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

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

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

What about Robert?


What about Robert?

Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York on Tuesday 24 January 1961.

As he stepped out of a 1957 Chevrolet Impala, having got a lift, the temperature was 13 degrees lower than usual.

The weather up and down the eastern seaboard had been severe.

So bad, in fact, that it had almost caused the cancellation of JFK’s inauguration the Friday before.

In the chilly air was a feeling, as JFK put in his speech, that “the torch has been passed to a new generation”.

Whether Robert had heard this or not, he certainly saw things the same way.

He was playing a gig that night at the Cafe Wha?

Which was where he started to spin fanciful stories about who he was and where

he came from.

About his days riding the rails.

Of singing with the great troubadours.

How, for a time, he’d travelled with a circus.

When he’d played in Bobby Vee’s band.

And that his name was Bob Dylan.

The Jewish, middle-class, storekeeper’s son from Minnesota was not yet 20.

But he quickly established an identity as a rambling hobo and teen runaway.

This act started long before he got on stage, or to New York.

Back in Minnesota – his hometown – he was acting when merely walking down the street.

As the frontman of his rockabilly/blues garage band, the Golden Chords, he was the typical James-Dean-style, posing rocker.

He affected a new way of talking that was designed to make him seem deep, in a cool and unschooled sort of way.

It was around this time that he confided to his high-school sweetheart that he planned to devote his life to music.

And change his name.

“I know what I’m going to call myself. I’ve got this great name: Bob Dillon.”

A name he had borrowed from the sheriff in TV’s Gunsmoke.

By the time he reached New York in 1961, he’d already changed the spelling to Dylan.

Because he knew it looked better on the chalkboards outside music venues.

Bob Dylan’s drive to be someone was like that of Elvis before him.

The idea of ordinary life was intolerable.

Breaking his journey from Minnesota to New York in Madison, Wisconsin, he even told a perfect stranger:

“I’m going to be bigger than Elvis.”

Within a few months of arriving in New York, he’d managed to connect with everyone worth knowing in Greenwich Village.

He spent his spare time reading the likes of Faulkner, Graves and Machiavelli.

Kerouac, Burroughs and Dylan Thomas.

Just the type of stuff a college dropout might wish to read.

Along with the poetry of Pound, Eliot, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.

Casting himself as a Blakean visionary and romantic.

Heir to an earlier visionary generation.

He divided opinion in the Village.

The older folk singers couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

Which probably signalled that they knew his torch shone brightly.

Dylan attracted the patronage of Albert Grossman, who ran a club called the Gate of Horn in Chicago.

Grossman knew there was money to be made in the folk boom.

And he took Dylan on as a client and removed some of the uncertainty from the star-making process, buying Dylan onto the bill at Gerde’s Folk City on 25 September 1961.

And he made sure that his tame journalist, Robert Shelton, was there.

Shelton was a staffer at the New York Times who had been writing about folk music for several years.

Not just a commentator, but a talent spotter.

Dylan was second on the bill, but the publicity announced him as “the sensational”.

Shelton’s article, in that Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, put Bob Dylan on the map.

Selling almost one and a half million copies.

The headline and picture announced:

“Bob Dylan: a distinctive folk-song stylist.”

And there was no picture of the headliners to boot.

The 20-year-old, who hadn’t even been in the city for a whole year, had arrived.

By 1963, Dylan appeared to be playing perfectly in tune with society and the mood of the American people.

And the heated atmosphere of the fight for equal rights and the fear of possible nuclear war.

He was the voice of a generation:

“I’m on the pavement

Thinking about the government.”

It felt like it had come out of nowhere.

And if all you’d been listening to was Frank Sinatra, then it probably did.

With his unique voice and poetic lyrics, he wasn’t for everyone.

But often that’s the trick.

Trying to get your brand to appeal to everyone is often a big mistake.

Dylan’s audience may be smaller than many, but he has a loyal, hardcore band of enthusiasts who stick with him through thick and thin.

He remains true to what he’s always been about, American roots music.

But he regularly shakes things up, routinely altering his old songs, imbuing them with a new feeling.

Folk’s given a reggae treatment; rock gets a country vibe.

Refresh your brand by experimenting with new ways to talk to your audience.

It keeps your brand alive and invigorated.

It helps you to decide what works and what doesn’t.

The key is to align it behind a core idea or vision.

Then play.

Dylan knew from way back that it was all about image, a word often viewed as superficial.

But exchange image for identity, personality or distinctiveness and you get the point.

He knew that by casting himself as poet-visionary, he needed a swagger and a name to go with it.

As Fast Company said:

“A bad, boring, or sound-alike name dramatically dilutes the brand equity and potency.”

Often, a name is a signal conveying how an organisation thinks and behaves, in a nutshell.

At its best, it’s a boiling-down of an organisation’s position or purpose, alluding to or setting expectations.

The right name provides an edge.

It sets the business on the road to prosperity.

Or is that Highway 61?

— DB