September 13, 2018 | Point of View

Building a brand in the professional services industry: 8 ways to compete effectively with the 'big guys'

In the professional services business, every firm wants to earn the reputation of a trusted business partner – one with a name that instantly comes to mind. Today’s increasingly digital business environment, makes controlling brand reputation and building trust more challenging, particularly for organizations that are not as large or as long established as their peers.

Evolving digital channels are also shaking up the landscape, enabling smaller organizations to reach farther and appear bigger, allowing buyers to develop perceptions of a brand or organization without ever speaking to an employee, all while making it hard to deploy differentiated messages.

Although people are still at the heart of building strong company-to-company partnerships, they change jobs more frequently than in the past – now requiring those relationships to transcend individuals.

All of these market forces require more care and attention to building and differentiating a brand. As a consultancy, we prefer our prospects know the West Monroe brand before we show up on their doorstep. That makes the relationship-building process much easier. But how can you earn the trust and confidence to be invited in, when you are still far from being the biggest or most well-known in your industry?

Today, West Monroe competes against an increasingly diverse set of consulting organizations: the “Big Four” with their long histories, established names, and large advertising and marketing budgets; consultancies with strong regional roots and relationships; an array of specialists who have built strong reputations in areas such as cybersecurity or user-centered design; and even start-ups, sometimes spun off from larger firms with an offering that is particularly hot or relevant. In other words, buyers have far more people knocking on their door, and only they get to decide which ones are let in.

As our business and marketplace have changed, we have continually evolved our approach to building our brand. While the following eight strategies are specific to West Monroe’s history, they are applicable to brand-building at many growing B2B firms.

1. Shift from talking about what we do to how and why we add value

As a full-service business and technology consultancy, we “do” many things. But if our brand represented “what” we do, we would have a hard time sending a unified message into the market.

This is a challenge for any services firm: You want to convey what it is that you do. However, through research and client feedback, however, we recognized that what differentiates our firm is not what we do. Rather, it is how we do it differently than others and why that helps us create greater value for our clients.

Having both a common purpose (to build the next generation of leaders) and a clear description of who we are (a firm with an uncommon blend of business consultants and deep technologists) motivates our entire organization to be part of something bigger than a single office, practice, or project. This messaging resonated with our people, was easy to remember and convey, and provided a platform for everyone in our organization to explain how what we do creates value for clients. That differentiated us from a crowd of firms talking simply about “what they do.”

Our brand messaging is solid, but in a market that is continuously changing we have to validate and refine our message. While major rebranding is not something we expect to do – or should do – every year, we make subtle adjustments. For example, we recently elaborated on the specific ways our deep technologists help drive business results, helping companies master the shift in technology going on around them.

2. Bring the brand to life for our people, so they can be brand ambassadors

Like most organizations, we have formal brand standards and brand-building initiatives – activities that are the responsibility of a central marketing team. These essential initiatives are as small as ensuring consistency (e.g., proper use of logos and imagery) and as large as consistently applying our limited resources to a targeted market, so our messages reach the right people. But this can make brand building feel a bit disconnected from the day-to-day activities of those on the front lines delivering services, and it can perpetuate a perception that brand is the responsibility of a marketing team rather than the result of the collective behavior of an organization’s people.

Over time, we have learned that we must emphasize the role of our people in building brand engagement among our target audience, which is why we direct part of our brand investment toward engaging our people as brand ambassadors. In years past, we introduced brand updates to our people and the market at the same time. But we took a much different approach with our most recent brand refresh around the “uncommon blend” in May 2015.

Before we brought it to market, we spent several months introducing it to our people – intensively, through digital channels and a multi-office road show. This gave our people opportunities to articulate, in a fun and upbeat way, how they bring an uncommon blend of business acumen and deep technical expertise to each client challenge. This helped bring our unique brand promise to life in a personal way that inspired others to do the same.

In advance of introducing our refreshed brand to the market, we also worked with our service teams to translate our overarching brand messaging into service-specific messaging. This effort helped them convey our brand effectively when talking with prospective clients, writing blogs, sharing content with their social networks, presenting at conferences, or frankly doing anything else that represents our firm in the marketplace.

We didn’t stop there. Ongoing internal campaigns spotlight employees who “live” our uncommon blend of skills, shared through monthly emails, videos, blogs, and posters in our offices. We talk about branding in our monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings.

And we keep it in front of people, whether through stories or tangible little reminders such as branded chargers distributed at a quarterly meeting to demonstrate exactly what it is that “keeps us going.”

3. Strive to be ever more creative in targeting our message 

As an organization that has only recently evolved to the level of mid-sized in our profession, we have never had the benefit of mass promotion – the cost of a single national television spot ($342,000) or magazine ad ($250,000) would leave us little budget to work with. Accordingly, we have always had to be highly strategic and precise in targeting our messages.

But the changes in both competitive landscape and digital media have challenged us to look beyond traditional channels and focus more on channels that don’t require a substantial investment to yield positive results, such as social media, analyst relations, and other tactics. According to a study of the Inc. 500 (for fast- growing, mid-market enterprises like ours), social media use has evolved rapidly, with 82 percent of companies using at least one form of social media. The primary perceived benefit is brand awareness. More than 80 percent perceived their company’s social media efforts as effective.

We actively use LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter as part of our marketing and brand-building mix. Yes, advertising is part of the mix, too, but not to the masses. Instead, we look for highly targeted opportunities in the specific industries and local markets we serve. For example, banner ads on Chicago’s trains carrying commuters headed to and from downtown, bus wrappers on specific routes in Seattle, and ads at a Minneapolis fitness center that serves a business clientele.

4. Leverage our people as a primary channel for reaching our target

In the past, we executed much of our marketing centrally – particularly through multi-channel campaigns that targeted prospective clients. That is still a part of our marketing mix, but we recognized the impact can be much greater when our people supplement these investments by getting the word out through their own personal and professional channels.

To encourage this, we operate open platforms where people can share their points of view through blogs, articles, presentations at conferences, or other professional forums. We also invested in a social media tool, Bambu, for our employees to help take the guesswork out of what they should or could post on social media.

Employees can log in and see company stories and curated content based on their areas of focus, along with options for posting these to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, either immediately or scheduled for the coming week. While this is only one example, this effort helped double our social media traffic, attracting a better engaged website visitor that is more likely to convert to a prospect or client.

5. Get our viewpoints and name out there

While name recognition is important for getting in the door, a name doesn’t necessarily carry the same level of “trust” that it may once have – largely a factor of there being so many “names” in today’s crowded marketplace. Today’s buyers want to know what your “name” stands for, and seek credible evidence that a firm is bringing something new and unique to the table.

Where our early brand-building initiatives focused primarily on creating name recognition, today we do more to tie unique insights and perspectives to our name. With a workforce of more than 600 consultants, that’s not impossible to do – mostly. Of course, it’s hard for busy consultants to find the time to translate their views into useful thoughtware, but our marketing team tries to find ways to help them do that and channels for getting those perspectives out in the market. We maintain forward-looking editorial calendars for sharing our people’s experiences and views through blogs (ours, theirs, and other organizations’), third-party publications, associations, conferences, events, and other venues. Due to the emphasis our buyers put on thought leadership, we have increased our investment in content production – focusing on both greater quantity and quality.

According to UMass Dartmouth study, we are not alone in increasing this focus. A 2016 study found that these fast-growing mid-market enterprises increased their use of blogs for the first time since 2013, with 42 percent employing blogs to provide information, establish thought leadership, support product promotion, and encourage engagement. Since 2007, mid-market organizations have outpaced the Fortune 500 in use of blogging.

Finally, by tapping social media capabilities, we can extend the reach of this content – not to mention maximizing the investment of time spent to develop it. 

6. Recognizing the need for a dedicated employer brand

In services, people are the face of your brand. Fielding a competitive product with the best talent starts with attracting the right people and motivating them to choose to work for your organization.

The result is a campaign that dares people to be great and to accept our challenge to make West Monroe better. It complements our brand because the latter provides a basis for demonstrating what “daring to be great” looks like.

To support this, we have built a robust career site that promotes the unique aspects of a career with West Monroe, such as our active commitment to social responsibility and the ownership benefits that come with participating in an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). As we do with our clients, we study elements of our employees’ experience, beginning with the recruiting and onboarding processes, to make sure that those experiences are consistent with our promise – and we continually refine our processes based on what we hear.

7. Invest in a great customer/client experience

Companies in all sectors have heightened their focus on customer experience. Our industry is no different. The formula for a good professional services client experience has not changed: understanding and reacting to evolving needs, delivering on what we promised, and creating value in new ways.

Developing a distinctive customer experience to enhance performance happens to be an area where we work with many clients, so it behooves us to practice what we preach. Just as we do with our clients, we study all aspects of our client journey and look for ways to streamline and improve the experience. Unlike other types of service firms, much of our interaction takes place at client sites, where we don’t “control” the environment. Therefore, we take extra care to ensure that everything we do, from our statement of work, to our ability to tap into the cultural norms of our clients, to our marquee client events, exude quality and high value.

Perhaps most importantly, we invest in preserving a unique culture, where our emphasis on having fun while working together to deliver high-quality work often spills over to our clients.

One of the most important outcomes of a strong client experience is positive word of mouth. This is particularly important in our profession. Word of mouth has played an especially big role in building aspects of our business, such as in the private equity sector. Having happy clients willing to tell our story for us carries much more weight than any self-created advertising message – so we encourage that, for example through our digital portfolio.

8. Update the measures of success continuously

We have always emphasized measurement as a means of understanding how well we are running our business. We also regularly update our KPIs to make sure we are focusing on actions that drive value in building our reputation.

In our firm’s early days, we used metrics around client satisfaction, website traffic, and responses to email campaigns to assess the strength of our reputation and efforts to build name awareness. Today, we supplement those with an array of metrics – ranging from responses to internal employee engagement surveys to social media exposures – that assess progress in building our brand and guide future brand investments.

The metrics will vary depending on the nature of the business. The important part is having them, measuring them regularly, and using them to drive improvement.

Bottom line: Opening new doors

Building a reputation as a trusted service provider has never been easy, and it is more complex than ever.

At West Monroe, we remain focused on the long game – knowing that building a strong brand, rooted in trust, takes time. It will not happen overnight, as brands that spin up quickly struggle to maintain their authenticity overtime. By acting nimbly, adopting new and inexpensive technology early on, and leveraging the reach of media through public relations, we have built our brand the same way we have grown our firm: by focusing on quality.

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