Why position should matter to professional service firms

Why position should matter to professional service firms

People often assume that what we do – building brands – is far more relevant to businesses selling to consumers than those selling to other businesses. Particularly those selling professional services. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Your brand is what people say about you behind your back. It’s your reputation. This is crucial in professional services. Such businesses don’t have the luxury of presenting their wares on the shelf of a supermarket, where a stream of vetted leads will be paraded in front of them. You can’t try-before-you-buy with professional services, so it’s vital that the prospects have trust, faith and confidence in the firm. These are all things that are heavily influenced by reputation.

The key to building such a reputation is the position you build your brand around. Position is the idea that defines the core of what the brand stands for and what it offers to the world. It provides a true north around which to orientate everything the business does. It enables organisations to give a coherent impression of themselves and establish a consistent reputation. Positions also help to simplify down the organisation’s core message, making it easier for those inside the business to deliver this correctly, whether in a pitch presentation or at a networking event.

Position is particularly important in professional services, due to the complexities of differentiation. Professional services aren’t like cars (for example), where you can choose between fast ones or slow ones; small ones or big ones; luxury ones or basic ones. When you boil it down, everyone is selling the same solution – whether it’s a set of accounts or the resolution of a legal dispute. The difference is in the content of the services, which is fundamentally what determines the purchase decision. Capturing something so nuanced and indefinite is the art of positioning a professional services firm.

Once the position has been found, the secret to success with a professional services firm is how you build the brand around it. Few, if any, such businesses advertise on television. Some advertise in the press. But most professional services brands are built on personal relationships, referrals and word of mouth – all of which can be aided by events, networking, social media and speaking engagements. The firm’s people are central to delivering all of this. When we work with professional services firms, we often start with internal communication – making sure that everyone understands the position. And we arm them with tools that help them to communicate this externally – think videos, boilerplate copy and content. All of this needs to reflect the personality of the firm, so the graphic identity that governs its design and the voice that defines its tone are crucial. It’s this combination of position, personality and creative tools that is the key to building a strong brand in professional services.

— RG

For an example of our work within professional services, take a look at our GCW case study here.

“Squad really sought to get under the skin of our business and understand what made us tick and differentiated GCW in our marketplace. The way they work made it feel like a genuine partnership, and despite what must have seemed like endless questions, their enthusiasm never waned. Ultimately, they delivered a wow moment that really encapsulated everything we wanted to achieve in our rebrand and more. They’re just great people to work with.”

Simon Morris – Partner at GCW

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POV*: How to unearth a position
POV*: How to unearth a position

How to unearth a position

We’ve observed that the most successful organisations and brands we’ve worked with have one thing in common: a belief in the importance of position. Whether you want to call it a why, purpose, narrative, vision or big idea, it’s all the same. It’s about finding a simple, powerful expression of everything the brand or organisation is about. And then putting this at the heart of everything. Using it to energise teams, align activity, create fame and fuel innovation.

Helping clients to unearth a position is what we get asked to do more than anything else. Our own belief in its importance has led us to refocus our own business on this approach to brand building. We’re currently repositioning Squad and have developed a whole culture within our business around this. So, it seems only appropriate that in this, our fifth POV* piece, we return to the subject of position. In our first POV* piece we wrote about using a narrative to present a position. This time our focus is on how to find a position. Here are our 15 pieces of advice for how to do this.

1. Answer three simple questions
If you search for “positioning statement”, you’ll get lots of variants on statements like this: for [your target market] who [target market need], [your brand name] provides [main benefit that differentiates your offering from competitors] because [reason why target market should believe your differentiation statement.]

Positioning is essentially about answering the three questions that all these statements are based on:

– Who is the audience?

– Who is the competitive set?

– What is the unique aspect of the organisation or brand to focus on?

The answers to these questions create the basis of a position. For example, when positioning a soap, you could target builders: focus on the cleaning power of the product and try to steal market share from high-performance gels. Or you could target people with sensitive skin: focus on gentleness and try to steal market share from moisturising soaps. These are the strategic decisions to be made.

These questions can be answered poorly or well. Strategy is the art of sacrifice. If no difficult decisions have been made, then the likelihood is that the answers are too broad or generic. For example, defining the audience isn’t just about some general demographics. Who really are these people? What do they think, believe in and hate? The same applies to choosing competitors. Should a pub be competing against the other local down the road, or a six-pack at home? There needs to be total clarity in the answers to these three questions.

2. Find the central idea
The three questions above form the foundation of a position, but do not provide the magic ingredient. What’s also needed is a powerful idea to wrap it all around. This is what will move it from a dry, strategic statement to a powerful concept that inspires action.

In our first POV* piece we talked about communicating this idea as a narrative, which is still a good way to think about it. Particularly because brands today need to undertake a huge volume of activity at a rapid pace. An easy way to see a narrative in action is to look at successful political campaigns. When the politician or party has a strong position, you can see it coming through in every piece of activity, whether the subject is healthcare, the economy or foreign policy. A great example is Barack Obama’s “change you can believe in” idea, which was the basis of his victorious 2008 election campaign.

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3. Articulate position as a manifesto
Once the three questions have been answered and the central idea found, the next task is to articulate these in some way, so that they can be shared with others. The best way we’ve found to do this is by writing a manifesto. This will allow you to set out the key points of the position and give a strong sense of the narrative that connects them. It’s also helpful to agree a word, phrase or sentence that encapsulates the narrative of the brand. When we positioned the pub and brewer JW Lees, we coined the phrase “putting the brewery at the heart of the brand”. When positioning Eurocamp we hit on the word “possibilities”.

If time and budget allow, then it’s an excellent idea to turn the manifesto into a short video. The added colour that this brings will aid understanding and the emotion you can introduce will make it more moving. This doesn’t have to be an expensive affair. We often pull together rough-cut manifesto films internally as part of our strategic process, although these are frequently produced properly once the process moves on to communicating with the wider business.

4. Avoid onions, keys and pyramids
This was another of the key points from our first POV* piece, but it’s worth reiterating since the intervening years have not made us any more enthusiastic about onions, keys and pyramids. We always avoid these models as ways to articulate a position. In our experience, no one really understands them, which makes them ineffective as a means to clarify a vision or inspire action. The main issue is that they include sections that don’t need to form a core part of position development. Values development should really be a separate exercise to do with the culture of the organisation. And personality is best handled separately, as it primarily relates to the tone of communications.

5. Unite strategy and creativity from the outset
We’ve explained what a position consists of: the answers to three questions and a central idea, all wrapped up in a manifesto. But how do you do this? It starts with the team. Finding a position is often seen as an exercise to be conducted by strategists. We believe that positions should be developed by strategists and creatives in partnership. Ultimately, a position will only be effective if it translates into action. As Thomas Edison said: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Creatives are able to see what will and won’t be executable, which ensures that you have a workable position from the outset. They can also add the colour and emotion referred to in the previous point, which is what turns a position from a bland strategic statement into a powerful vision. At Squad, our culture and process are built around strategists and creatives working in partnership throughout the process, as opposed to in sequence.

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6. Spend time on the problem not the solution
There’s a story about Einstein that we retell a lot. He said that if he had one hour to save the world, he’d spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and five minutes on the solution. The strategic and creative teams must start by building their understanding, rather than jumping into solutions.

7. Don’t see the world as a market, but a place people live in
In order to develop a full understanding of the problem, there are four worlds you need to inhabit:

– You need to get under the skin of the organisation or brand you’re positioning.

– You need to spend time in the industry.

– You need to observe (and use) the competitors you’re seeking to outperform.

– And you need to know the audience you’re targeting.

The people who inhabit these worlds are not numbers. Nor are they guinea pigs to be observed through social media. They are real people. They are your partner, friends, colleagues and relatives. If you’ve got the budget, then you can commission all kinds of research to help you become familiar with these worlds. However, we have found that one of the best ways to do this is for the team themselves to get out there and spend time with people. In the past, we’ve spent an icy-cold morning out on a Cumbrian hill farm, gone camping around Europe, met with the fruit-and-veg packers of New Covent Garden Market at dawn and spent a day in a maintenance team’s van in one of the most deprived areas of social housing in the country.

8. Search in the space between the inside and outside
You’ll find the central idea in the space that exists between those who are inside and those who are outside the organisation. A position must be something that staff feel passionate about. And it must be desired by customers. Finding the common motivation results in a position that is equally compelling to those who are inside and outside the organisation.

9. Clients have expertise but need naivety
The creative director of one famous London agency would get his team together at the start of any new business pitch. Before he let them look at the brief, he’d get them to write down everything they knew about the brand in question. And he’d say to them: “This is the last time you will be able to think about the brand like a real consumer.”

One of the mistakes we all make is thinking that our audience has anywhere near the level of knowledge or interest in a brand that we do. In reality, they give us a fraction of the attention we think they do. An external partner will never match the knowledge a client has of their brand or industry. A client lives in their world full-time, and often has done for many years. We inhabit it fleetingly. But this enables us to think much more like the people we’re targeting. It gives us a perspective and naivety that are invaluable and which it’s important to keep hold of.

10. Ask why, why, why, why, why?
A fantastic tool for getting under the skin of anything is “the five whys”. When you ask a why question, don’t settle for the first answer you get. Keep asking why. Ask why to every response until you’ve done so five times. At this point, you might be close to a deep understanding, since generally the surface-level issue is not the real issue. We often see this when clients come to us with questions. Often the question they’re asking isn’t the question that needs to be asked. For example, when Westmorland approached us, it was with the question: “What should we call our new motorway service area?” We helped them to understand that the question they should have been be asking was: “What does our brand stand for?” By answering this we were able to work out what to call the new service area.

11. Can the opposition be un-positioned?
Putting aside whatever your position (pardon the pun) is on Brexit, it’s a fascinating case study on positioning. I’d recommend watching Brexit: The Uncivil War – the Channel 4 drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave. It’s illuminating to see the clarity of thinking that went into the position they developed: “Take Back Control”. This is a great example of a position that frames the choice for people. Given a choice between ceding control and having control, who would opt for the former? And the addition of the word “back” was inspired, since it suggested that the control had been lost. The Remain side never managed to present an equally powerful alternative framing of the debate, which would have worked in their favour. Focusing on the competition isn’t always the answer, but sometimes thinking about framing the choices is a great approach.

12. Remember the point of the exercise
When John F. Kennedy visited the Nasa Space Center at Cape Canaveral, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and asked what he was doing. The janitor replied: “Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Giving everyone in an organisation a purpose is powerful. Unfortunately, the idea of purpose has become equated with having a social purpose.

The CEO of Unilever recently said that the company would sell some of its brands, even big revenue drivers, to other businesses if these brands did not “contribute meaningfully to the world or society in a way that will last for decades”. It is vital now to take ethical and environmental responsibilities seriously. But this is a hygiene factor, and not always the central idea that motivates those who are inside and outside the organisation or brand. This issue isn’t exclusive to social purpose. It can also be seen a lot in areas like education. Institutions can end up developing lofty positions on the benefits of education, but these are so removed from why someone would choose the particular institution that they lack any persuasive power. It’s important to remember that we are trying to persuade people to take action.

13. Position and profit have different foundations
The V&A Museum once advertised their restaurant using the line: “An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached.” It illustrates perfectly that the reason people choose a brand may not be the same as the thing that makes money. JW Lees are another good example of this. The positioning we developed was built around their brewery and beers. But sales of soft drinks and Americanos drive a good amount of their revenue, even though you could never differentiate the brand based on these things.

14. Argue
The collaboration between strategists and creatives is crucial to creating a successful position. Strategists are needed for their clarity, simplicity and vision. And creatives for the colour, emotion and artistry that they add. Thinking about how these two skill sets can work together effectively is vital. We’ve written before about brainstorming and its premise that “every idea is a good idea”. It isn’t. Every idea is a first idea. A thought to be knocked about and developed; handled with care, but also tested to destruction. Studies have shown that healthy debate produces better ideas than the classic brainstorming rules. So keep it respectful and constructive, but do argue.

15. Don’t let logic kill the magic
Last but not least, be careful not to overthink all of this. It all comes down to a good story, well told. If you’ve got one, handle it with care and don’t let it be killed by committees or logic. As Leonardo da Vinci said: “It is by logic we prove, but by intuition we discover.”

— RG

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The story about seven universal stories


The story about seven universal stories.

Have you heard about the idea that there have only ever been seven basic story plots? Fact or fiction, it got me thinking about big ideas in brand storytelling.

What was the last book you read? Was it a revelation in storytelling, or did it conform to one of these basic plot lines?

1. Tragedy – a hero with a fatal flaw meets a tragic end. See Macbeth or Madame Bovary.

2. Comedy – not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, but always with a happy ending, typically involving romantic fulfilment, as in Jane Austen.

3. Overcoming the Monster – as in Frankenstein or Jaws. Its psychological appeal is obvious and eternal.

4. Voyage and Return – Alice in Wonderland, HG Wells’ The Time Machine and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner follow the same archetypal structure of personal development through leaving, then returning home.

5. Quest – whether the quest is for a holy grail, a whale or a kidnapped child, it is the plot that links a lot of the most popular fiction. The Quest plot links Lords of the Rings with Moby Dick, and a thousand others in-between.

6. Rags to Riches – the riches in question can be literal or metaphoric. See Cinderella, David Copperfield, Pygmalion.

7. Rebirth – the Rebirth plot, where a central character suddenly finds a new reason for living, can be seen in A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Crime and Punishment and Peer Gynt.

This list is paraphrased from the work of literary critic Christopher Booker, who asserted that there aren’t any new stories, just new ways to tell them.

So, if there are no new stories in the literary world, what about in the world of brand?

For some years now, storytelling has been the branding buzzword. Often misused, and more than likely an idea that we’ll put under the microscope another time. But in among the hyperbole and bullshit, it can at times be an incredibly useful way to articulate what’s critical about an organisation, brand, product or service.

Whether it’s the founder’s story or the brand’s reason for being, stories remain a cornerstone of strong brands. Good branding, after all, is often about stories – ones with personality worth spreading. Stories that make sense – with a great plot and structure – are a brilliant way to connect with people and create relationships. They’re very often the shorthand that consumers use to understand a brand. In a world where brands are becoming increasingly open-ended, the fact that consumers can step into the story, and interact with it, is a powerful thing. The sharing of these stories through social media and word of mouth creates widespread awareness and emotional connections.

The question is: are we limited by the plot lines in brand storytelling too?

My initial reaction was to quickly dismiss my hypothesis. But if the ways that we summarise a brand’s plot could also be grouped into broad areas of approach, then where would that leave us? We take great care in devising original plot lines and positions for the brands we work with. What would this mean for an industry that preaches the mantra of originality as if it was the very reason for our existence? Well perhaps there’s another way of looking at this: if every literary story has already been told, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a novel, play or a film can’t be genuinely original. It’s just that originality doesn’t come through plot, but through style, voice and the imagination that brings language and people and places to life. In the same way, I believe that creatives are best placed to bring brand plots to life through intuitive fluency and the ability to manipulate form in a way that can genuinely move people.

Many people are vying for the role of chief storyteller: brand consultants and management consultants included. But with creative action and execution, there’s a unique ability to give a visual and verbal face and personality to a brand. Skills that are often dismissed as being a little fluffy. However, it’s creative execution that creates more depth than perhaps even we give ourselves credit for at times. Many see the act of prettification as a character flaw among creatives, but just making something look better can often be the difference that turns something into that must-have item. If we’re in the business of attraction – attracting audiences, fame, sales – then surely making things attractive matters?

Brand storytelling is only partly written: it isn’t always explicit and literal, but it can be suggestive and subtle. Seemingly simple decisions, like the choice of colour or typeface, or the size and order of visual elements, can suddenly give clarity and life to the details of a brand’s plot. The visual and verbal triggers we create can turn strategic thoughts into tangible outputs and cement brands in the mind’s eye. It’s better still when creativity isn’t subservient to strategy, but an intertwined cocktail of the two. Where the development is organic rather than linear, and the strategy is flexible enough to accommodate new ideas.

Even if we were to assume that the broad plots in brand storytelling are top-line with inevitable overlap, it is still hard to rival brand campaigns and identities that are held together by simple, memorable ideas, well executed through aesthetic qualities and words well chosen.

It’s hard to imagine a novelist penning a novel classic from a series of filled-out wheels, pyramid or onions charts. So why are there so many of these used in the creation of brands? Great brands work best when they’re allowed to freewheel a little. Where true originality comes from carrying plots into reality through creative execution. Less process, more simplicity. Just as chapter headings will never flesh out the finer intricacies of characters and places in a book, slide after slide of strategy won’t breathe real life into a brand.

We’re lucky enough to work strategically, visually and verbally, so hopefully we are well placed to fuse left- and right-brain thinking. There’s an inevitable tension between how much big thinking we need and how much time we spend on the craft – and every job requires a different balance of these.

Let me be clear. Developing a great brand requires more than great creativity. But a great brand certainly needs more than just a great PowerPoint strategy document, even if it’s the size of a small novel. War and Peace style strategy documents seem a little hard to digest. Perhaps something that is more akin to a Japanese haiku in length might be more apt. The real difference will come when we knit theory and practice together.

The end.

— DB

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Brand purpose. Love it? Hate it?


Brand purpose. Love it? Hate it?

The electrically charged juggernaut of brand purpose has been careering downhill for some years now. Smashing through metaphorical fruit stands, launching the melons and other ripe fruit of perfectly acceptable ways of creating differentiation, relevance and growth for brands tumbling, pulverised, into the street. It reminds me somewhat of the start to Beverley Hills Cop (millennials possibly, and definitely Generation Z, look it up – but stick around for now as this involves you).

Some love purpose and believe that without one as your primary driver, your brand is irrelevant to millennials and Generation Z. These audiences are (apparently) demanding that a company’s purpose is aligned with their own beliefs. Some hate purpose, or at the very least find it wearisome. Many marketing commentators – who love nothing more than to suggest that things are dead – are questioning whether it has reached its peak purpose. Or – more dramatically – that it too is, well, dead. I’m instead looking forward to the headline: “Saying things are dead is dead”.

Even the most established brands are under pressure to extract a higher purpose. Or face the axe. Reports suggest that the lovable/hateable yeast-extract spread Marmite has been threatened with sale from the Unilever stable if it fails to “have a purpose”. According to the chief executive Alan Jope, if the likes of Marmite, Pot Noodle and Bovril don’t meet the company’s sustainability goals, they’ll slide out of the door much like Flora margarine.

But if that statement is to be believed, therein lies much of the confusion with brand purpose. Is purpose merely a way to express something beyond profit? A useful role in people’s lives?
Or is it way out beyond that? A higher political, social or environmental ideal?

So why not just accept that brand purpose can be either a purposeful role or a higher moral purpose? But how the marketing world is getting itself in a spin, and as some brands have come under fire, I would suggest that a little clarity is needed.

I think the confusion comes from the true definition of the word “purpose”: the reason for which something is done or created, or for which something exists. It’s that last word – “exists” – that sounds pretty strong to me. Now, if you are the clothing company Patagonia, your purpose is obvious: to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. Patagonia’s purpose has been baked in from its foundation: it has a transparent supply chain, promotes social justice for its workers and creates durable products that, wherever possible, are made from recycled, fair-trade or organic materials. Patagonia’s purpose is a higher one that’s born of Yvon Chouinard’s founding vision. Alex Weller of Patagonia puts it well: “You can’t reverse into a mission and values through marketing.”

And there’s the rub. That can often feel like it is precisely what some brands are doing. A couple of years ago, Pepsi’s incredibly ill-conceived Kendall Jenner ad faced criticism for trivialising demonstrations aimed at tackling social justice issues. According to Pepsi: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.” The protesters cheer after Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer. He takes a sip and smiles at his colleague. Then everybody lives happily ever after. One of those mocking the advert was Bernice King. She tweeted a photo of her father, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, being confronted by a police officer at a protest march. Now there’s a man with a purpose.

I read one article proclaiming that Nike’s decision to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of their campaign had completely redefined their brand purpose. Which is broadly: “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” Now I think that’s a pretty good purpose. But the suggestion was that because Kaepernick had immersed himself in controversy – refusing to stand for the US national anthem in protest of wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States – Nike had now adopted some higher purpose beyond sport. Granted, it’s a bold move on Nike’s part to go beyond sport, but watch the main guts of the ad and it looks very much to me like a Nike “If you have a body, you’re an athlete” ad. The fact that the ad goes one stage further, with Kaepernick delivering the provocative line: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”, is a classic advertising technique of dramatising a message. That’s not to suggest that Nike isn’t making a stand too, but they aren’t reinventing their core purpose. Nike’s action certainly delivered on Bill Bernbach’s old adage: “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something”, with the share price taking an initial dip. But it didn’t take long for it to have the reverse effect – the share price going up. Nowadays, it appears that a principle isn’t a principle until it makes you money.

Grow, written by Jim Stengel in 2011, did much to popularise the idea that brands with a purpose or ideal that goes beyond profit grow faster than their peers. Its straightforward simplicity provided a digestible formula for time-pressed execs. The ever-insightful behavioural scientist Richard Shotton took a more balanced look at Stengel’s method and findings, and put into question their validity. What perhaps was most interesting from Shotton is his observation that Stengel used these definitions for three of the brands:

Moët & Chandon “exists to transform occasions into celebrations”.

Mercedes-Benz “exists to epitomise a life of achievement”.

BlackBerry “exists to connect people with one another and the content that is most important in their lives, anytime, anywhere”.

The problem: these definitions could apply to any champagne, luxury brand or handset provider. Shotton pointed out that many of the ideals are just category descriptors. And if the term “ideal” can cover anything, then it’s meaningless.

Art director Dave Dye wryly points out on his encyclopedic advertising blog, Stuff from the Loft, that charcoal inserts which “Stop sneakers from smelling” get elevated to “Creators of a nose-friendly planet”.

Like Shotton, Dye points out: “It seems to replace specific reasons for buying a product with generic claims that aren’t even specific to the product category, let alone the product.”

The problem with many of the campaigns driven by brand purpose is that they often treat the idea of selling as an anathema. True, millennials and Generation Z are evaluating advertising communication in a different way than they did in the past. But perhaps much of this can be solved by breaking with tired old execution formats.
Tony Davidson of Wieden + Kennedy often talks about the idea of creating ads that don’t look like ads. And that’s a good idea, whether there’s a purpose or not.

Yes, a higher purpose is admirable for some brands on some occasions. But there’s a full toolbox of strategies from which to choose. As the saying goes: “If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.”

It’s powerful when an opinion or point of view sits at the core of a brand. But similarly, it can be an act performed by a brand, in tune with who they are, but not their reason to exist. Brands that seek to play a credible and motivating role in people’s lives should thrive. That can be as simple as providing a salty, tasty spread for your toast as an alternative to sugary breakfasts. I’m not sure Unilever have noticed Marmite’s “Rich in B vitamins” message on the pack, which feels reasonably worthwhile to me. Particularly for those who are suffering from a vitamin-B12 deficiency. Now I know that’s a feature, but plenty have jumped on less in the quest for a purpose. Then there’s the fact that it’s a planet-saving 100% vegetarian. That doesn’t seem to cut the Colman’s either. It appears that they’re looking for so much more, which is admirable. For me, whether this has to be their defining purpose in life is questionable. Marmite is a great product with a legendary positioning and some fantastic campaigns. If it wants to improve its sustainability credentials along the way, then brilliant. If however, it transpires that its secret ingredient is pureed unicorn liver, then one thing’s for certain: Generation Z will go from loving it to hating it.

— DB

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