeaway? Tuning the channels for the clearest return is a challenge. Website investment matches its perceived importance (shocker) but other communications are either overfunded or underfunded relative to perceived importance. Major events are viewed as much less important but still command a disproportionate financial commitment (boondoggle, anyone?). Pitch materials are not getting the love CMOs and CEOs feel they deserve and blue sky thought leadership is short-changed, as well.
What to do about brand progression?
While our study and data does not prove that branding in the business-to-business services sector has regressed following the recession, it does confirm that there is significant room for improvement for professional services firms.
Firms can advance their branding by considering these three tips:
1. Increase investments in marketing and business development simultaneously:We should start by mentioning that, increasing investments does not always demand higher dollar figure. It could (and often should) be a reallocation of funds from unimportant or ineffective programs to the ones that have the most impact. Think of it as finding couch money; the dollars and cents may be rattling around your firm, but you need to collect them from underneath the cushions and spend them wisely. This often requires doing less and doing it better.
2. Have the courage to do memorable, engaging and high quality brand communications. The great ad man, David Ogilvy, said, “You can’t bore people into buying your product or service.” Firms need to take greater creative risks in order to achieve differentiation. For those of you who see branding as lipstick or worse, take the words of another “counsel.” Andy Warhol commented, “I may be superficial, but I’m deeply superficial.”
3. Demand that the investments made in marketing and business development yield measurable results: When better branding initiatives are carried out, leads increase and create an improved conversion ratio. Our study looked at brand tracking and found that the bottom line is that few in the professional services have the patience or budgets to do tracking research well(link to the study is below).
For brand skeptics, keep this in mind—following the U.S. Stock Market crash of 1987, Nike tripled its marketing spend and emerged from the recession with profits nine times higher than before the recession started. Yes, we know Nike is not a legal, accounting or consulting firm, but they are great at executing groundbreaking marketing plans—.And you have to admit a 9x increase in profits is a compelling argument to “just do it.”