Branding the consulting product
by Barbara Jaenicke
What's in a name? Could be your current and future success.
Most of us realize the importance of branding for products like laundry detergent and toothpaste. But for consulting services? You might think that a service-oriented product need not bother with such marketing mumbo jumbo, but today's business-to-business marketplace is proving otherwise.
We like to think that we can judge the quality of a firm's services based simply on what we learn about its credentials, client list, and past project history. But when a company considers hiring consultants to presumably conduct an important task better than anyone else within their company could ever accomplish, it comes down to placing an enormous amount of trust in those consultants. Can the consultants be trusted to know what they're doing? What influences a company to cough up thousands—or millions—of dollars to place such trust in a consulting firm?
Before a consulting firm is even considered for hire, an image conveying a high level of trust must exist in the minds of those hiring the firm. Only then will the hiring company think about doling out the critical level of responsibility, along with the bucks. Since consulting services aren't exactly a tangible product, there are often other cues that influence one's perception of a consulting firm. These “other cues” comprise a vast area of communication that influences your audience more than most people realize.
Trust is developed when a positive message is clearly and continually reinforced from all perspectives. Current customers develop their trust when they consistently receive positive solutions. But creating an image of trust is more challenging with companies that don't have a current working relationship with the consultant. Prospects can only rely on visual, verbal, and written messages they've encountered regarding a particular consulting firm. Of course, it's impossible to control the perception others have of your capabilities if they haven't worked with you before ... or is it?
Barbara Jaenicke is a contributing writer from Atlanta-based Evans Technology Inc. Evans, a leading authorized representative for Primavera software since 1985, provides project management system implementation, training, and consulting services.
Controlling the Perceived Message. When you can control the visual and verbal messages that come in contact with your prospects, you've successfully branded your company. Many consulting firms today are realizing the value of branding and are taking serious steps to develop a branded image. Although real success holds true only when the consultants live up to, or exceed, their customer's perceived positive image, many consulting firms sell themselves short when they indeed have the skills and expertise but fail to communicate that message properly to their prospects.
If the brand is clearly understood and supported by the internal corporate culture, every external point of contact with the customer should promote the brand's identity and positioning.
Atlanta-based Evans Technology Inc. is one such consulting firm that realizes the need to clearly communicate its capabilities. “Often we're mistaken for a much smaller-scale firm than we really are only because we haven't focused on communicating the scope of our expertise in a manner that's impressive to the customer,” said Mike Bartoli, director of the Project Management Division at Evans. “We have a great number of success stories to tell regarding huge projects with huge companies, but we're not telling them well enough to our prospects. Many of our targeted prospects either don't know us or they have the wrong perception of our capabilities. We realized that our growth is limited if our prospects don't correctly perceive the high level of service we provide and how good we really are at what we do.”
Evans Technology is gearing up to begin telling it like it is. Although ideas are still being tossed around, Evans approached a professional agency to help it create the Evans Technology “brand.”
Primavera Systems Inc., a leading developer of enterprise and Web-based project management, control, and execution software, is well aware of the role branding plays in both the software and consulting industries. Even though value-added resellers such as Evans Technology typically provide the consulting services that accompany the implementation of Primavera software, Primavera also has its own professional services division. Additionally, Primavera realizes that its value-added resellers require a well-branded software product to provide along with its consulting services. Primavera recently kicked off a corporate marketing campaign with the theme Project Success = Business Success. “In previous years we've directed our branding around the products,” said Nancy Allen, Primavera's vice president of Corporate Marketing. “We now feel it's important to be positioned as a corporation, and to articulate our corporate mission and value proposition—our reason for being—in a statement that people can remember. A big part of branding starts with understanding how the customer perceives Primavera. Products and services must then live up to customer perception.”
According to Chris Martin, managing director at EM2 Design in Atlanta, “It's important for any company—consulting firm, product manufacturer, or service provider—to have a well-defined brand. In today's marketplace, consumers are savvy, even somewhat jaded, to the time-tested rules of marketing and promotion. They seek authenticity. And this is what a well-defined brand communicates.” EM2, which specializes in helping companies develop and establish their brand identity, has done some initial work with Evans Technology and has also worked with other high-tech companies and consulting firms on image campaigns.
Martin explains that one method of establishing an authentic identity is to begin creating how you want you're company to be perceived in the future, and start living that future today: “A well-defined brand requires a clear vision of who you are and the future you're ‘living into,’ an internal culture that understands and supports that vision, and an expression of that vision in every point of contact with the customer. As a result, customers believe in you and will be loyal to your company because your actions are consistent with your communications. Internal consensus and external consistency make or break a brand.”
Expressing the Brand Internally and Externally. A brand goes far beyond what's seen outside the company on brochures and advertisements. A brand's elements are actually expressed both inside and outside the company. Martin explains, “Internally, the brand is expressed in a variety of ways, such as clear communication of the company's vision, principle, and purpose through various communication vehicles—newsletters, intranet, corporate retreats, staff meetings; upper-level management actions consistent with stated principles; a visible commitment to the training and education of employees in understanding vision and goals; operations and processes consistent with vision and goal implementation; and up-to-date [marketing communication] tools necessary for promoting the company and instruction on how to use those tools. Internal public relations designed to promote brand awareness are critical.
“If the brand is clearly understood and supported by the internal corporate culture, every external point of contact with the customer should promote the brand's identity and positioning. The external elements of the brand are expressed through all of the various marketing media—corporate identity, advertising, public relations, direct mail, collateral and electronic media. In addition to the tangibles promoting the brand, every aspect of customer relationship-building—from the sales process to ongoing consulting to project completion—should be a consistent expression of the company's core principles.”
Creating a Brand. So how does a consulting firm get started with creating its brand? It could try to take a stab at it internally in its spare time. Or the firm might take its own advice and become convinced that it's best to turn the job over to outside professionals who live and breathe this sort of expertise every day. Advertising agencies and design firms that provide such services come in a variety of sizes, styles, and price ranges. Some even specialize in certain industries. Shop around for the agency that best matches your company's goals and budget. And since branding is a process that takes time and must be executed through a variety of avenues both inside and outside your company, beware of any agency that promises overnight success.
During its 12 years in business, EM2 has developed a time-tested process for developing a brand. “As a brand identity firm, it's important for us to understand what makes a company tick—who they believe themselves to be, where they believe they are going, and where the inconsistencies in these beliefs lie. Again, lack of consensus is deadly to brand building,” Chris Martin said.
Martin goes on to explain a few somewhat obscure elements that must be addressed; some of these elements often lay the foundation for the brand development: “Learning about the culture of a company is also helpful in defining brand identity. Surface characteristics such as dress code, workspace, collaboration areas, the general ‘energy’ of the environment are fairly easy to pick up when visiting a company and should be consistently reflected in the brand. Some of the more deep-seated internal beliefs about the company require more digging.
“EM2 utilizes an initial discovery process whereby we conduct confidential individual interviews with key members of the executive management staff as well as a select number of mid- to lower-level employees. The one-on-one interviews are important since some employees will only speak about their true beliefs in private. If budget allows, we'll also conduct interviews with a select number of existing clients as well as lost-sales contacts. If available, the lost-sales contacts can be extremely informational in defining where a brand may be inconsistent in its expression and missing an opportunity.
“Once these interviews are complete, we review the responses and choose a series of words we feel best represent the brand. We use these words as the springboard for dialogue with our client about how their brand identity is best expressed. Once we have consensus on the words, we move into a visual expression of those words using colors, pictures, symbols, textures—all in different combinations. From there, it's a process of narrowing down the choices. Once the process is complete, we should have both a visual and editorial vocabulary to work from in developing all of the various marketing communication materials required to promote the brand. And if adhered to, this palette should provide a consistent brand communication.”
SO BRANDING REALLY starts from inside a company and is built upon with the external visual, verbal, and written marketing media. Building your brand in this way paves the way for your customers to perceive a truly authentic image of your company, your services, and your people. This ultimately builds genuine trust among your audience that you strive to turn into loyal customers ... and keep them coming back. ■
Reader Service Number 102
PM Network June 2001