The reason why simple messages are no longer enough to attract attention in the professional services is because you need to create a brand.

Differentiating your brand is important because it helps you create a unique identity in the marketplace. Brand differentiation is the process of making your brand stand out from your competitors.

There are many ways to do this, but some of the most effective include developing a unique selling proposition, creating a strong visual identity, and building a reputation for quality and customer service.

All of the questions mentioned are important and deserve to be looked at closely. Now let’s go over everything that professional services firms need to be aware of.

Brand Differentiation Defined

Over the course of your company’s life, you will experience significant changes in your operations.

Your employees will inevitably leave, taking their unique perspectives and valuable knowledge and expertise along with them. The one thing that remains the same is that you need to be constantly on the lookout for change, and you need to adapt to it in order to stay ahead of the curve. Being in a professional service means that the landscape is always changing. Your competitors, your clients, and your employees will change and you need to be able to adapt to those changes to stay ahead.

The thing that gave your business an edge at the beginning may not be important anymore. Your competitive advantage is gone.

It is important to remember that brand differentiation is your competitive advantage.

Your company’s USP is what sets it apart from other businesses. However, the marketplace is constantly changing, so what distinguished you in the past might not be relevant now.

Differentiation is a process that never stops. You always have to be looking at the marketplace and examining your company to make sure you’re in a good position to succeed.

Why is Differentiation So Important

There is a strong correlation between firms that experience high growth and those that have a strong differentiator.

A strong brand differentiation strategy not only sets a company apart from its competitors, but also allows it to be more specific in its marketing efforts, targeting the most relevant audiences.

If you don’t have anything that makes your product or company stand out, the only way to compete is on price, which can quickly turn into a competition to see who can sell for the lowest price.

Broadly speaking, your professional services brand’s unique selling points are its most valuable assets. They help you connect with potential customers and industry leaders, and they ultimately shape your reputation and how quickly you can grow.

For many years, companies that provide professional services have been using boring messages that do not make a strong impression or last in the minds of their customers.

They were successful in this largely because a thriving economy and high corporate profits resulted in a lot of work in auditing, law, and consulting.

The great recession of 2008 was caused by the mortgage meltdown, followed by weak corporate profits, widespread bankruptcies and belt-tightening in every industry sector.

Accounting, law, and consulting firms were suddenly being asked to either reduce their fees or participate in competitive RFPs just to keep a client relationship.

The challenge was made worse by the erosion of trust due to well publicized fraud in the financial industry, which made professional services firms serving this sector seem less trustworthy.

Consumers are no longer interested in products that are simply imitations of something else. Business leaders want a product that they can trust.

A strong brand can help a professional services firm to weather tough times.

Branding on Table Stakes: Current Professional Services Landscape

We were recently hired by a well-known accounting, tax and advisory firm to help them create a brand strategy.

In order to build a sustainable brand, the firm needed to identify the core attributes that were shared by the two legacy firms. We started the branding process by investigating how other professional services companies approached branding.

When we read these firms’ descriptions of themselves, we were struck by how generic and bland they were. In a time when it’s more critical than ever to stand out, most professional services companies communicate the same boring messages and interchangeable attributes.

An analysis of the top ten accounting firms revealed that six firms built their brands around being focused on the client.

Some key messages that were mentioned revolved around the client experience, creating enduring relationships, and providing attentive service. Some other less important attributes mentioned were value, quality, integrity, and attention to detail.

In the consulting segment, the top firms brand themselves around client service, with a dash of “customized solutions” and “global reach” thrown in.

Law firms’ branding tends to follow a similar pattern. Many large law firms highlight the global scope of their services and pro bono work is often given considerable emphasis.

However, pro bono work is usually presented as an add-on service rather than an essential part of the overall brand message.

There is nothing wrong with being focused on the client, but this does not make a firm much different from others.

If a CEO or CFO thought a company wasn’t thinking about their needs, would they bother hiring that company? It’s unlikely. The same goes for the idea that “quality and integrity” matter.

If many leading businesses adopt this message, would a corporate executive who distrusts businesses that lack quality and integrity hire one of them?

These types of messages are the basics that are necessary just to be in the game. They don’t guarantee success, but most professional services build their brands on these messages.

Worn-Out Differentiators

It can be difficult to identify the qualities that make up your organization’s DNA and define and drive your firm. Stop me if you’ve heard these before:

  • “Our employees set us apart.”
  • “We’re trusted advisors to our clients.”
  • “We strive for excellence.”
  • “We provide fantastic client service.”
  • “We have a proprietary process.”

Perhaps your firm uses one or more of these things that are supposed to make you different from other businesses. You might say that the claim is true – you really do have great employees who provide excellent customer service to your clients.

The key to being a successful differentiator is being authentic.

The Differentiation Test

In fact, there are three qualities every prospective differentiator must have to meet what you might call the differentiation test. They must be:

The things that make you different must be based on reality.

What matters to your clients should be what drives your business decisions. If something is not relevant to your clients, then it is not worth your time and should not be a part of your business.

If someone makes a claim, they should be able to back it up with evidence.

When companies all say they provide great customer service, the best employees, and a unique process, those things become much less important to your customers.

Can you truly prove that you are striving for excellence? What does it mean to strive for excellence anyway?

As stated, some qualities are just the cost of doing business and having good customer service is one of them. Clients usually don’t take this into consideration when choosing a new firm because research has shown that it’s not that important to them.

Breaking Through the Clutter With Content

This challenge is being attempted to be avoided by most of the largest firms by focusing on content marketing instead of traditional channels such as advertising.

For law firms, consultants and accountants, it is becoming increasingly important to have a communications platform that includes whitepapers, videos, webinars, surveys and newsletters.

The reason for this is because buyers of professional services are increasingly ignoring traditional marketing channels that include advertising. They would rather be informed and educated than sold to.

In order to be successful in B2B marketing, it is now necessary to create compelling content rather than just relying on ads or slogans. This is due to the increasing complexity of the environment and the need to stand out from the competition.

It is important to connect with the people who have high-level jobs in an organization in order to be successful in marketing professional services. These people can be difficult to reach, but having content that is valuable to them can help you get their attention.

Building content that targets the C-suite is critical in order to unlock them.

The growing popularity of content as a marketing tool has unfortunately led to one of its challenges: With everyone publishing and distributing content, including the biggest firms who have entire departments devoted to creating whitepapers and other literature, it can be difficult to stand out.

The process of creating, managing, and distributing content is complex and cannot be accomplished simply by publishing an article. The Content Marketing Institute’s most recent survey provides insight into the effort that is required to make content effective for marketing purposes.

We found that very few of the law firm’s clients were aware that they were receiving newsletters and whitepapers from the firm.

producing content that is interesting and innovative while also being able to distribute it effectively is very important. This is where branding comes in and can be very powerful.

Quality should be a prioritized factor for clients when choosing a service provider. Differentiating yourself by having a commitment to quality will set you apart from other providers.

How to Identify a Successful Differentiator

This text is saying that it is important for companies to have a clear brand identity that sets them apart from their competitors, but that this can be difficult to achieve because of factors such as having insufficient or incorrect information.

Although firms may not realize it, their clients are looking for more than just the standard service provide-client relationship. Many firms either don’t perform research or make assumptions based on anecdotal information, so they don’t understand what their clients are looking for from service providers. What their clients are actually seeking is a more than just the standard service provide-client relationship.

We know that differentiation is difficult, but we have seen what does not work. How can you set your company apart by identifying a real and significant differentiator?

One way to create a new differentiator is to identify a characteristic of your firm that already exists and use it to its fullest. Another way to create a new differentiator is to make deliberate choices to differentiate your firm.

Many people feel that it’s difficult to find a truly meaningful differentiator, but we’ve identified 21 distinct types of differentiators. Here are a few examples:

  • Specialization in an industry. This is usually the easiest and most powerful differentiator – it literally proves itself, and by definition, it is relevant to your target audience.
  • Specialization in serving a specific role within your client’s organization. Like industry specialization, this is a self-validating differentiator that can allow you to own a particular niche in the marketplace.
  • Specialization in a particular service. You may be noticing a trend. It’s tough for generalists to set themselves apart, but specialized service providers can position themselves to deliver peerless expertise.
  • A focus on understanding a particular audience. More specifically, a specialization in your clients’ particular audience. That might mean “marketing to baby boomers” or providing financial services to self-employed millennials.
  • A different business model. If you truly do things differently than your competition – offering a subscription-based service in a market that usually doesn’t, say – you’re sure to stand out from the competition.

Building a Differentiated Brand: Where to Start

The key to effective branding is research that focuses on both internal and external audiences, including your staff, clients, and prospects.

Interviews with employees should focus on how they perceive the firm today and where they would like the firm to be in the future.

There is a difference between these two places, which can be bridged with a new brand.

An external interview is an interview that focuses on how the firm is perceived by its most important audiences. This allows for a better understanding of the brand and what it stands for.

Developing a Positioning and Messaging Platform

The unique aspects of your brand need to come together to form a single, unified strategy. This strategy should be clearly stated in a position statement.

The firm’s positioning should be credible and defensible, but also reflect the firm’s aspirations for the future.

The right brand voice will reflect the essence of your firm’s positioning and help turn prospects into clients. The way your company communicates reflects your branding. Are you aggressive and authoritative, or thoughtful and collaborative? Are you cerebral or practical? The right brand voice will help turn prospects into clients by reflecting the true nature of your company.

A message map is a way of planning how a brand will communicate with its audience. It includes a set of core messages that are appropriate for all of the brand’s audience. These messages act as a guide for what the brand wants to communicate.

After we determine who our audiences are, we figure out what message would be most effective for each one. This way, we can develop custom communications for each group without having to guess each time.

About the Author Brian Richards

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