by Tony Vidler
A lot of professionals get their branding strategy wrong, and waste their money and effort, because they underestimate the importance of managing their reputation. Their reputation IS their personal brand.
Branding is an area that many in professional services simply do not understand well enough, and that lack of understanding leads many to misallocate energy and resources. The key problem is usually that too much effort is placed upon trying to create a Corporate Brand, and insufficient effort applied to building a Personal Brand.
The confusion is understandable.
We continually read and hear that a great brand is a shortcut to obtaining “trust” from consumers. In other words, when our brand is well recognised and it stands for something in consumers minds, then they are far more likely to engage us as a degree of trust is already established by virtue of the trust in the brand. There has been plenty of research to support this perspective including an excellent study by McKinsey a few years ago which established that brand recognition in the consumers mind means that they are 3 times more likely to buy from that firm. There is no doubt in my mind that a strong corporate brand is indeed a valuable thing.
However, for most practitioners operating smaller enterprises and with often a tight niche or geographical focus, the corporate brand is not as significant as the personal brand of the professional themselves.
The reason is twofold:
In consumables consumers tend to purchase in “quick thinking” mode. Whether that is a tube of toothpaste or a new suit, our patterns of previous purchasing behaviour establish patterns of acceptable price, quality and convenience, and brand recognition matters enormously as it reinforces our trust. The result is that little conscious thought is often required to make buying decisions, and plenty of them are actually done out of habit.
This is the space where conventional advertising to create positioning and top-of-mind-awareness will typically provide a commercial return for the corporate: quick thinking consumer purchases.
The mistake in professional services is to assume that this same strategy of creating a trusted brand and then using advertising will work exactly the same way.
Our business operates in the area where consumers are in “slow thinking”. To utilise the financial services products (for example) consumers have to deliberate and actively think about choices and compromises. It is a highly conscious decision making process, often with conflicts and choices for the consumer that require the guidance of the professional. It is that element – the guidance of the professional – which gives rise to the importance of the personal brand as opposed to a corporate brand.
Establishing the profile, or name, of an individual professional and associating that with a specific skill set or ability to achieve particular outcomes becomes more relevant to the consumer faced with a more complex buying decision. The corporate brand is often actually fairly irrelevant to the consumer in this type of purchasing if we are honest. “Bill Smith & Associates” or “Superannuation Solutions” for example are not the type of corporate brands that consumers in “slow thinking” space are automatically trusting and embracing, because they are not making a 5-15 second purchasing decision.
Having said that, there are certainly areas of professional services where a strong corporate brand does matter. They are largely effective in the areas where creating a consistent, or homogenous, outcome is desirable. Whether that is a robo-advice offering using index funds, or an accountancy firm providing compliance and tax return services, or a law firm handling conveyancing issues swiftly, there are areas of professional services where a corporate brand is – and probably should be – stronger than the individual brand. Because in those areas we are looking to simplify solutions and provide a consistent service process, which produces reasonably consistent consumer experiences at reasonably attractive price points.
For professionals working in the highly personalised advice and guidance areas, it is the personal brand which is most important. Each engagement is highly personalised, and each consumer wants their work to be highly bespoke. It is the individual professionals reputation and brand positioning which matters above all, as that becomes (at some point) the key element for the consumer deciding to engage – or not engage – a particular professional.
The lesson is that for individual professionals who either are, or aspire to be, focussed upon delivering highly personalised advice to discerning consumers then it is your personal brand that matters most.
It is your reputation that will get you clients rather than a clever corporate brand.