It's quiz time. Match each of the following consumer brands on the left with the word that best describes it on the right:
If you matched Apple with "different"; Volvo with "safety"; and FedEx with "reliable", then you are correct! Pretty easy? It should be. After all, they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars associating their companies with these words. These words represent the end of a comprehensive process that establishes what every good consumer product company relies on; its brand.
Brand is paramount in the product arena; it creates awareness, drives perception, and improves desirability. Brands with top-of-mind awareness have higher perceived value, which allows charging higher price points.
Many service companies, however, have not embraced brand, because they believe it to be largely the domain of product companies. But many of the same basic marketing principles apply: brand drives perception, preference, top-of-mind awareness, higher fees, and so on. So why can't service firms reap the same benefits?
They can, when branding for a service firm is done right. In order to brand your service firm the right way and take advantage of the same benefits that product companies receive from great branding, there are four key distinctions between product and services branding strategy that you need to be aware of.
1. Don't Mass Market To Your Target Market
Product companies sell to the masses through large scale advertising efforts. Following in the footsteps of these companies, many service firms, when attempting to build their brand, start advertising to the masses as if they were selling Wrigley's Spearmint Gum or Coca Cola. But for a service brand, this is a waste. It's not targeted enough, and it costs too much, given the return that it provides.
The dynamics of brand implementation are just different for service companies. Service firms need consistent articulation of their value proposition across all touch points of the marketing and sales process.
While catchy jingles during primetime TV might work for a product company, they are simply inappropriate for service firms. But the right marketing program that "touches" your prospects regularly with highly targeted messages will increase awareness and recognition, so the next time you call to schedule a meeting,they're more likely to take it.
2. Focus On Relevance Over Differentiation
Differentiation is important to product companies. Most brand models (and business schools) argue the need to differentiate. But it is a rare service brand that can stake the claim to categorical differentiation. Let's face it, many service firms offer similar services. As such, it is difficult to own a unique market position. So forget about those product oriented, one-word descriptions.
Instead of attempting to be amazingly different from the rest, focus on being relevant. Specifically, relevance as it pertains to the client. The ideal service brand merges the needs, wants, and desires of the client with the character and values of the company.
The key lies in creating a space where customer needs meet company essence, an ideal combination of rational and emotional attributes that apply to both groups. This common ground approach develops a brand that not only resonates with the client by delivering what is important to them, but also develops a brand that is genuine, appropriate, and defensible by the company.
By staking a claim for what you stand for, communicating how you help your clients succeed, and communicating how reliable you are in doing this, you'll develop a unique identity. Most service firms don't have the stick-to-it ability to get this far, but if they do, they'll stand out in the market.
3. Worry About Growing Revenue, Not Market Share
Product companies are taught that they must be number one or two, in terms of market position, to be successful. Service brands should concentrate on growing revenue, not gaining market share, as product companies do.
In a service industry, whether it be accounting, law, architecture, or consulting, even local markets are usually fragmented and crowded with many successful firms generating considerable revenue from like-services.
Instead of concerning yourself with your position in the market, focus your efforts on improving the bottom line.
4. Help Your People Be Your Brand
Service firms do not have a tangible display of products that you can see, touch, and test out before deciding to purchase. As a service firm, your face to the world, what carries your brand most is your people. As such, do not underestimate the internal components of brand development.
To create a collaborative culture, communicate your brand message to the troops so that each individual becomes a brand ambassador. This helps to ensure that every sales call, every client interaction, and every elevator conversation delivers the brand as intended.
Don't attempt to be Big Brother, but do provide a rallying point for the entire organization, because "speaking in one voice" is far more important for service firms who rely on direct, one-to-one interaction with clients.
What Is This Really All About?
A successful brand is really about a client-centric approach tied closely to the firm's business strategy. Even in its simplest form, brands offer tangible benefits to the vast majority of service firms. So, think strategically, roll up your sleeves, and you can expect the following out of a well developed and implemented brand:
- A genuine and defensible market position
- Improved external awareness, perception, and desirability
- The development of a collaborative internal culture
- Alignment and integration of all messaging
- Revenue growth
- I'll add one final note about branding: your marketing materials are important, but don't go overboard.
Consumer brands focus on their position in the market and differentiation, using the pretty designs of a brochure, website, or advertisement to play a large role in driving their brand and growing their market share. But for service brands, good design is just one supporting part of success. We must take a fundamentally different approach than consumer brands to attain the same results.
What matters is having a process that drives revenue growth over the long term; the pretty pictures are just along for the ride. So learn from Apple, FedEx and Volvo. Adopt the idea of brand, but apply it to the particular needs of service firms.
Robert Croston is a Senior Consultant at the Wellesley Hills Group, a consulting and marketing firm that helps service companies to grow. Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.