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How to Create Values That Actually Mean Something

Using the ‘Taken for granted’ to create great professional services employer brands.

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 with more of an 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 them to.

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.

How to Create Values That Actually Mean Something
Get outside help

By their very nature, corporate cultures are taken for granted by the people that comprise them. In other words, it’s impossible for the wood to be seen by the trees. Only an external voice can help you define your culture in a meaningful way and it doesn’t have to be a branding agency. If budget is tight (or you just don’t like agencies), clients can be a great source of inspiration. A client of ours summed up in one sentence what had eluded us in many frustrating hours of thinking and writing when she said, ‘You guys just seem to get it right first time’.

Keep the process tight

Nothing is more likely to lead to disillusionment and apathy than a protracted, extensive process that makes heavy demands on valuable people’s time. Worse still, the more diffuse the process, the more difficult it becomes to get consensus and so outputs become blander, safer and more derivative in order to satisfy stakeholders. It is far more effective to assemble a small core team that represents key practice areas, understands the importance of brand and of course, enjoys the trust of the Managing Partner.

Don’t over-formalise it

Just as people often defy labels so too do corporate cultures, particularly those that sell people, their knowledge and opinions. As such, conventional techniques, such as brand pyramids, that attempt to define a neat set of adjectives to describe the essence of a brand, are far too rigid and constraining to encapsulate a complex, human and abstract construct. A more organic and fluid process will allow richer ideas to emerge. For example, recording observations on Post-it notes and sticking them in clusters on a blank wall is a great way to visualise the complex and interconnected themes that underpin cultures.

How to Create Values That Actually Mean Something
Talk to the right people

Insight and clarity can come from the most unexpected of places. In our experience, it is often the more junior or newer members of staff that are best able to articulate what is different or unique about a firm, most likely because they have yet to take for granted the culture in which they find themselves.

Ask the right questions

It can be awkward for the uninitiated to respond articulately to abstract questions about a firm’s values and beliefs (and will do very little for the popularity of the Marketing Department). Instead, focus stakeholder questions on the tangible aspects of their roles and relationships with each other and their clients. Learn to listen ‘between the lines’ so as to discern the inadvertent cues and subtle nuances that describe a culture.

Pay particular attention to the stories that people tell: the partner that personally phoned trainees to thank them after a difficult audit or the team that worked on a winning bid for thirty six hours straight. These tales can provide invaluable insights into the values and behaviours that the firm places a premium (or frowns) upon and are often used to communicate important cultural qualities that might otherwise be difficult to articulate.

Mercilessly censor clichés

The good work invested in defining a firms’ culture can be almost completely wasted if it is communicated in a dull and turgid fashion. All too often, an attempt to write in a ‘corporate’ tone of voice results in a stilted, clichéd language that lacks any ability to capture the imagination. To avoid this, consider using direct speech to reflect a more human and interesting side of the people that make up a firm. Metaphors are also far more effective at imparting meaning an expression like ‘we get our sleeves rolled up’ paints a much more vivid mental picture that any number of clichés like ‘entrepreneurial approach’ or ‘solutions focus’.  Visual clichés are a particular no-no: you know the ones, basically any image of businesspeople shaking hands or in unlikely situations such as mountaintops or running tracks.

If all else fails, embrace Swiss Psychiatrists

This one comes with a health warning so think twice about who you share it with, but don’t dismiss it. Brand archetypes channel the teachings of Carl Jung to define twelve ‘characters’, derived from universal stories in fairy tales, mythology, literature and contemporary culture and therefore readily recognised and understood by their audiences. Based on their own values, brands assume identities such as the Explorer, the Sage, the Everyman or the Magician that are used to inform and structure their communications. It begins to sound less preposterous when you realise that many of the world’s most valuable and lucidly defined brands adhere studiously to their own archetypes including Nike (the Hero), Harley Davidson (the Outlaw) and Innocent (the Innocent of course)

The benefits of a compelling and differentiated brand for both business development and talent attraction demand that every firm takes an honest and open look at their corporate culture. With the right approach, this can even be an enjoyable process.

Niall Dowling is Strategic Director at Atomic DNA, an employer branding agency that works with leading multinational professional services and technology firms.

 This article first appeared in PM Forum Magazine

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