Deep branding: the challenge for professional services

Following the rebrand of Arthur Andersen, announced last month, what are the prospects for branding professional services?

Professional firms confront four barriers to growth and increased market share; raising the perceived value of their service, differentiating themselves from competitors, delivering consistently around the world, and attracting the best people.

The problems conflict, so solving one worsens another. If everyone claims the same high-value territory, for example, they look increasingly alike. If they eliminate local variations they project a monolithic image offputting to potential recruits.

A brand can surmount these barriers. Wolff Olins defines brand as ‘a promise customers believe about the experience they will have when using a product or service’. For professional firms ‘the brand is the culture and the culture is the brand’. It needs to be built from the inside out. This is what ‘deep branding’ means.

McKinsey and Andersen Consulting show this clearly. They promise contrasting experiences. McKinsey is ‘expert’, selling the judgement of individual consultants. Anderson Consulting is ‘algorithmic’, selling consistent methodologies. Both built culture first and image second.

Branding professional firms is hard. Senior professionals don’t want to be told how to behave. They are habitual rationalists, uncomfortable with ‘soft’, experiential, emotional questions. Risk-aversion is a reflex, so standing out is understandably daunting. And the firms really are very similar.

Yet strong brands are the differentiators for tomorrow. Wolff Olins has always worked with professional firms and studied their needs. One client, Cameron McKenna, was voted law firm of the year within a year of its merger. Industry observers commented that a key factor was its ‘instantly recognisable’ corporate image.

The latest firm to invest in rebranding is Arthur Andersen. Its big idea is ’embracing the new economy’. Current and challenging today, what happens if the new economy turns out less novel than expected? Or if it becomes the new orthodoxy, how long will this be a differentiating position?

The key to success in professional services is the right people: finding, attracting and keeping them. Today these people have lots of options, including starting up their own

Greyness is what the big consultancies need to overcome in themselves. At Arthur Andersen it’s been announced that people don’t have to wear suits. They’re literally not wearing uniform any more. But in a less buttoned-down world, what will unite their people? Is the brand idea big enough to do this? Time will tell.

New dressed-down Andersens brand to include $500m venture fund and internet alliances

The end of the suit?

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