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September 2020

Branding and marketing in professional services: who’s getting it right?

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For a sector that’s sophisticated and future-facing in lots of ways, it often surprises us how disjointed and confusing professional services branding and marketing can be. Although this shouldn’t really be surprising. The sector has changed beyond recognition in the last few years as firms and consultancies have merged and the services and products they offer have converged. With such rapid change it isn’t always practical to rebrand at every stage, and so the proposition has been altered in a piecemeal way as they’ve gone along.

We’ve looked at some of the themes that have emerged in our work within this sector, seeing what’s great in branding, communications and marketing. Here are our six top tips of things for professional services firms to remember when considering visual identity, graduate recruitment, diversity and inclusion, how you communicate your difference, and your relationship with technology. It all says a lot more than you might think about what sort of company you are.

1. Is it a consultant? Is it a lawyer? No… it’s superman…

A decade ago, lawyers did legal stuff, accountants did money stuff and management consultants did advisory stuff. It was simple to know who you were and what you did. The Legal Services Act of 2007 and alternative business structures changed all that. Professional services firms now had everything to play for and previously distinct sectors converged as firms began to offer a mix of legal, consulting and auditing services under one roof. The question became less about specific services and more about the many ways you could become a trusted adviser to clients.

The large-scale accountancy firms turned consultancies have forced the sector to reimagine what law is about. Their work ultimately supports business value and change but, with that, legal implications are inevitable. They talk about the ‘future of law’, and they see themselves as a key part of it. So what does this mean for the big law firms? It turns out they’re giving consultancies a run for their money too, consciously repositioning themselves as both lawyers and consultants – not just knowing the law but solving clients’ tough commercial challenges and creating new business opportunities. For professional services, it’s no longer about a particular discipline but about helping clients better manage their businesses, whatever that requires.

The sector will only continue to converge. Your story needs sophistication and to really focus on what clients want. Focus on being business partners and trusted advisers. Focus on being the ones who will move clients forward. Don’t stay doggedly where you are, or you’ll soon get left behind.

2. Keepin’ it real

the best examples are from firms that strip things back

As the sector changes, so does the way firms present themselves visually and things have become a lot more sophisticated. Those doing it well present a credible and authentic view of themselves that’s also dynamic and human. They have a visual framework with elements that don’t really change, but that give space to flex using different themes and messages, so they’re not having to reinvent the wheel with every business adjustment.

Colour and symbols can say a lot about who you are, but don’t overdo it. The best examples are from firms that strip things back – black text with white space, with symbols and company logos in strong, recognisable shapes and accent colours that give immediate brand familiarity. By keeping this simple overall framework, you provide clarity and content becomes the star. It gives flexibility to use a variety of media and push people easily to different areas of the site too.

This flexible framework allows a more human element as well. Firms talk about people being their greatest strength but don’t always match the claim visually. Include authentic people photography as part of your content. No poses and no set ups. People should be enjoying themselves, but not all grinning like idiots because that’s not natural either. Use your people – the real faces of your firm are much more powerful and engaging. And show their faces – not doing so just looks creepy – so no backs or moody silhouettes. Finally, not too many metaphorical action shots. Do you really spend your average working day staring into the distance in polar gear on a mountain top? Thought not.

 the best examples are from firms that strip things back

3. It’s not all about you

In the past, size was about reassurance. The bigger the better. You’re not just international but global. You’re not leading but pre-eminent. You’ve got 30 offices in 150 countries and 2,880 lawyers (your competitor only has 2,800 – losers). Merged firms are even keener to talk big. For those who can’t compete on size, it’s more about their advice – high quality, or even the highest quality. And they always exceed client expectations, building relationships that last. Nice, but not distinctive.

We’d also say that it’s not what clients want to hear, because it’s not all about you. It’s about the value you bring to their businesses to help them progress. As the world changes, transformation is a buzzword in the messaging of many top firms. Some help clients solve challenges – a singular message that’s powerful and relevant. Others go further and talk about making change, defining the future – ambitious and exciting. Others talk about understanding and navigating change in a turbulent world.

That’s all good but change can be uncomfortable. For businesses it’s daunting, uncertain and often seems faceless. By talking about change in a positive way and supporting your message with people imagery that’s characterful you’ll stand out. You’ll connect and engage on a human level with your clients, who will know you’re here to support them. It gives a sense of what it could be like working with you. Most importantly, it gives a distinctive warmth and personality that is lacking from those firms who focus purely on change’s technological and turbulent side.

4. Your recruitment mantra

There’s a new breed of graduate in town. They’re switched on and can spot corporate spin at a hundred paces. So how do you attract them?

Remember this mantra and you won’t go wrong: be authentic, be credible. Your recruitment brand can be different, but it must still feel like part of the family. It’s unsettling to look at a corporate site and then find the recruitment site looks completely different. What are you hiding? The promise should reflect reality. Give your recruitment brand flexibility to feel fresh but don’t stray too far from who you really are.

Be honest and give your audience credit. No-one applying for a career in professional services expects to be leaving on the dot of 5 every day. This lot know it’s challenging – that’s why they’re applying – so don’t be afraid to mention the late nights.

Experiment with media. It can be hard to maintain interest, but brands that do best keep it varied. Compelling personality quizzes and stylish videos are an opportunity to give a flavour of what it really might be like to work with you. Keep things short, simple and visually engaging (but not too slick – remember your mantra).

It’s a given that everyone wants the best people, but don’t put people off with an aggressive ‘we want this type’ approach. If you focus on hiring great individuals – whoever and wherever they may be – and give graduates the chance to see how and where their skills and personalities might fit, you’ll succeed in attracting the most diverse range of top-quality candidates.

5. Working out your tech strategy

you need a point of view on how technology affects your clients

Technology is everywhere and can be overwhelming. It’s changing how we work, how we price and procure, it’s redefining service levels and it’s creating new opportunities. Start with your business strategy. What does your approach mean for brand communications? What markets are you in and how is technology affecting them? How do you use technology to improve service levels? Support this with a clear brand strategy, particularly when considering sub-brands for technology-focused products and services. So, what type of firm are you?

The ‘experts’ are thought leaders and facilitators. For thought leaders, technology is the hot topic and they’ve a strong point of view on it. Several law firms have become specialists here. The facilitators create products and services that encourage technological collaboration and help their clients navigate transformation. Legal AI and Innovation Hubs are good examples. To be a successful expert, you need a point of view on how technology affects your clients. As it’s core to your business it should sit across all communications.

The ‘disrupters’ use technology to alter business models, start-ups whose value proposition is to challenge traditional ways of working. Many have distinct identities to distance themselves from the masterbrand. The key to success here is to consider your brand architecture – will a sub-brand that’s too far away from the masterbrand confuse clients, or is there a reputational risk if it’s too closely associated with a masterbrand that may be seen as old-fashioned and less innovative?

Finally, the ‘transformers’ use solutions to engage clients in new ways. Messaging is really important. Your technology may be transforming service levels, but how and where do you talk about it? Be clear about the real value that your approach brings and make sure you articulate this clearly so that you stand apart from others in the space.

Whatever path you take, invest in it and say it with conviction.

you need a point of view on how technology affects your clients

6. Diversity + inclusion ≠ rainbows

Everyone’s talking about diversity and inclusion. If it’s not something your company already thinks about, it should do. But doing it with sophistication and authenticity is harder than you think. Even those companies who do other things well talk about it as a separate ‘thing’ using whispered tones in a dusty corner of the website. Contrived visual clichés abound. Hands of different skin colours. One person from every race chatting in an office breakout space together (and at least one’s a woman too). Lots of rainbows – metaphorical (multicoloured balloons, umbrellas…) or otherwise. Why the rainbow? It’s the Pride symbol, of course, and for many it has become a corporate shorthand for ‘we’re diverse’ and it’s painted across everything. This misses the point. Diversity is about so much more than LGBTQ+. It isn’t about gender or sexuality or race, but about every individual flourishing in your workplace. It’s about defying preconceptions, showing respect and encouraging a workforce to be open with each other.

Some bigger firms do it better. They’re sophisticated, embedding diversity in their messaging and visual brand by focusing on individuality. It’s business as normal. They talk about equality driving innovation and about the benefits that unique human qualities bring. They show through film and imagery that some differences are obvious but others aren’t, and it doesn’t matter. Diversity and inclusion is about many different things and everyone has their own challenges. By talking about it in these terms, by telling a broad range of individual stories, diversity becomes genuine and authentic, rather than added on and clichéd.

Conclusion

So, it’s a world of change out there for professional services. The old rules no longer apply. You need to think about your clients, what they want and need and how well your brand represents that. Keep your visual brand authentic and make it human. In your messaging think about the value you add – it’s far more interesting than talking about yourself. When it comes to graduate talent, be honest and don’t stray too far from who you really are. Technology shouldn’t be overwhelming. Think about the role you play in technological change and how your brand and technology work together. Finally, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, don’t fall into the clichés trap. Make it real and embed it across your communications. Do these things, and you’ll have a brand that can weather further change and stand out from the rest.

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