The concept of a brand is a tricky one for most small consultancies, and most conversations quickly shift to the question, "Do you invest in it or not?"
I've had hundreds of conversations about it with Boutique Consulting Club members and independent consultants. Some of them intuitively understood the power of a strong brand. But I know for a fact that most of you are brand skeptics, and often think to yourselves:
"People buy from us because of relationships, our people, and what we've done or can do. Not because of our logo, tagline, or website. It's easy to waste money, you can't measure ROI. We need to do more of what works: repeat business, referrals, networking..."
This is a sound argument, but there's a small problem with its logic. It assumes that you will go after a potential prospect, generate interest to turn it into an opportunity, work on it, send proposals, win projects, and build your reputation. The problem is that this increases founder dependency.
What a brand does is draw clients to you. It creates more opportunities. You know that people can only remember a limited amount of things and people. A strong brand will ensure you are in their mind without any personal involvement of the partners.
The polarization between "performance marketing" and a brand-first approach is something every marketer has experienced. They like to take sides and escalate the discussion (mostly as a way to position and market themselves), but more often than not it's just silly. The only reason people are still fighting about it is simple: No one agrees with a clear definition of what a brand is.
Your brand is not your consultancy's name, logo, tagline, website, marketing material. All of these things are ways to communicate your brand, but they are not your brand.
There are lots of formal definitions of a brand in the marketing literature. Most of them describe it as a sum of all the perceptions of your firm. The problem is that this is too abstract for most people.
The most useful definition I know for boutique consultancies is from John Doerr:
"Your brand is your firm's reputation and visibility within your target market."
That's simple and elegant. Whenever you improve your reputation or increase your visibility, you strengthen your brand. We can make it even clearer by agreeing with a definition of the parts:
So if you publish and distribute blog posts regularly, you are investing in your brand through visibility. But also, if you create an engaging brand look (with a new logo or website, for example) you are helping to communicate a more professional reputation - and as a consequence building your brand. When you see from this light, the conflict between brand advocates and brand skeptics almost disappears.
The question then becomes: "What can a brand do for a boutique consultancy?" Or why should I care? Here are the answers:
There's concrete research backing up all of those points. Feel free to reach out if you're interested in learning more about the specific contribution a strong and coherent brand can do to your consultancy.
"Increasing visibility or reputation alone is not sufficient. Perhaps the biggest waste of professional services marketing budget comes from the pursuit of name recognition alone. If people recognize the name of your firm but don't understand what you do or who you do it for, the name recognition is of little value.(...) Is there a perception at all about you in the market? You might have a great logo and color scheme, but like a tree falling in the forest, if no one sees your logo, do you really have a brand? According to our definition, no."
What do we learn when we try to measure brand strength?
Among buyers, professional service firms tend to have good reputations, with 57% of buyers rating them as "very good". But just 23% of buyers thought the sellers' visibility was "very good".
This is often referred to as the visibility gap. The numbers don't lie: Most consultancies have a market awareness problem.
When was the last time you reviewed your brand?
Based on our definition, there are some important things to remember:
While measuring branding initiatives might be tricky, their impact on your consultancy is very real. Neglecting your brand will cost you time, money, and energy. If you've never taken the time to document your brand strategy and messaging, that might be one of the biggest growth levers you can pull.