Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Building Your Brand

There are relatively few strong brands in the A/E profession. There are, of course, many well-known firms. But name recognition doesn't equal a strong brand. Unfortunately, many "branding" efforts focus on image and familiarity. Brand goes deeper.

There is great confusion about brand. Even the experts differ on how to define it. One consultant website I discovered listed over 200 definitions of the word brand that he had found on the internet. So let me offer a working definition for our purposes, one drawn from some of the most respected books I've read on brand: Brand is the perception in the mind of the customer that differentiates a product, service, or company.

How that perception is formed is critically important. Most branding activities in our industry (and in others) are misguided. They focus on logo redesigns, graphic standards, positioning lines. These only support brand; they don't create it or redefine it. At its core, brand perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect experiences clients have with your firm. Marketing can contribute to those experiences, but the substance of your brand is rooted in how you serve the client.

So if you're looking to strengthen your brand, don't start by turning to your marketing department or hiring an outside branding expert. Go first to the heart of your brand. Build (or at least investigate) the foundation before adding the infrastructure. Here's what I suggest:

Learn how you are perceived by clients. Since your brand resides here, this is the obvious place to start. Ask clients what they think about your firm. A few basic questions will suffice:
  • When you think of our firm, what impressions immediately come to mind?
  • What do you think distinguishes us from other similar firms?
  • What qualities among firms like ours do you consider most valuable?
  • How well do we deliver what we promise? Are we consistent and trustworthy?

You can survey clients yourself, but you'll get more accurate results if this is done by a third party. Include both existing and potential clients if you can.

Assess all the interactions you have with clients. Again, brand perceptions are shaped by direct and indirect interactions with your firm. So what are the quality and character of those interactions? Dig deep: Meetings and conversations. Work deliverables. Invoices. Reports. Visits to your office. Correspondence (including email). How your phone is answered. Sales calls. Marketing mailings. And so on.

Don't overlook the importance of any encounter with the client. Perceptions can be rapidly formed, yet be grudgingly slow to change. A mishandled phone call can cost you a prospective client. A rudderless meeting can start a slide in confidence in your firm. A couple of inaccurate invoices can erode trust. The failure to return a phone call can sour the relationship.

Determine what you need to do to strengthen positive client perceptions. The path to a stronger brand passes through the intersection of (1) what you've learned about client perceptions of your firm and (2) how the myriad of interactions you have with clients influence or reinforce those perceptions. Obviously this can quickly become overwhelming. So you need to prioritize. What are 2-3 things you can do right now to strengthen your brand? What are the most important (albeit likely difficult) things you need to do?

Develop a reasonable action plan and commit your best resources to it. Is there anything more important than your brand? If the fruition of your efforts is well into the future, you can at least celebrate and share your progress. Clients often appreciate your devotion to improvement even if you haven't yet perfected it.

Seek alignment between your external brand and your internal culture and processes. I know some firms that want to brand themselves on the basis of superior client service. Good idea! They rigorously promote that objective, both internally and externally. They've written it into their values statement.

But something is amiss. There are no formal standards or processes to support consistent service delivery. Service breakdowns are routinely tolerated. There is a culture of independence that resists compliance with the "company way" of doing things. Client managers seem to think they're doing good enough already.

This is not uncommon, and is one of the main reasons why there is a paucity of strong brands in our industry. You don't build brand with a fresh coat of paint; you have to reinforce the structure itself. Ultimately, your brand is a reflection of your culture. If the two are not aligned--your desired brand with your existing culture--you've got a lot of hard work ahead of you. But it's worth it.

Demonstrate your brand in how you market and sell. If superior service is the heart of your brand, serve the client through your business development activities (my favorite approach!). If you are known as the consummate experts, don't tell clients about your expertise, demonstrate it during the sales process by helping them solve problems. If clients think of you as "that high design" firm, engage the client in developing some design concepts before the RFP. Sell substance, not image. Enable prospective clients to experience your brand, not just tantalize them with it.

Not the post you were expecting based on the title? I apologize. But these steps represent the reality of building your brand. Don't settle for the cosmetic makeover. It's hard work, but that's what makes a strong brand so difficult for your competitors to dislodge.

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