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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  February 01, 2008

How To Find A Brand That Fits Your Firm’s Size

Originally published for RainToday.com

Line up five branding experts, and you’ll get 15 different ways to build a brand. The reason: while most folks agree that a brand is a “promise” you make to the marketplace, solo practitioners, small professional service firms and larger companies all make different promises in different ways.Therefore, there is no such thing as “one size fits all” in branding strategy. (Newsflash: it doesn’t work in clothing either.)

Here’s a drilled-down comparison of what works and what doesn’t for solo practitioners, small firms, and larger organizations.

Solo Practitioners

Many solo practitioners are the master craftsmen of the professional service industry. They want to attract the “cool clients” for whom they can make a difference without massive brain damage. They make the promises and they back up their own claims.

The focus is on creating preference to qualified buyers. The promise: I am uniquely qualified and able to solve your problem. I care about and am committed to your success.

How branding works: when your face is on the bucket of chicken, the marketplace wants to know who you are and what you stand for. So, your story is the starting point for many brands. It gives context and credibility for your point of view.

Your point of view makes the promise that you can improve the prospect’s position. That promise drives the preference. The branding effort is stealth: small targeted hits, customized to the hilt. Compared to the other groups, more time than money is spent on branding here.

What doesn’t work: any broad-based campaign that doesn’t convey the uniqueness of the founder. The guiltiest here are growth and sales consultants. Making standard claims without a unique voice positions the founder as “one of many” and doesn’t get traction. This is the number one reason why media efforts and speaking don’t translate into more clients.

Example: Thomas Friedman. A commentator on all things global, Friedman’s background with The New York Times gives his point of view credibility. And interjecting stories about his international travels makes the branding promise, “You’ll get the real inside scoop from me.”

This promise drives the preference for his books and speeches. You don’t know what Friedman will say next, but you believe it will be insightful and on-target.

Smaller Service Firms

Smaller service firms promise the best of both worlds: the personal touch from the founders combined with the safety of numbers. Clients get a customized approach, and know the firm has the capacity to deliver.

The key here is a balancing act: take advantage of the principal’s appeal and at the same time, go beyond it. The promise: you still get customized solutions and you have access to the founder if things go wrong.

How branding works: when a firm has to go beyond the founder’s identity, the focus is using the founder as a representative of a larger vision. He or she provides the personal appeal and applies the values and approach that promises a specific benefit. Instead of stories, these firms use case studies. In addition to writing articles and speaking, white papers and research are distributed.

The message here: you get more from the group than you would from one person. The founder is only a conduit to the values and approach.

What doesn’t work: focusing too much on the founder. That makes clients assume that they can only get the “best” by working with the principal. The other extreme – hiding the principal behind complex processes – is just as bad. It negates the power of a personal appeal.

Example: James Rodgers, of J.O. Rodgers and Associates, is an affable CEO with teams of consultants working with blue chip clients such as Shell Oil and Johnson and Johnson. Jim uses his personal appeal to tout diversity as a business strategy.

He also highlights the facilitative approach with courageous conversations to promise the specific result of “getting 100% of your people, 100% of the time.”

Although you see Jim speaking on his home page, his promise is tied to an overall vision, not to his personality or unique voice. Because his team is mentioned frequently on the home page, clients see the track record and brand as a group effort. Jim is branded as the representative of the team but not the only player.

Larger Companies

What larger companies have that we mere mortals don’t: piles of cash to spend on getting their brand message out. And they need these resources to solve their biggest branding problem: overcoming the perception that they are a faceless conglomerate that is too big to care. Therefore, the promise is: we use our vast resources to help you personally.

How branding works: stories about the founder take a back seat to creating a warm, fuzzy promise of personal care. Branding is tied to a huge advertising campaign and is slogan driven. The scope is narrow, focusing on one benefit or idea and creating a larger picture around that nugget.

The trend gaining a lot of traction is fictionalizing the delivery of the personal message with character-driven brands (poster child: the Geico Insurance Gecko.)

What doesn’t work: corporate speaker bureaus, because many companies don’t invest enough time or resources to this area. Any “orphan” campaigns that aren’t tied to larger efforts.

Examples: Charles Schwab’s “Talk to Chuck” campaign makes the promise of personal attention on a grand scale. The branding message: yes, we’re huge but we care and you can talk to us anytime. That brand creates safety in an area that’s very personal: our finances.

Another recent example: H & R Block’s “I got people” ad campaign promises a financial entourage that watches over your income-tax back. They need to reframe their identity from overpriced tax form preparer to caretaker for the financially unsophisticated. Their behemoth website backs that up with many tools and ways to help.

Strategy That Fits

At the core, branding is about nurturing perceptions that create an unspoken promise, which drives preference. Solo practitioners, small businesses and larger organizations all promise safety and reassurance. They fulfill those promises with different messages, communicated in different ways. By implementing the strategy that suits your business best, your results will fit your business like a glove.

Filed Under: Branding


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.