Two clients meet in a bar… “I’m delighted with my new advisory firm,” says one, “their highly proactive and solutions-orientated focus has really exceeded my expectations and their insight and collaborative approach means they add real value to my business.”
It’s amazing how quickly language can extinguish a reader’s interest. There is nothing wrong with the qualities described above; in fact they reflect the aspirations and realities of many of the world’s most successful professional services firms. But even the worthiest of values become dreary and stripped of meaning when they are expressed in the overly familiar clichés that so often characterise the language of B2B marketing.
Take thirty minutes to review the ‘About Us’ section of ten of your closest competitors – it’s probably not the most thrilling half hour you’ll ever spend, but with enough coffee it is possible. Then, imagine you are a prospective client and try to recall which firms stood out, which cultures you were able to imagine vividly, which one of them you would most like to meet. Hopefully one, maybe two left a distinctive impression but I’d hazard a guess that the overall picture was a bit of a blur.
To the candidate, the experience is no better. In fact, because they are approaching it from a more emotional perspective, it’s worse. Corporate brands and employer brands are inseparable – any distinction is arbitrary and wrongly presumes that people consume messages in the way that we want.
But it’s not just the use of dry language that’s the problem; all too often the qualities that professional services firms choose to communicate are themselves derivative and surely must by hygiene factors to any discerning buyer: partnership approach, depth of knowledge, integrity – I should hope so!
Because these themes express no point of difference, they hold no potential for curiosity and emotional engagement. And like it or not, your client’s or candidate’s decisions are every bit as emotional as they are rational. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate in Behavioural Economics, Daniel Kahneman, clearly demonstrates that even the most complex choices are subject to deep-seated emotional biases.
In reality, we all know that clients or talent don’t decide to connect with a firm based on reading their website. But in today’s ‘copy & paste’ world, the language of ‘About Us’ rarely confines itself to the web; it ends up in proposals and bids, on briefs and ads, in credentials presentations, career event stands, even on reception walls – until the firm’s brand inevitably becomes defined by these bland statements.
Of course, material differentiation can be very difficult to find among professional services firms of a similar sector and size. Business models and service offerings can be replicated, thought leadership is often transient and people are inherently mobile. Even the most valuable insight and strategic advice is becoming commoditised as firms release it freely in white papers and pre-sales activity. So how can you differentiate your firm? Unfortunately for an industry that generally values rationality and empiricism above all else, corporate culture really is the most important constituent of your brand.
Often defined as ‘the way we do things around here’, organisational culture comprises the beliefs, values, assumptions, norms and behaviours of a firm. Understandably, talk about culture rarely fills a room of busy professionals with enthusiasm. In fact, the first mention of it generally results in stifled groans or the dusting off of ‘that project where we figured out our values’ – evoking memories of oceans of flipchart pages and fuzzy buzzwords.
But it is precisely this fuzziness that means culture is one of the very few sources of inimitable competitive advantage for a firm. A strong corporate culture is impervious to duplication because its component parts are difficult to explicitly understand and articulate, let alone imitate.
Unsurprisingly, strong cultures can make or break a company financially. Southwest Airlines’ unwavering culture of ‘warmth, friendliness and individual pride’ allows it to deliver low fares and customer affinity (and not a saucy calendar in sight). In 2010 it celebrated thirty-eight years of consecutive profitability. Conversely a dysfunctional culture can cause immense damage. When Mark Field became President of the ailing Ford Motor Company in 2006 he borrowed Peter Drucker’s famous remark, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ in recognition that its employee culture of mistrust and opposition was stymying Management’s best efforts to rebuild.
The Irish food promotion agency, Bord Bia, succinctly describes brand as ‘reputation rooted in reality’. And what else is a good professional services brand if not the embodiment of the reality of its corporate culture? For professional services marketers or talent managers, the greatest challenge lies not just in unearthing their firm’s corporate culture but also in communicating it in an interesting way. The prize is a distinctive brand that genuinely supports talent and business attraction. But the road is littered with the casualties of weird brand pyramids, interminable semantic discussions and smirking committees of fee-earners.
Based on our own experiences of working with some of the leading professional services in Ireland and globally, here are some tips that I hope will make the process easier and the outputs stronger.